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Robbie Rist Beats the Child Star Jinx

Robbie Rist

Robbie Rist

Robbie Rist

Beats the Child Star Jinx

By Ronald Sklar

“If I met Peter Fonda tomorrow, a part of me would say, that’s the dude from Easy Rider,” observes actor/musician/voiceover vet Robbie Rist.

Peter Fonda/Easy Rider; Cousin Oliver/The Brady Bunch: same difference.

Rist played the iconic first cousin of the Bunch in the very last six episodes of the original series, which was first broadcast in 1974. Today, 800 years later, he is still best remembered for that little guy’s little stint, despite his ability to actually have a pretty cool, fulfilling, varied and enriched adult existence.

“It takes on a life of its own,” Rist says of the Brady phenomenon and the Cousin Oliver jinx.  “It finds its own people. Then those people kind of bring it back to me. When people meet me, they still see that nine-year-old head on this forty-five-year-old body, because it’s so fresh in their memory. And the art itself, which has nothing to do with me, has meaning to them. I’m basically Haley Joel Osment and they’re all ghosts. They always wanted to say something to me.”

Here is exactly where you can see how memory plays tricks: most Brady fans think that Oliver was part of the series for a lot longer than he was. Yet, for his very short stay, he is as powerful a pop icon as almost anything that got hatched in the Seventies.  His childhood image – the Dutch Boy haircut, the wire frames, the John Denver-esqueness of it all – is one of the most recognizable in the history of television. And that’s pretty decent.

“I mean, I don’t need Secret Service or anything,” he says. “But if it’s on the résumé, I don’t mind talking about it. For a while there, I had a shpilkes about what I did when I was a kid, and nothing I did as an adult succeeded on that level. But the other side of it is, I’m still standing. I’m still in the ring swinging. I wouldn’t be the man I am if it weren’t for the experiences I’ve had. I’m very pro all of the stuff I did.”

Today, Rist lives in the San Fernando Valley (the land of his childhood), and toggles between music (recording, producing, engineering), acting and voiceover work.

“With all the things that I do, I can keep the lights on. I do a little voiceover, I do a little music, I teach a little, I play in bands, I tour every once in a while. Because I’ve been in entertainment for so long, I sort of end up in a consulting position.

Robbie Rist as Cousin Oliver in "The Brady Bunch."

Robbie Rist as Cousin Oliver in “The Brady Bunch.”

“I’ve been playing music since I started playing violin when I was three, but my hands were too small. I started piano at five, guitar at eight, bass and drums at thirteen. At around sixteen I got some recording gear.

“Acting and music, it’s all art to me. It’s basically the same thing. I can make records all by myself all day because I play every instrument. I can make one-man-band records all day, because I was always kind of a loner anyway. That appealed to me. I can spend all my time in my room making stuff.

“I liken being an artist to being an astronaut, in that weightlessness makes you feel like you are falling all the time. But you have to get used to that or you can’t do any work. Being an artist is the exact same feeling. You just go through times where you say, ‘Oh, crap, this sucks! How am I going to pay my bills?’ Then you make it happen. You trade security for freedom when you become an artist.  As good as it can be, it’s as bad as it can be.”

He came out of the womb singing and, well, being unselfconsciously cute. He belied an intelligence that went beyond the kid-actor thing. And maybe it all makes sense that pursuing acting was truly his – not his parents’ – decision.

“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the 1930s Universal horror films,” he says. “The MummyFrankenstein. I told my parents, ‘I want to be in a monster movie,’ which edited down to ‘I want to be in a movie.’ So my parents say, why don’t we take him on an audition so he’ll see how boring it is and he won’t want to do it. Well, I got the audition. And then I got the next one, and the next one…I’m now eight or nine, and my mom is telling my dad, ‘I’m really bored of driving him around town. I would like to have a life of my own!’”

Good luck with that, mom. The Bradys were only part of the quickly crowded resume. There were also tons of TV commercials, movies, child voiceovers, and, of course, the Saturday morning kids’ show classic, Big John, Little John.  (He says of that, “If you watch it on YouTube and read the comments, there are people who write, ‘I thought this was just a fever dream.’”).

