In 2016, we lost beloved personalities from movies and television, many of whom have been people of faith. Two American Sweethearts we lost this past year are Debbie Reynolds and Florence Henderson. We knew them through the decades and until end for their sweet spirits and engaging smiles.
Hollywood legend, Debbie Reynolds was one of America’s Sweethearts, who sang and danced into the hearts of many throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood. We saw her in movies such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
She died recently at the age of 84, hours after being rushed to the hospital in Los Angeles after suffering a stroke, following the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, who had died of a heart attack.
Debbie Reynolds was a Christian who attended a Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Her daughter, Carrie, and son, Todd, were her children by her first husband Eddie Fisher. Todd Fisher became a Christian pastor. Todd has been the most outspoken in his faith. Carrie, who struggled with bi-polar disorder and addictions, described her faith: “I love the idea of God, but it’s not stylistically in keeping with the way I function. I would describe myself as an enthusiastic agnostic who would be happy to be shown that there is a God.” Debbie asked for prayer when Carrie died and Todd asked for prayer when they both died.
Debbie Reynolds credited her faith with helping her find peace after two miscarriages and for helping her with strength and perseverance after three failed marriages, failures to preserve Hollywood historic costumes and memorabilia, and financial failures. Through it all, she maintained optimism and her warm, engaging smile and personality.
In a Guideposts interview, Debbie said, “I think sometimes God gives you a talent and he has a plan…I was raised in religion…My grandfather was what they called a lay preacher. He’d go to different homes and lay his hands on and read the Bible to the sick. We went to tent meetings and revival meetings…My life is based on faith. The most important thing is to have faith and believe in the wisdom beyond your years,” she said.
Debbie Reynolds, who was born in 1932, became a known for many notable facets as: an American actress, singer, businesswoman, film historian, and humanitarian. She was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer for her role as Helen Kane in the 1950 film Three Little Word. Her first leading role at 19 years of age was in 1952 as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, which began her on a path to fame. Her other successes included many other notable movies, including How the West Was Won.
She received a Golden Globe nomination for starring in her own television show, “The Debbie Reynolds Show,” in 1969. In 1973 Debbie starred in a Broadway revival of Irene and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical. She was also nominated for a Daytime Emmy Awards for TV shows.
Reynolds starred opposite Hollywood legends: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Donald O’Connor, Fred Astaire, Dick Van Dyke and more. She received a best actress Academy Award nomination for the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
As well as her Oscar nomination and five Golden Globe nominations, in 2015 Carrie presented her mother with the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. At the 2015 Oscars, Reynolds was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her advocacy for mental health issues.
At the peak of her stardom, Reynolds was pulled into a scandal when her husband, singer Eddie Fisher, left her for actress Elizabeth Taylor. Debbie eventually reconciled with Elizabeth. Reynolds also reconciled with her daughter, Carrie, after years of estrangement. When Reynolds’ song “Tammy” from her 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor hit No. 1 on the singles charts, she became a regular on the NBC “The Eddie Fisher Show.”
“I always go by a five-year plan,” Debbie once said. “I get through today and I’m not going to get upset for five years…I always picture a long tunnel and at the end of the tunnel, there’s a light. I know I can make it to that light and I’ll take five years to get there. Now I’ve gone through many tunnels. So, I just keep trying. I never give up.”
Reynolds also once said, “If you behave well during a painful time in your life, I believe your life will turn around. You have to be courageous, keep going forward. It’s hard. You have to be an adult, grow up.” Debbie had arthritis and osteoporosis, and said about it, “…but I deal with it because I have to. I have good people who keep me going down the railroad track. If you look through a tunnel at the end is light. Whatever troubles you’re having, remember that.”
Unlike her daughter, harmful addiction evaded Debbie. Reynolds said that her goal was “to remain happy” and continue performing live shows “as long as they’ll have me.”
Her final project in 2016 is a documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, with Todd Fisher in it and as one of the producers. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds star in this tender portrait of Hollywood royalty even with its eccentricity. From red carpet to the back alleys behind it, this documentary is about the bonds of family love, even when they are bitter-sweet. In the movie, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, live in the same Beverly Hills compound. The 83-year-old still has a Las Vegas act, but performing is taking its toll. Carrie’s responses are hilarious and heart-rending. It features vintage family films that bring iconic, old-world Hollywood to life, as well as extensive Cinéma vérité (truthful cinema footage).
Like Debbie Reynolds, the work of Florence Henderson spanned many decades, but she is probably remembered most as the sweet, loving mom of a blended family on “The Brady Brunch” in the 1970’s. Like Debbie Reynolds, Florence was active in supporting many worthwhile causes and charities. She was especially devoted to the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana, where she received early education.
In her final interview, Florence said that in good times and bad that her Christian faith was her foundation. “I don’t ever remember not praying. Bedtime prayers…praying for friends, relatives, for the sick… It was a natural part of our lives,” she also told writer Rita E. Piro.
“I frequently am contacted by people who want to thank me for ‘The Brady Bunch,'” she said to Piro. “Whether they grew up during the show’s original television run or are brand-new fans of the present generation, they tell me how important ‘The Brady Bunch’ has been in their lives. I wanted to portray Carol as a loving, fun, affectionate mother, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people who maybe had the same situation I did growing up. To think that something I was involved in had such a positive effect on the lives of so many people is satisfying beyond words.”
Henderson also told Piro how from time to time, she found herself questioning her faith. As a new mother, the actress experienced repeated bouts of postpartum depression and during the mid-1960s, she was diagnosed with a hereditary bone deformity of the middle ear and needed surgery to prevent deafness. She reported that stage fright and insomnia also were challenges for her. The loss of family and friends, especially her siblings, were also difficult for her.
Henderson also told how her most important role, however, was being Mom to her own four children: Barbara, Joseph, Robert and Elizabeth. “My children and their happiness have always been my greatest concern,” she said. She further described her children to Piro as “the nicest people you could ever meet” and “very spiritual people.” Furthermore, she said, “Being a mom makes you far more compassionate. You have more empathy for people, more love… I was always taught to say thank you and I’m very grateful. And my kids have that quality, too.”
Dr. Diane Howard is a frontline journalist known for exclusive interviews with leading figures in artistic, redemptive media. She has been involved in decades of qualitative and quantitative research on the verifiable power of role models. She also serves as talent and as a dialogue, dialect, voice-over coach. A former Professor of Performance, Media, and Film Studies with a Ph.D. in Performance Studies (College of Communication, University of Texas, Austin), she has been involved in multiple aspects of artistic, redemptive communication media, regionally to internationally. She can be found online at dianehoward.com.