Time To Change
by Ronald Sklar
Think of it this way: about forty years ago, you land a job. It’s a good job and you feel lucky to get it. You like it. Everybody else likes you in it. It’s a good gig.
You stay at this job for about five years, then you move on.
The only problem is this: you’re already gone, but the world is still tugging at your sleeve. They don’t want you to go. In fact, the entire planet becomes obsessed with that one job you’ve held, for a mere five years, almost forty years ago.
Everywhere you go, you are asked about it. They remember everything you did during your employment, down to the things you said. They bring it up to you no matter where you go in life, no matter what you do. You are asked the same questions, by thousands of admiring people, for decades to come, about that one job.
You continue to work at other gigs, and you even do amazing things, like play professional tennis and appear in theatrical national touring companies. Yet nobody will separate you from that one distant, once-held job. Long after you were fired from it, the job continues to stay with you, but not the paycheck. You can barely even remember it the way the rest of the world does. Yet you must remain patient and cordial with the people who ask you about it, and forever accepting of it.
As Karl Malden used to say in those American Express ads, “What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?”
Ask Barry Williams. This is more or less his story, and now he’s bringing some of that story to off-Broadway, in a revue that celebrates the Me Decade, and for Williams, the Other-Me Decade. It’s called Growing Up 70s, which addresses the five years when Williams had That Job, and then some.
“Growing Up 70s is all things seventies,” he explains, “and we touch upon references from just about every aspect of the decade. The fashion, the styles, the music, the movies, a lot of television, the commercials, the phrases.”
Lotsa singing and dancing, with a full cast of kids who were not yet born during the duration of Williams’ first job.
It was he who played oldest sibling Greg Brady on the beloved The Brady Bunch. In the decades since, he has more than come to terms with his fate, on his terms. He has turned lumpy lemons into lovilicious lemonade.
“The only time I actively fought against it was immediately after the show because it was interfering with my ability to get work,” he says. “That’s really been my only problem with it. What I found was an alternative to television, which was musical theater. I’ve become very active in theater. I’ve done 75 productions since then. I started working in New York and on Broadway, and also Broadway national tours. My work really remained consistent and it really wasn’t pulling on Greg Brady.”
Though The Brady Bunch never even once cracked the Top Ten in the ratings during its original run, the sitcom remained on ABC from 1969-1974 and left its paw print on that viewing generation.
It was the last of its kind: the warm, gentle, one-camera family comedy with a low-energy laugh track. The world moved on in a big way after its cancellation. However, the Bunch remained in special places, close to the heart and on the brain. As years passed, more and more people were born, and they watched it in endless reruns on UHF and eventually on cable. It became a phenomenon in syndication, and an official pop culture staple. Nothing like it was ever seen again. It was nice and easy, but in ugly contrast, TV families from that point forward nevah, evah did nothin’ nice and easy. They did it instead like Ike and Tina Turner: nice. And rough.
“Once I was comfortable in knowing that I had a career outside the show,” he says, “I never looked back. I have always been proud of it. My gosh, we’ve had four different series, nine different reunions, books, movies, plays, concerts, even the cartoon show. If I wanted to get away from it, I really never would have done a Brady again. I’m very comfortable with that, and this show [Growing Up 70s] indeed is right on purpose. I talk a lot about The Brady Bunch, and what typecasting has done and how it has affected me and what it means. Also, the impact that it has had certainly nationally but globally as well. The fact that we’ve been on in each of five successive decades and the episodes aired 175,000 times… a piece. That’s a lot of reinforcement in one character. So I make peace with it or go box groceries.”
Williams did what he could to change with the times, to escape that era of bell-bottom jeans and wildly patterned shirts, but there was still an element of entrapment. He continued working as a good actor, in good projects. However, America’s obsession with The Brady Bunch, as well as the decade in which it was first broadcast, has given him the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em shrug of the shoulders, and a pass for this new stage production.
“I’ve been in front of America almost my entire life,” he says (he had a full acting resume even before The Brady Bunch). “I like people. It’s a great icebreaker. I, of course, want to move beyond Greg Brady; otherwise, I’m sitting down to dinner doing an interview. I find most people to be quite pleasant, and they share their experience with the show with me. I’m grateful to have that relationship with so many people. I can talk to the bus driver. I can talk to the gal in the grocery store. They do feel like they know me.”
