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Ann Davis, 88; played lovable, lovelorn maid to Bradys

Ann B. Davis
Ann B. DavisReuters

By Anita Gates

New York Times

NEW YORK — Ann B. Davis, the comic actress best known as the wistful, wisecracking live-in maid on the long-running ABC sitcom “The Brady Bunch,” died Sunday at a hospital in San Antonio. She was 88.

She had slipped into a coma after falling in the bathtub and hitting her head Saturday, her agent, Robert Malcolm, said. She used a walker and had been in excellent health, he said. She had been living in San Antonio with Bill C. Frey, a retired Episcopal bishop, and his wife.

From 1969 to 1974, Ms. Davis played the eternally good-natured, reliably self-deprecating Alice Nelson, who kept house for and dispensed cornball advice to a wholesome blended California family of eight on one of the perkiest prime-time series of its era.

Alice was, however, simply the best known of a series of plain-Jane characters Ms. Davis had played, women who yearned for but never really expected to find romance. “I’ve been digging Sam so long, by the time he proposes I’ll be six feet under,” Alice once said of her unending crush on the Bradys’ butcher.

More than a decade before “The Brady Bunch,” television viewers had known Ms. Davis from “The Bob Cummings Show” (1955-59), in which she played Charmaine Schultz, better known as Schultzy, the lovesick spinsterish secretary to a playboy Hollywood photographer who was always surrounded by glamorous models. Schultzy couldn’t hold a candle to those beauties, but she was beloved enough as a characterization that Ms. Davis won the Emmy Award for best featured actress in a comedy series in 1958 and 1959.

Between that series and “The Brady Bunch,” she starred on the short-lived “The John Forsythe Show” as a gym teacher; was a regular on “The Keefe Brasselle Show,” a variety series; and played the unglamorous secretary of Doris Day’s character in the film “Lover Come Back” (1961).

Ann Bradford Davis was born — along with a twin sister, Harriet — in Schenectady, N.Y., on May 3, 1926. When she was 3, her father, an electrical engineer, and her mother, an amateur actress, moved the family to Erie, Pa., which Ms. Davis once described as “much easier to spell.”

When she entered the University of Michigan, she wanted to become a doctor. But after seeing her brother in the national company of “Oklahoma!” she had a change of heart. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater in 1948 and began appearing in stage productions.

In 1954 she moved to Los Angeles and had the good fortune to be discovered, Hollywood style. While she was performing (unpaid) at a cabaret-coffeehouse that presented revues, plays, and concerts, a casting agent saw her and suggested she try out for the new Cummings series.

Ms. Davis considered her ordinary look an asset.

‘‘I know at least a couple hundred glamour gals who are starving in this town,’’ she told the Los Angeles Times in 1955, the year the Cummings show began its four-year run. ‘‘I'd rather be myself and eating.’’

She said she told NBC photographers not to retouch their pictures of her, but they ignored her request and ‘‘gave me eyebrows.’’

After “The Brady Bunch” went off the air, Ms. Davis, like other cast members, capitalized on the show’s popularity in a string of mostly ill-conceived follow-up projects, including “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” a 1976-77 series, and the television movies “The Brady Girls Get Married” and “A Very Brady Christmas” in the 1980s.

When the torch passed to a new generation in “The Brady Bunch Movie” (1995), starring Shelley Long and Gary Cole in the roles originated by Florence Henderson and Robert Reed, Ms. Davis made a cameo appearance with a wink to older moviegoers.

She played a truck driver named Schultzy. (The comedian Henriette Mantel played Alice.)

Ms. Davis also did television commercials for products including instant rice, floor cleaner, and cars (including a surprisingly sexy ad for the Ford Fairlane in the 1960s).

In the mid-1970s Ms. Davis became involved with an evangelical religious group headed by Frey. She lived and worked with that community for decades as she continued to act from time to time on television and stage.

She leaves her sister, Harriet Norton, Frey said.

People often asked Ms. Davis for child-rearing advice, she said, because of Alice’s perceived wisdom when counseling the young, fictional Bradys. But she professed to know absolutely nothing about children.

Nor, she said, was she really a comedian, because she relied completely on scripts and had never ad-libbed in her life. In a 2004 Archive of American Television interview, she summed up her expertise.

“I need a writer — and I have always been very conscious of and dependent on writers,” she said. “I was just terribly, terribly grateful to them.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.