Florence Henderson: Go With The Flo

On the night before I was to interview Florence Henderson about her new film, I dreamt that I was inexplicably trapped in a men's room stall at the restaurant where we were to meet, and the only way I could get out was if Florence sang.

Perhaps it was just my anxiety over the news that Florence--who achieved her most enduring fame as TV's sitcom supermom on "The Brady Bunch"--is playing a woman of easy, if not nonexistent, virtue in the new Bobcat Goldthwait film Shakes the Clown. Call me square, but the thought of Carol Brady and the Bobcat pitching naked woo in a vat of Wesson Oil somehow upset my inherent reverence for all things good and Brady. Yet at the same time, it turned me on. A lot. I had to know more about this new Florence Henderson, who's known in her new film only as The Unknown Woman.

Just how big a change is this role from Henderson's earlier image? Well, this is how she describes the film's opening scene, in which she wakes up and realizes she has, the night before, done some version of The Nasty with Goldthwait's character, Shakes the Clown. "I had his clown makeup all over my face," she says provocatively, raising her eyebrows and her glass of iced tea simultaneously. "We put a big hickey here," she adds, pointing to her neck. "Then I just had to top it, so we put one here," she says, leaning closer and indicating a region of her chest that I doubt Robert Reed, her TV husband on "The Brady Bunch," ever saw.

I take a much-needed swig of ice water before I ask how she liked working with Goldthwait. "Though Bobcat and I are old friends," she replies, "I was surprised how quiet he was." Well, make that how quiet he was most of the time. "There was a scene that called for him to burp," she says. "He drank all of this soda pop so he'd be able to burp on cue, and as he's walking across the floor, it came out the wrong end. This loud noise. At first I thought, 'I don't think that's what I think it was,' and then I realized it was what I thought it was. So we tried doing the scene again, and he did the same thing. Twice. If you wanted to do that, you couldn't." It is at this moment that I feel a bizarre affinity for Goldthwait that I've never felt before. Darnnit, if those movie stars aren't just people like the rest of us.

Not that you could really call Bobcat a movie star, or Florence either, for that matter. Shakes the Clown is only her second feature film, after Song of Norway some 20 years ago, in which she played composer Edvard Grieg's wife, Nina. No hickeys in that Sound of Music knock-off, but then, Henderson always tries to change with the times: in just one career, she's gone from being directed on Broadway by Noel Coward, to playing a Norwegian, to personifying sitcom Motherhood, to seducing a clown, not to mention hosting her own cooking show, becoming a certified hypnotherapist, singing the praises of Wesson Oil, and doing more "Love Boats" than any other guest star.

"What could be next?" I ask her. "Politics?"

"Why not?" she says. "I think I could do as good as some of our politicians, and maybe get a few more laughs."

I realize that this is the moment to muster the gumption to ask Florence to autograph my copy of The Brady Bunch Book. In return for this favor, I offer to plug her Nashville Network TV show, "Country Kitchen"--that is, if she'll tell me who her fantasy guest would be. She leans down toward the tape recorder, with the allure of a woman who could get used to putting hickeys here and there, and says, "Tom Cruise. If you're out there, Tom...we're both from Indiana...a couple of Hoosiers. It wouldn't hurt you, Tom."

But I'm not holding my breath for the day he shows up to help Florence prepare Rain Man-a-roni and Cocktail Helper.