This is not the first time that Williams rode the giant Brady wave after the fact. His memoir about his experiences on the show, Growing Up Brady: I Was A Teenage Greg, was a national bestseller in 1992, spawning a TV movie and a lot of buzz.
“Over the decades,” he says, “I was answering a limited body of questions. I could never really give a complete answer because in television or radio shows you can only really give a sound bite. I realized, twenty-five years later, that people are asking me the same questions, and that there must be some real deeply seated interest in what happened to Tiger [the family dog], for instance. So, I told the story. I knew almost from the beginning of what I was going to write about, but then it was the process of actually sitting down and writing. It took over two years to do. I had a lot of clearances to get and I had over 140 pictures in it. It was a big project, but I did, I think, give my take on what it was like to grow up on the small screen and in front of America.”
Though the critics have never been kind to the Bunch, and the generation that grew up with it will often love it by sometimes hating it, Williams seems to have figured out all of its simple complexities.
“I let people have their own experience of it,” he says. “I’m often times told just how meaningful the show was to someone’s development and growth as an alternative to the horrible family conditions that they had, and that it could be a different way. Many people learned how to speak English watching The Brady Bunch. It was a role model and an identifier for literally millions of people, whether you’re the oldest or the youngest or the middle child. There is someone in the show to relate and identify with. Even though the critics were routinely harsh on our show, it found its audience, and I think that has its own depth and its own meaning.”
So then, what was it exactly? Why this show, and why forever?
“I think that there was a genuine chemistry that we had,” he answers, probably for the millionth time. “That could be as accountable as anything for its continued success. We genuinely like each other. Those friendships remain intact to this day. That is something that is just not faked. It cannot be directed or written. The producer, Sherwood Schwartz, wanted us to basically be real kids. Of course, under heightened circumstances – exaggerated circumstances and idealized. But we weren’t caricatures. There wasn’t the smart alec and the brain and the beauty and the intellectual and the nerd. Just people growing up and going through the stages of life. And I think those elements, the morality, the communication, the theme of our show are timeless.”
Yet timeless does not always free you from the time warp. Williams does the time warp again, on Sirius radio (six days a week, from 2-6 p.m. EST, Sunday through Friday, on “The Barry Williams Show”).
“It’s on the Totally Seventies Channel, Channel 7 on Sirius,” he says, “and it is seventies music. I’m a DJ. [I play] Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, Jim Croce, Donna Summer and The Trampps. Also Bob Seger. A lot of Elton John; a lot of Fleetwood Mac. In between the songs, I’m commenting on everything from pop culture to references of the day to my own experience with many of the artists. I shared stages with Tony Orlando, for instance. I remember seeing The Moody Blues on one of their first tours, just when ‘Nights In White Satin’ became a hit, so I’ll share my experience with being at the concert.”
As far as the Growing Up 70s revue, it all comes together for Williams, both righteously and outa-sighteously. It combines his love of theater with the most identifiable characteristics of his alter ego.
“Musical theater is a combination of drama, comedy, theatricality, and the heightened intensity of music,” he says. “In a theatrical circumstance, this is my favorite combination. Essentially, moving into song in musical theater, it takes a dramatic moment and intensifies it, heightens it. That’s what draws me to it. That combination of elements. It has given me a lot of frequent flyer miles over the years, because for so many of the shows I’ve done tours. I did the Broadway national tour of City of Angels and The Sound of Music.
“Growing Up 70s is a new show, so we’re kind of feeling it out to see how it works. We’re looking for audience response, how we feel it plays. It’s off-Broadway, so we don’t have quite the Broadway pressure here. There are 170 seats, so it’s very intimate. We’re not trying to make it anything that it’s not. It’s a good, fun, solid family entertainment.”
Just like that one job Williams used to have.
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 18, 2007.
|#1 ©2000. Courtesy of Good Guy Entertainment.|
|#2 ©2007. Courtesy of Growing Up 70s.|
|#3 ©2007. Courtesy of Growing Up 70s.|
|#4 ©1974 Bud Gray. Courtesy of Paramount Television.|