Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Neal
Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: RidiculouslyExtraordinary. Posted by Ryan Neal
The Brady Bunch, The Defenders
January 1, 1970
Currently Known For:
The Brady Bunch, The Defenders
January 1, 1970
“Jungle fever is going around too but not in this neighborhood.” One of the most iconic television fathers of the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Reed is best remembered as Mike Brady on the popular 1970s family sitcom, The Brady Bunch. Long before he joined Florence Henderson and their blended family on the picture-perfect series, Reed was known for his performance as Kenneth Preston on the legal drama, The Defenders, and for his hard-earned theatrical credentials that he earned after attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. So, how exactly did he transition from the stage to primetime television’s favorite father figure? It wasn’t easy for Reed as the award-winning actor harbored a lot of hatred for The Brady Bunch as well as a secret that he took to his grave—he was gay. What’s his complete Hollywood story? Let’s take a look!
The only child of a government employee and a housewife, John Robert Rietz Jr. came into this world on October 19, 1932 in Highland Park, Illinois. After his father retired from his government job, the family moved frequently with the young Robert growing up in Navasota, Texas and in Shawnee, Oklahoma where his father worked as a turkey and cattle farmer. While in the south, Robert learned everything he could about farming and raising cattle from both his father and the local 4-H agricultural club; however, his interest in agriculture paled in comparison to his passion for the performing arts and music, both of which took up most of his free time.
As a student at Central High School in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Robert pursued his interests in the performing arts with the school’s theater department and performed in several of the school’s productions. He then landed a job as a radio announcer at the local radio station where he proved his talents at writing and producing on-air dramas. After graduating from high school in 1950, he enrolled at Northwestern University where he studied drama and gained even more experience on the stage with starring roles in over eight productions. From there, he traveled abroad to London and saw another dream come true when he spent a semester studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Upon his return to the United States, Reed briefly settled down in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania where he performed in summer stock and later joined the off-Broadway theater group known as The Shakespearewrights. Playing the lead in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, Reed eventually left the group to join the Studebaker Theatre Company in Chicago where he adopted “Robert Reed” as his stage name. He spent a few months in his native Illinois but knew better opportunities were out west, which is what led him to Los Angeles in the late 1950s.
Once in Hollywood, Reed focused on launching his television career and snagged a minor spot on an episode of Father Knows Best in 1959. This led to a few more appearances on popular series like Lawman and Men Into Space before he made his silver screen debut in Bloodlust! in 1961. The same year, he won his first starring role opposite E.G. Marshall, the founding member of the New York Actors Studio, in the CBS courtroom drama, The Defenders. With Marshall playing his on-screen father, Reed’s first primetime role was a huge success that lasted four seasons and earned him a place in the Actor’s Studio, a membership he would hold for over three decades!
Amid his first major success on The Defenders, which earned 22 Primetime Emmy Award nominations over its four seasons, Reed never lost sight of his theatrical career and made his Broadway debut in the 1964 production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park replacing Robert Redford as Paul Bratter. After The Defenders was canceled in 1965, he went on to make guest appearances on popular shows like The Mod Squad, Family Affair, and Ironside when rumors went wild that Reed was set to reprise his Broadway role for a television adaptation of Barefoot in the Park. However, the plan went awry when Paramount Pictures executives chose to cast an African American cast, meaning Reed was out of the picture.
Although Reed was passed over for the project, he was still under contract to star in another television series with Paramount Pictures, which is what led him to Sherwood Schwartz’s newest series, The Brady Bunch. With Schwartz enjoying the success of his earlier show, Gilligan’s Island, he was inspired to create a second series about a blended family after reading a statistic in the Los Angeles Times that reported over 29% of all marriages included children from a previous marriage. Schwartz knew he was onto something and set out to create “a new and unusual TV series… the first blended family! His kids and her kids! Together!”
Initially considering Gene Hackman for the role of Mike Brady, Schwartz didn’t think Hackman was a big enough name to star opposite Florence Henderson on the series, which is what led him back to Reed. Reed, however, wasn’t thrilled with the idea and thought the show and its entire premise was ridiculous, especially in light of his theatrical training. “I was young, brash, so-called classically trained and well-educated,” he complained. Then, when he saw the script for the pilot where Mike and Carol marry, he knew he was in for trouble. “I knew when I saw it we were off to Gilligan’s Island.”
