For years now, Robbie Rist has been unjustly saddled with the burden of being the “shark” the Brady clan “jumped,” thus ending a six-year run of primetime family friendly entertainment. To say his portrayal of Cousin Oliver ruined the show is an inaccurate cheap shot, one Rist not only takes in stride, but also one seems to wear as a badge of perverse pride.
I met the former child-star for burritos and beer at the famous El Compadre Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Traffic from the Valley delayed his arrival by a full hour, but the bartender seemed to have no shortage of cerveza, and I must confess, it’s not every day I meet a Brady kid (even if it’s only the cousin) so by the time Rist arrived, he was already 3 beers behind me. I believe he took that as a challenge, and ordered himself a mug of the frosty brew.
His still cherubic face, though now hidden behind a scruffy five-o’clock shadow, belies his approach to middle age. Despite the whiskers, he hasn’t changed much since the seventies when he and Bobby became convinced that Alice’s long-time beau, Sam the Butcher, was in fact an undercover Russian spy.
If however you don’t recognize him physically, there is no mistaking the voice. It’s pure laid-back, comically nasal, California boy-genius.
You would also recognize his vocal talents if you were a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies in the early 90’s. Rist voiced the easy-going, nunchuck wielding Michelangelo, sometimes better known as, “the one with the orange mask.”
Rist confesses, “My girlfriend tells me I could probably go hang out in a club where there’s a bunch of twenty something year-old women – do my Michelangelo voice and, as she says, ‘pull all kinds of tail.’”
This is followed quickly by his humble admission that fame has not translated into a bevy of beauties bouncing in and out of his bedroom.
“My relationship with my dubious stardom has always been one of work, rather than what it could get for me. In my music career I maybe only had a couple of moments where I could look out in the crowd and say hey, ‘I can make this work to my advantage’ but I think a lot of women sort of saw a nine year old head on my adult body, and well, it takes a special sort of woman to get excited about that” he chuckles his infectious elfin chuckle.
Rist has studied music since he was 3. He plays the piano, guitar, bass, drums and mandolin and credits Brady co-star Susan Olsen for his obscure musical preference. “Susan had a pretty eclectic taste in music for her age. She’d bring in Dr Demento tapes and we’d listen to them in her dressing room. Loved Barnes and Barnes, “Fish Heads” (which featured another child star Bill Mumy) Old Weird Al stuff- Susan really kind of started my life-long fascination with offbeat music.”
His IMDB page lists a plethora of iconic 70’s television; The Bionic Woman, What’s Happening, Mary Tyler Moore, and CHiPs to name but a few. As a youngster the tiny bespectacled thespian performed with some of the all-time greats. “I did an afterschool special with Jodie Foster in 1973… Talk about career trajectory. It’s like we were on the Freeway together, and we were both doing the speed limit, and she just went put her foot to the pedal and went whoooosh! I just watched her speed away.”
Both familiar and likable, a few more beers only add to his charisma. When the waiter comes by and asks if he can fetch us a couple more, Rist is all in, while I decide to take a pass this time. A sly smirk plays across his lips and he laughingly coughs out the word “pussy” as I beg off the round. No slouch in the imbibing department, I point out to my new friend that due to his tardiness, he’s still three beers behind me. Rist seems to comprehend my disadvantage, pauses a beat for comedic effect, and coughs out the insulting slur once again. He smirks happily. Immediately I call our waiter back, order another cold one, turn to the self-satisfied troublemaker and announce I will not let Cousin Oliver call me a pussy. We share a laugh that is only shared by men taunting men over the foamy amber beverage.
The conversation turns to back to Hollywood, and Rist, who had recently wrapped up producing/acting duties for a horror/comedy film, “Stump the Band” weighs in on the film industry today.
Rist on film:
“Star Wars and Rocky f@@%cked it up for everybody. In the 70’s there are these great films with dour endings. You ever seen Dirty Mary Crazy Larry? They’re like we made it! We made it! Then they run into a train. But after Star Wars everybody wanted a happy ending, and it’s taken a while to get away from that philosophy.”
He concedes how difficult it is to get a break in the acting business, “The entertainment business is proof we live in a chaotic universe- where everything can and will happen.” He proclaims, “That means you can have a meteoric rise that’s over tomorrow, or you can have a slow burn, and all the sudden you’re there. Paul Giamatti is a much bigger star than he was when he did that Howard Stern movie, but it’s been a slow progression for his whole career. On the other hand, there’s probably 7500 Paul Giammatti’s all equally talented, and believe me, I think he’s a really really good actor. I watched ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ last night, and it wasn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but he was hilarious. The thing is, there’s 7500 guys like that in this town.”
