It’s been burned into generations of brains: the story of a lovely lady and a man named Brady whose marriage creates a blended family of eight (not counting Alice, Tiger or Cousin Oliver). Today, The Brady Bunch is viewed as classic, family-friendly entertainment—not scandalous or challenging fare by any means.
But though the show is a beloved, safe-seeming staple for modern audiences, it was groundbreaking when it was first conceived—so groundbreaking that it almost never got made.
The history of The Brady Bunch begins in 1966, when TV producer Sherwood Schwartz read a news item in the Los Angeles Times that claimed 30 percent of marriages involved children from a previous relationship. Now, in 1966 this was a new phenomenon,” he later recalled. “Television was loaded with happily married couples, and single widows and widowers, but there wasn’t any show that revolved around the marital amalgamation of two families.”
Schwartz knew how to create a hit show—his Gilligan’s Island had been well-received. And the statistic stuck with him. At the time, loosening social mores around sex and marriage meant that divorce was becoming more and more common. In 1966, there were 1.85 million marriages and 499,000 divorces. The number had been creeping up for decades after a post-war divorce boom (610,000 divorces in 1946) and a subsequent settling of divorce rates that hovered around 400,000 until the beginning of the 1960s.
All those divorces, and changing views on whether people should marry at all, produced new family structures that Schwartz felt would resonate with audiences. So he wrote a pilot about a widower who falls in love with a divorcee, gets married and thencombines their two families in one house for endless situations and laughs.
But though Schwartz had proven television success and a solid script, Yours and Mine was not beloved by executives at any of the three major television networks. Though he received initial interest, no one seemed willing to take a chance on a show whose premise was so new. The script languished on the shelf and Schwartz moved on to other endeavors.
Then, in 1968, the film Yours, Mine and Ours hit theaters. Based on a true story, the film follows Frank Beardsley, a U.S. Navy officer with ten children, and Helen North, a nurse with eight children. Both of their spouses have died, and despite their fear of blending their large broods, their mutual attraction leads to marriage and a massive new family. The couple learn to manage their 18 children (with one on the way) through a combination of hilarious mistakes and military tactics.
Starring Lucille Ball as North and Henry Fonda as Beardsley, the film was not received well by critics. But the public loved it, and it grossed over $25 million in box office receipts (over $180 million in modern dollars).
Two years after he pitched the networks, Schwartz’s idea seemed long dead. The movie—with a premise extremely close to the one he had developed—could have been the nail in its coffin. Instead, it resurrected the idea at ABC.
Later, Schwartz recalled the movie as “serendipity”: a chance to have another piece of intellectual property prove the success of his concept for him. “A big hit in another medium [gives] executives an ‘excuse for failure,’” he wrote in his 2010 book on the Brady Bunch.
Now that ABC/Paramount knew the public was interested in stories about big, blended families, Schwartz had an in. The network ordered 13 shows and was set for a 1969 premiere. The film had helped greenlight the TV show, but the similarities between both sparked potential legal trouble for Schwartz. Since it was based on a true story, Schwartz knew he could not allege that Yours Mine and Ours had copied his idea.
Instead, the film’s producer threatened Schwartz with a lawsuit after The Brady Bunch’s 1969 premiere. Schwartz fired back with a letter that pointed to the initial name of his pilot—Yours and Mine. “You called your movie Yours, Mine and Ours by adding a kid of their own,” Schwartz wrote. “Just be happy I didn’t sue you.”
That letter was enough to put the potential lawsuit to bed. The Brady Bunch ran for 177 episodes and still enjoys a healthy life in reruns.
But though the show filmed its first episodes under the name The Brady Bunch, it almost lost its name because of another film. The Wild Bunch, a Western starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and others, was also released in 1969. It was a shocking take on the Western genre, and received criticism (and big box office returns) for its cutting-edge film techniques and its graphic violence.
Today, The Wild Bunch is considered one of the best Westerns of all time. In 1969, however, ABC/Paramount executives worried that audiences would associate the word “bunch” in its newest sitcom’s title with marauding vigilante justice and brutal violence. “They were afraid the viewers would get the idea that the show was a western or about a mob,” Schwartz recalled. He lobbied hard for the name, and won. If anything, The Brady Bunch managed to remove the word’s gritty connotation, associating “bunch” with sanitized, family-friendly and low-stakes comedy instead.
The Brady Bunch had a long shelf life and has even been parodied in two 1990s films that have become cult classics in their own right. But what of the movie that helped it get made? Yours, Mine and Ours' post-1960s life has been more uneven. First came the 2005 remake that grossed a respectable $72 million worldwide, but was almost universally panned by the critics.
More recently, one of Frank Beardsley’s real-life sons has claimed life was nothing like the movies. In 2013, he accused his stepfather of abusive behavior in a book, True North. (North’s claims were disputed by other family members). Unlike the Brady family, who always made up by the end of the show, real life is more complicated than sitcom fiction.