Monday, September 06, 1999

It's not too late for Florence Henderson


Former 'Brady Bunch' star, now 65, looks forward to being part of NBC's 'Later Today'

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Be honest: If you were expanding NBC's top-rated Today show to a third hour, would Florence Henderson be on your short list of potential hosts?

        Probably not. But she would be Florence Henderson's first choice.

        “One of the largest segments of the viewing public are people my age,” says the 65-year-old actress best known as TV mom Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch.

        “We've got the money. We've got the time. We need a voice. I hope to be that voice,” she says.

        Ms. Henderson joins two women about half her age — Jodi Applegate from Weekend Today and Asha Blake from NBC and ABC news — as co-hosts on the debut of Later Today (9-10 a.m., Channels 5, 22).

        NBC is trying to extend TV's No. 1 morning franchise into the hour where Live with Regis & Kathie Lee has thrived for years, before ABC's Good Morning America moves into a new Times Square studio (Monday) or CBS brings Bryant Gumbel back to morning television (Nov. 1).

        “There's no question that this fall will probably be the most competitive it's ever been in morning television,” says Jeff Zucker, the Today executive producer who supervises both shows. For the first time, the big battleground this fall will be 7-10 a.m., not 7-10 p.m., he says.

        “With Bryant coming back to CBS, and with ABC continuing to redefine their show, we're not taking anything for granted,” Mr. Zucker says.

"Makes a lot of sense'
        Mr. Zucker invited The Brady Bunch star to join Later Today based on a “very funny” Today visit with Katie Couric earlier this year.

        “A lot of people at first said, "Well, Why?' But if you really think about about the combination, and what we're about to do, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Ms. Henderson says.

        Millions of baby boomers and their children have grown up watching her on The Brady Bunch. “My audience ranges from 2 years old up to probably 95,” she says.

        “I'm familiar to people. They feel comfortable with me. I started in live television. I perform live all the time. I sing with the piano. I sing with a symphony. I can sit and ask questions. I can listen. I'm very comfortable in most situations.”

        Steve Contois of Carpetland Carpet One in Woodlawn agrees. His company hired Ms. Henderson as its spokeswoman this summer. National commercials shot here will premiere on national TV this month.

        “Florence has that squeaky-clean housewife image. Everybody loves her,” says Mr. Contois, vice president for sales.

        Ms. Henderson brings with her more Today experience than her two co-hosts put together. She was the “Today girl” in 1959-60 for Dave Garroway and Jack Lescoulie.

        “I did pretty much what Katie (Couric) does, only on a much more limited basis,” Ms. Henderson says. She did some interviews, and sang on the show.

        It was one of the first big breaks for Ms. Henderson, born on Valentine's Day in 1934 in Dale, Ind., 40 miles northeast of Evansville. She made her Broadway debut in 1952 in Wish You Were Here, and appeared in many live 1950s TV dramas.

        She left Today when she got pregnant, a word that couldn't be said on TV at the time.

        “They would hide me behind potted palms when I sang, or behind furniture,” she says. “My goodness, how far we have come. Now people actually do get pregnant on television, literally.”

Different from "Today'
        On Later Today, she will do a little bit of everything, possibly even sing with a guest.

        Although NBC is marketing the show as an extension of Today, it will have a separate tone, style and personality, Mr. Zucker says.

        Ms. Applegate, 35, will open each show, usually outdoors with the crowds gathered in Rockefeller Plaza to watch Today, Mr. Zucker says. The three co-hosts may interview guests together, making it more like ABC's The View.

        “There are only three of us, so we consider ourselves "The Few,'”Ms. Applegate jokes.

        Major breaking news stories will be handled by Ms. Applegate, who anchored on MSNBC cable, or Ms. Blake, 38, former co-anchor of ABC's World News This Morning and Good Morning America Sunday.

        Crossovers between the shows may occur when Today stages big outdoor activities, such as cooking demonstrations, gymnastic exhibitions or the Friday summer concert series. Expect to see Willie Nelson's Friday performance continue on the new show.

        “The little-known fact of these concerts is that ... the artists continue playing sometimes until 9:25 or 9:30 a.m. We'll take that right into Later Today,” Mr. Zucker says.

        “There's the possibility Willie will come over, and we'll sing something,” adds Ms. Henderson, a longtime friend of the country singer.

        The veteran actress also will be handy during cooking segments. She hosted TNN's Country Kitchen for nine years.

Living on a boat, really
        Returning to New York, where she lived when The Brady Bunch premiered in 1969, requires a major lifestyle change for Ms. Henderson. She has lived on an 87-foot yacht near Los Angeles since 1987, when she married John Kappas, a World War II Navy veteran. He plans to sail the boat in November to Florida, where she'll commute on weekends.

        “People say "How do you do it?' Living on a boat really forces you to simplify your life, and I'm always trying to do that,” she says.

        “The beauty is that you have an aft deck. You can be in a hot studio all day, and come home and sit on the back deck and watch the sunset. It's totally revitalizing.”

        Being back on live TV again has the same effect on her.

        “I feel like I'm just starting again. I'm so excited about this,” she says.

        Like that pink Energizer bunny, she just keeps going and going.

        “I'm going to be the female George Burns. I'm going on and on and on,” says Ms. Henderson, who opened for Mr. Burns in Las Vegas in 1993, for his 97th birthday.

        “I love what I do. To me, the greatest thing in the world is to be on live television.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.