Rist on TV today:
“Herb Edelman (Rist’s co-star in the 1976 Saturday morning show, “Big John Little John”) was an amazing character actor, but he probably wouldn’t get work in TV today. He’s not scrubbed looking enough. Barney Miller was a great show. Great comedic actors – but the cast of Barney Miller could not get work on a TV show today.” Need evidence modern day sitcoms are not racially balanced? Rist shoots, “Come on. David Schwimmer played the ‘ethnic guy’ on friends. Is he that ethnic?
“Television is homogenizing everything about our culture. The New York accent is going away. So is the Southern accent. So many people watch television now that they’re all deciding, consciously or unconsciously, that that’s how we should sound. It’s sad.”
Rist on LA architecture:
“When you consider the contribution Los Angeles/Hollywood has made to culture, not just American, but world culture- the iconic images Los Angeles has sent out to the world in it’s short history, I mean this city is only like 100 years old, it’s not Rome. It’s not even New Jersey for that matter, but it’s contributed so much and sadly has no respect for it’s own history. They tore down the Ambassador Hotel. They got rid of the Brown Derby. Not that long ago they were talking about tearing down the Chinese Theater. Maybe it’s because LA is such a transient place, as opposed to say New York. In LA people come to seek their fortune, and whether they achieve that or not they move. Whereas in New York, families have been there since the 1800’s, and they want to keep the buildings they remember. Los Angeles tends to think they need to put up something new and modern all the time. It’s disappointing they have so little respect for something so unique. There’s no more Drive-Ins or Muffler Men.”
Then he delivers such a classic line, I assume he’s read it, or said it before, but it’s all spontaneous, “Hollywood treats their old buildings like they treat 40-year-old actresses. Just as they’re starting to develop some character, they tear them down and put up a new one.”
Rist on Bowl Haircuts:
“I credit the whole look to my German mother. She invented my look- well not the whole look thankfully. I have this class picture of me in elementary school. There’s a kid with a polka dot shirt, a kid with a plaid shirt, a kid with a paisley shirt and I’m the kid with the bowl-cut, wire-rimmed glasses and lederhosen. It’s probably a good thing the lederhosen didn’t catch on.”
He jokingly adds, “Peter Billingsley (The star of A Christmas Story) and Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire) copped my look.” I’m not saying this as an ego thing or whatever, it’s just suddenly if you had a blonde bowl-cut and wired-rimmed glasses, you were this smart-mouthed kid.”
Rist on being a POP icon:
“That Cousin Oliver character has been used on the cover of the Onion twice- both for the same joke. In 1998 or whatever in was, ‘Cousin Oliver To Join Last Year Of Clinton White House.’ In 2006, the Onion cover was, ‘Cousin Oliver to Join Bush White House to Help Sagging Ratings.”
Rist on the psychological toll of being a Brady:
“ First of all, I only did six episodes of that show. They just happened to be the last six of the series,” he laughs and shrugs. “Let’s say you had a summer job as a kid. You were a camp counselor. You probably only worked there for six weeks, but for the rest of your life people come up to you and say hey didn’t you used to work at Lake Walla-Whatever? You know? I had to do a huuuge sort of emotional/intellectual reevaluation on myself, and I got depressed when I was in my late twenties. I was thinking, ‘Is it possible that the only thing I’ll be known for happened when I was nine, and I didn’t even know what I was doing?’ No one prepares you for the day it all goes away. I was nine. I had no idea that was going to be the highlight of my career, and it’s tough when that attention goes away. Since then nothing I’ve worked on has had that kind of impact, so how do you come to grips with that whole thing? By the way, I’m ok now, but it did do a number on me for a while.
Rist on coming to grips with his Brady past :
“This dude walked up to me once when I was in my early thirties- we were about the same age. He came up and said, ‘There’s always been something I wanted to tell you. When I was a kid, my mom was really poor, and she had three jobs. I was left alone in our apartment- A LOT! The episodes of the Brady Bunch that you were on helped me get through those years. Here was this kid, trapped in a world he didn’t make, finding solace in some character I was playing. It helped me get over some resentment of this stupid f@#$ing job I did as a kid for six weeks that everybody still wants to talk about. At that moment I realized it wasn’t just a stupid TV show, there was a morale message to each show, and it was more than just this squeaky clean show. It helped a lot of kids somehow, and once I realized that, I sort of learned to live with my past. And if that guy is out there reading this book, I just want to say thanks.”
And of course we at Weird Hollywood would like to say thanks, and hoist one more fermented glass of hops and barley to Robbie Rist – Television icon, student of Hollywood, and one heck of a drinkin’ buddy.