It's all in the Rist: Robbie speaks to MeTV, part one.
As you’ll read later in this interview, bless the interwebs. Acting on a Facebook friendship, we at The Monitor reached out to Robbie Rist (yep, Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch, and as you’ll find out, a whole bunch more) and asked him if he felt like chewing the fat with Me-TV. He answered an enthusiastic yes, and treated us to a highly entertaining and informative chat.
He’s been in show business (or, in Robbiespeak “This business called show”) since a very young age, and his career has come to encompass highly recognizable roles onscreen and a wealth of voiceover work, as well as music composition and performance. Robbie packs a razor sharp wit, zero pretension, and a refreshing and realistic embrace of the work he’s done in the past and for which he’s so widely known. We got ahold of the busy, diverse Rist during a mid-morning window last week, just before the actor was, unsurprisingly, headed out for a job.
Where are you from?
I’m from Downey, California, which is southeast of Los Angeles. It’s sort of between downtown and Disneyland. Home of The Carpenters!
How did the acting thing start for you?
I b*tched my parents into it! When I was a little kid, I was really obsessed with the Universal 1930’s horror movies. At four years old, I was telling my parents “I want to be in a monster movie! I want to be in a monster movie!” And that just became “I want to be in a movie!” and my parents went, “Well, we can take him to an audition and he’ll see how boring it is and he won’t want to do it anymore.” And then I got the next six auditions.
That’s cool that it was your idea and not your parents, which is typically the case.
Yeah, I think it’s part of the reason that I’m not in jail!
So what was your first acting job, then?
A student film for some kid attending USC or UCLA, I think. A film student. The second one was a national Nestle’s Crunch commercial, and that ran for a while. The next thing I got was a McDonald’s spot, which you can still see on YouTube. I did the first commercial for Quarter Pounders, and it did so well that it ran for three years and eventually McDonald’s took it and used it as an industrial training tool.
By the time you appeared on The Brady Bunch, you already seemed familiar. Had you done anything of note prior to that?
Yeah, it was all one-offs, but by that time, I had worked with Jonathan Winters already, and I had done a couple of John Denver specials. I was just interviewed for a book about shows that only ran for one season, and I know I was on a show called Popi with Hector Elizondo.
Did you play John Denver’s son or something?
Well, what happened is it was on one of his specials and they did a magic trick joke where Dick Van Dyke turns John Denver into me.
How did the Brady Bunch come about for you?
I had read for a spin-off pilot they were going to do called The Kelly Kids with Ken Berry, and it was similar to The Brady Bunch, kind of about a divorced or widowed guy and his two sons. And because Ken Berry is a brunette and I, alas, am not, I didn’t get the job! But when the Oliver thing came along, they called me in and, from what I understand, anyway, called in about five hundred other kids, and I won it.
Do you remember the audition?
No, I was doing it so much back then… I read for The Omen, I read for a whole bunch of stuff. But with most things with me and entertainment, I look back and go ‘No, I don’t remember doing that!’ I learned a long time ago: Forget about it! Don’t obsess, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
Were you a fan of The Brady Bunch beforehand?
I wasn’t really an ‘uber’ fan, I was more of a Six Million Dollar Man guy, but of course I was aware of it. But the thing about The Brady Bunch, it was popular when it was on the air, but it really didn’t become what it is now until it went into syndication and it was on, like, elevendy-billion times. I know of at least three people who had fanzines dedicated to the show in the early ‘90s. And I think that’s when the show really picked up steam. You had all these kids who’d seen the show, and Bill Murray singing the ‘Star Wars’ theme on Saturday Night Live, and so this whole ironic level entered into it. And then it had become this whole cultural thing, and the thing I find interesting is that by this point, people began to focus on how kitschy it is. But the truth of the matter is, when it came out it wasn’t kitschy. In the 1970s, people weren’t being ironic yet, so The Brady Bunch is actually guilelessly innocent; it actually is what you see the show to be. All of the other things that people have come up with, how kitschy and goofy it is, that all came later.
Were you ever approached to be a part of the movies that came out in the mid-‘90s?
No, Sherwood and Lloyd (Schwartz) didn’t really see the Oliver character as being a part of the show. From what I understand, the character was a network decision, and not a production decision. The network said, “Hey guys, we’d really like the show to go another year.” The Schwartzes said “Why don’t we go out on top?” And the network said, “Why don’t we do another year with this younger character?” And they sighed and went, “Fine!” So they don’t see the character as being part of the show necessarily, and I think that’s why I’m not in the variety show and all that stuff.
There was a website in the web 2.0 days, and there was a website called Jump The Shark, and they had a page called New Kid in Town, which is exactly what we’re talking about here, adding kids to a show that is failing. My picture was up at the top of the page, as kind of the symbol of the whole thing, and I think people just got used to seeing me! So there’s this perception that I’m kind of the prototype for it, and I guess I should take credit for it, but I just can’t!
How did being on that show affect you?
Well, the shows are on the air, I’m 49 now and I still can’t go to the mall. You know, there are still people that recognize me. And not just people my age! I’ve been recognized in Italy and Spain. The show not only entered the Zeitgeist of America, it entered the Zeitgeist of the world, and that’s a crazy thing! But I’m honored to be a part of it. I mean, I wish it would have paid more, but, you know….
Do you have a favorite episode?
Oh, gosh, that’s like picking your favorite kid! Look, what can I say; I was on The Brady Bunch, a television show that’s entered the bloodstream of our very culture. We’ll leave it at that!
The show was shot on the Paramount lot; were there any other shows that you got see, or people that you got to hang out with?
I met some of The Partridge Family people, they were shooting right next-door, so I saw them a bit. I know one day, and I’m not sure if it was during The Brady Bunch or after, I visited the set of Happy Days once. That was also shooting on the lot. And most importantly, as young me, I saw the offices that doubled for Mannix, and that was all that mattered to me!
How do you feel about the bowl haircut and glasses trend that you started?
Ah, no, no, no, you see, this is how popular culture once again writes its own history! I believe Froggy from The Little Rascals had it first. Or at least I look at him as the prototype of that.
I don’t consider myself all that successful, but anybody who gets the least little bit known is lucky. There’s a tremendous amount of luck that goes into all of that happening, and the luck that I had – the bowl cut and glasses thing – it just so happened that in the early ‘70s there were a few people like John Denver and Paul Williams that had that look going, and just by sheer accident it was just a look that I had that just happened to mirror what was going on in the culture at the time. I wasn’t the only kid rocking that style.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Robbie, where he talks about his post-Brady work, and how putting him in your project doesn’t necessarily lead to it becoming iconic, but there is a track record! He also talks music, and, of course — Sharknado!