He also appeared in the very last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was one of the most-watched single episodes of any TV show ever. And he was the voice of one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, along with the Bradys, continue to introduce him to newly minted people as the years go by.

Regarding Turtles, he says, “The ace in the hole was that I come from the San Fernando Valley. That’s the birthplace of surf speak. That whole Valley Girl kind of world came from my neighborhood. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is like a documentary for me. I went to high school with all of those people.

“I’m the only one who has done all three of the [live action Ninja Turtle] movies. I keep bringing up this word lucky. I’ve been really lucky in that I keep stumbling into things that never make me huge amounts of cash, but they definitely keep me in the public awareness. People know who I am a lot. A lot of them have to do with young people things. There is always a new generation discovering Turtle.”

Of course, we know it’s more than just luck. And Rist has a theory.

“I was hired to be pathetic a lot,” he explains. “Every actor is selling something. Tom Cruise sells ‘cocky.’  I sold ‘pathetic.’ I was not necessarily a pathetic person.  But I was good at expressing longing even though I was a very young person.

“I also had the blonde hair and glasses thing, which was really popular at the time. And, of course, tremendous amounts of luck. For Oliver, I read against five hundred kids. So there has to be some ability in there, but I also think that there was a tremendous amount of luck. That’s how the wheels spin. For every Quentin Tarentino, there are a whole bunch of guys making little independent movies. Nobody ever cares about them.”

So what does he attribute to the level head and the two feet on the ground?

“Good parenting,” he says. “In every case where a kid actor screws up, it’s the parents. Don’t blame the kid. Don’t blame Gary Coleman or Todd Bridges or Corey Feldman. You can’t blame them for where they ended up.

“I’m trying to get a book off the ground about getting your kid in show business for all the right reasons. My parents told me in no uncertain terms that what I am doing is a gift. They said, ‘We’re giving you a gift. We’re allowing you to put a little money in the bank and exercise your creative jones. If you act up or screw up in any way, we have no problem killing you and making another one who looks just like you. ‘

Robbie Rist and his band

Robbie Rist and his band

“Entertainment is proof of chaos in the universe. Children are also proof of chaos in the universe. You put those two elements together, and a parents’ jobs becomes difficult maybe by five times. You have to be ever vigilant. You have to really know what the hell you are doing, because entertainment attracts every kind of every person. Some of them are very nice people; some of them aren’t. And some are just weird. There are managers and all kinds of people who can really mess with your family. My parents were threatened with being sued so many times in the time that I was living with them. They took it on, but I can only imagine the emotional toll it took on them. So don’t think that just because Junior puts on plays for the cat that you are going to make money from your kid. If your kid is a natural born ham, that’s great. Having an artistic outlet is total food for the soul.

“That’s why entertainment people – those who don’t kill themselves with drugs and alcohol – tend to live a long time. It’s a constant problem-solving exercise, but it’s also fun and creative. It keeps your brain working. A life in art is good, but don’t screw your kid over because of it.”

Yet mom and dad didn’t throw him to the wolves, not even with the easily sold misconception that Cousin Oliver single handedly handed The Brady Bunch its own walking papers. Cousin Oliver, in essence, jumped his own shark.

He says, “It’s on the resume, so if people want to talk about how I ruined a show, they can. There was a website in the ‘90s called I believe the Cousin Oliver character had more emails than anybody else on the site. A friend of mine took all the quotes from the site and made me a little booklet. Basically Cousin Oliver is The Knack of The Brady Bunch.

“Really, the show was over after Hawaii. It was just a dinosaur that was too stupid to find its tar pit. The show didn’t go out with a bang. It went out with a whimper. They just didn’t renew. There was no final episode.”

Indeed, not for The Brady Bunch, or for Robbie Rist, who continues to get out there while being universally adored for what had come before.

He says, “Everything that I have been involved in seems to get a bump of attention lately. There is a whole Kidd Video [a short-lived 1984 kids’ show about an intergalactic teen rock band] thing going on now. People are looking at this stuff.”

Look at Robbie’s stuff by going to

Photo Credits:
#1 Courtesy of Robbie Rist.  All rights reserved.
#2 Courtesy of Robbie Rist.  All rights reserved.
#3 Courtesy of Robbie Rist.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2009  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 30, 2009.

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