With each script filled with childish pranks like when Greg accidentally dyed his hair orange or when Marcia was pummeled in the face with a football, Reed grew more and more frustrated, often firing off script and dialogue changes to Schwartz before heading to the local Irish pub where he drowned his frustrations in scotch. “I should have tried to get out of the show rather than inflict my views on them,” Reed later said of his frustrations and his inability to hide it from his on-screen family. “It was just as inconsequential as can be. To the degree that it serves as a babysitter, I’m glad we did it, but I do not want it on my tombstone.”
Schwartz couldn’t deny Reed’s unhappiness, especially not after numerous outbursts behind the scenes. “He wound up on a show that he didn’t want to do in the first place, and it became more and more difficult for him,” said the show’s creator. Reed, however, was always the consummate professional when the cameras were rolling. “He was a good actor. So, whatever he chose to do after arguing and fussing and so forth, he would do well,” Schwartz said. “But his idea of a show was based on the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
While Reed hated the show’s premise and its childishness, he adored his on-screen family, which is one of the main reasons he stayed on the show during its five-season run. “They were a family. They became a family. They became very attached to each other… Even Bob Reed, who was a personal pain to me, loved the kids, and they loved him,” Schwartz said of his cast. “Essentially, Bob fell in love with us as a surrogate father,” Christopher Knight, who played Reed’s on-screen middle son, Peter, added.
Reed’s hatred for the show wasn’t a huge secret in Hollywood, but it was the primary reason he didn’t appear in the show’s final episode, “The Hair-Brained Scheme.” Reed thought the episode was foolish and sent a series of dialogue and script changes to Schwartz who didn’t receive the memo in time to make any changes. As a result, Reed refused to appear in the episode and made his final appearance in “The Hustler” episode where his last line of the series was “Now I can get my car in the garage.” By then, Schwartz had already decided that if the show was picked up for a sixth season, Reed would be replaced by another actor. That, however, didn’t happen since ABC canceled the series in 1974.
Following the show’s cancellation, Reed returned to the theatrical stage in addition to making guest appearances on shows like Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels. Despite his frustrations with The Brady Bunch, he reprised his role as Mike Brady in various reunion films and spin-offs like The Brady Bunch Hour (1976), The Brady Girls Get Married (1981), and A Very Brady Christmas (1988). In 1990, he reprised his role for the last time in the short-lived series, The Bradys, which was canceled after six episodes and marked one of his last projects as an actor.
In 1991, the 59-year-old Reed was diagnosed with colon cancer but swore his daughter, Karen, and his longtime friend, actress Anne Haney, to secrecy. “He came from the old school where people had a sense of decorum,” Haney said of Reed’s extreme need for privacy. By then, Reed was finally doing what he loved after appearing in the touring production of Love Letters and then accepting a position teaching Shakespeare at the University of California-Los Angeles. “That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Reed said of his teaching gig.
Continuing to teach until his health made it impossible, Reed’s condition worsened and, just weeks before his death, he finally reached out to his former on-screen wife, Florence Henderson, to share the news. “He was very brave, he was very courageous. He faced his death with such courage and dignity,” Henderson later said. “And he asked me if I would call all the kids and tell them. And it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do…”
Reed took his final breath on May 12, 1992 at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. Although his death was initially attributed to his battle with colon cancer, his death certificate later revealed two life-long secrets—that he was Human Immunodeficiency Virus positive and that he had been secretly living as a gay man. Fortunately, the news didn’t come as a huge shock for Reed’s closest friends or his Brady Bunch family, the latter of whom quietly kept his secret behind the scenes.
“Here he was, the perfect father of this wonderful little family, a perfect husband,” Henderson said of her costar. “He was an unhappy person… I think had Bob not been forced to live this double life, I think it would have dissipated a lot of that anger and frustration… but I never challenged him. I had a lot of compassion for him because I knew how he was suffering.” Reed’s on-screen son, Barry Williams, knew his secret but never addressed it. “Robert didn’t want to go there,” Williams said. “I don’t think he talked about it with anyone. I just don’t think it was a discussion. Period. It probably would have caused the demise of the show. I think it would have hurt his career tremendously.”
Although Reed worried endlessly about what his secret might do to his career, he had little to fear especially for a man of his talent. Instead of being remembered as the closet gay man from The Brady Bunch, he’s remembered as one of the most iconic father figures in television history who left a lasting impression on audiences of all ages as well as his on-screen family, whom he truly adored. “He was a good or better a father figure than my own dad. So, I learned very early that if that was what gay was, it has no measure in the ability of somebody to be a fine representation of a good human being,” Christopher Knight said of his Brady Bunch dad. “He was the picture of what I wanted to become as a person in his sort of strength.”