“They gave me funny things to do, and I did them funny. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”—Ann B. Davis
(May 3, 1926-June 1, 2014)
As a mental exercise, try to imagine someone other than Robert Reed and Florence Henderson playing The Brady Bunch’s parents. As important as those actors were to the show’s success, many others could have probably managed a respectable “wise father” or “concerned mother” role.
Now, picture other children replacing the familiar Brady kids. As appealing as the entire juvenile cast was, 1970s casting agents could surely have supplied other hunky teen boys and All-American girls with “hair of gold” to play what were basically average kids.
It is much harder to envision anyone other than Ann B. Davis wearing Alice Nelson’s blue uniform. She was as central to The Brady Bunch as she was on the show’s opening-titles grid.
Ann B. Davis was irreplaceable.
That’s what made her passing such sad news, even though she had lived a full and seemingly happy, spiritually fulfilled 88 years.
Few actors have kept their private lives as private as Davis did. All her obituaries outline the same basic facts: She was born in Schenectady, New York, and raised in Erie, Pa. As a child, she caught the performing bug while putting on shows with her twin sister Harriet. Her mother was an amateur actor, and her older brother was a professional dancer who would appear on Broadway. Ann enrolled at the University of Michigan with plans to be a doctor, but soon switched her focus to acting. After graduating and heading to California in 1948, she did theater and nightclub work until getting her big break.
That was her supporting role as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show (Love That Bob), for which she would win two Emmys. The show ran from 1955 to 1959 and was a major ratings success, and Davis’ role as Cummings’ lovelorn, plain-Jane assistant brought her fame.
“I was an overnight success at 28,” she said in a 1989 interview. “I began to understand the power of TV. Within five weeks–and I was playing a small part, a supporting part–after the series went on the air I was recognized on the street wherever I went. Very scary!”
The show was never widely syndicated, so it is unfamiliar to most people my age and younger.
As you can see from this clip, Schultzy shares certain qualities with Alice Nelson and other classic TV “old maids,” such as Sally Rogers and Jane Hathaway—a lack of feminine graces combined with desperate, unfulfilled man-hungriness.
All About Alice
As Alice, Davis delivered many self-deprecating punchlines. As a kid, I saw Alice as she presented herself to the audience—plain, overweight, old. Having reached Alice’s age myself, I see things differently, of course, and wonder how Davis felt about her portrayal.
She claimed to take it in stride.
“I know at least a couple hundred glamour gals who are starving in this town. I’d rather be myself and eating,” she said.
Her Brady Bunch role combined a poor self-image and an unflattering costume with corny jokes and broad physical humor. If everyone was doing the hula, Alice would be throwing her back out. If a bucket of paint appeared, Alice would be stepping in it. If someone built a dunk tank in the back yard, Alice was getting wet.
It all added up to a role many actors would have hated. Indeed, Davis’ co-star Robert Reed, went nearly mad with disgust over the show’s scripts. He would fire off multi-page memos to producers about the show’s implausibilities, many of which involved Alice. “Even a laugh machine would balk,” he wrote about typical tag scene.
Davis was different. Like Alice delighting in the dunk tank, she threw herself into her role and made the best of it.
In Growing Up Brady, Barry Williams quotes Producer Lloyd Schwartz on the difference between Davis and Reed: “She’d say, ‘A lot of people worked very hard on this, and maybe it isn’t great, but if that’s the case, they really need me to make it work.’ Opposite attitudes.”
In fact, Davis saw Alice’s wacky predicaments as opportunities for her to shine comedically.
And while she didn’t take herself too seriously, she cared enough about her role to create a mental backstory for her character that explains Alice’s single-minded devotion to the Brady family.
In the post-Brady years, the show wasn’t a millstone around Davis’ neck as it was for so many of her co-stars. Shortly after it ended, she became a born-again Christian and curtailed her show business career.
“It’s amazing, but at the age of 47 my life suddenly got to the good part,” she told Australia’s Courier-Mail in 1989. “I thought I had had the good part, but it’s as if the Lord had said, ‘Let’s give this kid everything the world has to offer, then make her a better offer and see what happens.’ Am I happy? Oh, boy!”
She spent many years living in an Episcopalian religious community, first in Denver and then in Ambridge. Pa. She worked with a mission helping homeless people and traveled the country talking to church groups. Eventually, she settled in San Antonio, Texas, with retired Episcopal bishop William Frey and his family.
A born trouper, she never completely gave up acting; she did a great deal of regional theater and showed up for almost every Brady reunion. (One critic, panning A Very Brady Christmas, called Alice “the only real-looking character in the whole fairy story.”)
She also compiled a Brady Bunch cookbook in 1994, while admitting that cooking and child care were not really part of her skill set.
She looked back on her Brady experience with fondness.
“Wouldn’t we all love to have belonged to a perfect family, with brothers and sisters to lean on and where every problem is solved in 23 minutes?” she said.
(And it’s not as though she were incapable of looking back on past work with a critical eye. Speaking of the Cummings show, she once told The Times of London: “Comedy like that gets dated pretty fast, especially since it’s anti-feminist.”)
In the early 1990s, when Brady nostalgia was at its height, many experts advanced theories about the show’s appeal to Generation X. My college sociology textbook even explored the subject.
To me, the answer has always been simple: Creator Sherwood Schwartz created a world as a child would wish it to be—a world of good-natured siblings, goofy fun, and people who rally around to solve your every problem.
Blogger Hank Stuever summed it up beautifully in The Washington Post this week, but I disagree with his assertion about Alice’s role in this child-centered utopia: “The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady could not fill. It’s the great unspoken truth of The Brady Bunch, particularly in retrospect: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.”
From my perspective, Mike and Carol were definitely the parents, but Alice was something even better: A cross between an adult and a friend. She would join in your sack race, bake your cookies, dress up as a pilgrim for your home movie, and clean your room—and she would do it all with a smile.
Everyone has parents, but a child can only dream of having an Alice.
And no one but Ann B. Davis could have brought this dream to life in such an endearing way.
“I think I’m lovable,” she once said. “That’s the gift God gave me.”
Lovable. And irreplaceable.
Some Alice Favorites
I must admit that the Alice-centric episodes of The Brady Bunch don’t rank among my favorites. Playing tough “Sergeant Emma” was probably fun for Davis, but none of the Brady double-role episodes work for me. And “Alice’s September Song,” about Alice’s shady old flame Mark Millard, bored me as a child and saddens me now.
I much prefer Alice as a cheerful supporting presence in a typical episode. Here are two quintessential Alice moments, when she gets involved with the kids and pays the price with her dignity.
Alice could be supportive as well as silly. My favorite Alice moment, by far, is her scene with Jan in “Lost Locket, Found Locket.”
I do like getting to see a different side of Alice now and then, such as when she turns on the charm for a surprisingly lascivious Jackie Coogan.
Other Ann B. Davis Sightings
In the late 1970s, Davis did some commercials that played on her Brady image (although, in the second example, they use the name of her Bob Cummings Show character).
Davis had a few small film roles in the 1960s. You can catch a glimpse of her here in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day film Lover Come Back.
Did any single 1960s TV stars NOT appear on The Dating Game? This is cringe-worthy viewing, but Davis is a good sport.
You can see more of Ann B. Davis in action during MeTV’s 3-hour tribute marathon this Sunday, June 8, at 12 p.m. EDT.