Actor/musician Robbie Rist (Brady Bunch, Your Favorite Trainwreck, Doc McStuffins,TMNT) talks movies, music and 70s fun
Robbie Rist gets stopped on the street by different generations of people for altogether different reasons. TV buffs recognize him for his appearances on C.H.I.P.S., Battlestar Galactica or more likely as “Cousin Oliver” from the Brady Bunch. Movie and comic book buffs know him as the voice of Michaelangelo in the three original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flicks (and your kids will know him from the upcoming Disney show “Doc McStuffins”). It’s all entertaining and entertainment to Robbie who really spends a helluva lot of time on MUSIC, being an L.A. pop music fixture in literally countless studio and live situations. In fact, the majority of L.A. musicians we talk to have worked with or shared the stage with Robbie or one of his bands over the last few decades of him playing music in Tinseltown. He also hosts a weekly pop culture based radio show called The Spoon and is a virtual walking encyclopedia of all things entertainment. We had fun talking to Robbie about all of the above and of course KISS and CHEAP TRICK. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: What’s up Robbie??!! It’s a sad day for pop culture as Davy Jones died. Among his massive legacy as a Monkee it’s another fringe member of the Brady Bunch family lost.
Robbie Rist: No doubt….It’s got me wondering who’s going to be next which is kind of morbid but I guess sadly it’s gotta be Ann B. Davis (Alice) because she’s like 90 something. Ann B.Davis is to me, one of the all time greatest character actresses ever, which is something of a lost art. For me, losing Davy sucks, as a pop dork it sucks and 66 years old is kind of young but to me it’s like, well, do want quantity or quality? Davy Jones had a ride that most human beings on the planet only dream of. If you pay attention to the passing of your heroes or icons it sort of helps you deal with your own journey in some way especially if you’re working in entertainment and have done so for any period of time. You’re going to see a lot of people go.
LRI: As a little, little kid you had quite a bit of work in well before being on Brady Bunch didn’t you?
RR: Oh yeah, I had done something like 100 commercials and had done the John Denver TV show and worked with Jonathan Winters and all kinds of stuff. I was cast as Oliver in 1973 and already had a lot of stuff on my resume at that point.
LRI: Did you ever read the Barry Williams book, “Growing Up Brady”?
RR: Oh of course. He called me obnoxious (laughs) which is like, “Ok..”. His experience was pretty different from mine in that he was more than ten years older than me and was on the show for much longer than I was. He didn’t really slag me, i just thought it was pretty funny actually. I had fun, all I knew was I was getting out of school, I got to stand on a piece of tape and say some words every once in a while and people would laugh. It was great for me. Then again, when you’re nine EVERYTHING is great.
LRI: Susan Olsen played Cindy and was closer in age to you as well as being real interested in music, as were you.
RR: Yeah, Susan is probably the one member of the cast I’m still close with and talk to, she’s great. Every once in a while I will bump into the others at conventions or something but mostly I talk to Susan. The weird thing is that she was like 3 years older than me and already into really cool stuff like Dr. Demento and I can honestly say that dark part of my sense of humor is definitely from ?Susan. We kind of bonded over all that stuff and also QUEEN for some strange reason, she really turned me on to QUEEN. She played guitar and I played all kinds of musical instruments and sang so we had that in common as well.
RR: A lot of the tabloid stuff back then wasn’t as pervasive then as it is now. The Bunch was a huge, hit show but it wasn’t that pop culture, kitsch phenomenon that it later became after years and years of reruns and syndication. People re-watched the shows six or seven THOUSAND times and started coming out of the woodwork and really made that show the institution it is today. Back in the early seventies tabloid journalism was a much simpler thing. I don’t know how the guys at TMZ sleep at night, I really don’t. I don’t get how you aspire to have that job or how you can shower that crap off of your psyche day after day.
LRI: I know you’ve mentioned to me that people will come up to you in foreign countries or other seemingly head-scratching scenarios and recognized you as “Cousin Oliver”. Many of the bands I talk to are also remembered by fans for some particular moment in their career or some window of time in their adolescence. As an artist and someone who dabbles in pretty much every kind of entertainment is that a dual edged sword?
RR: It’s funny. I keep stumbling, stupidly into all these different things like the Turtles or Kidd Video or the Bunch or whatever and somehow stay in the cultural Zeitgeist but…you know sometimes there would be some guy growing up that would try to give me shit and impress his girlfriend by making fun of the kid that was on the TV or whatever and my thing was always like….”I don’t know dude, what was YOUR moment of fame like? What was it like when you were on your TV show when you were NINE?? Oh you didn’t have one….shut up”
LRI: That’s a pretty good comeback to that particular dumb guy statement.
RR: Well, it’s TRUE. Everyone in this culture is obsessed with immortality, everyone wants to somehow make a mark or leave something behind, be it children, fortune, the Sistine Chapel or the BRADY BUNCH. It’s cool that I got this ride, whether it’s a really amazing thing to you or a not so amazing thing the bottom line is IT HAPPENED and I am still working in entertainment and grateful and there’s so many people who don’t even get THAT close. I’m like 47 so I’ve had plenty of time to put it all in the right perspective but I there was a time I struggled with it or didn’t “get it”. I was 22 or 32 or whatever and was like “Comon, dude it was a TV show, leave it alone” but now I have a totally different viewpoint because I’ve had a chance to meet so many other people who’ve had a little bit of that ride and seen what it’s done to them, be it positive OR negative.
LRI: Does it get a little old when you have to field repetitive “child actor” questions from idiots like me?
RR: (laughs). Not anymore because I have that hindsight perspective. I mean if you ask Rivers Phoenix or Dana Plato or Brad Renfro how they handled young fame you’ll get a different answer…oh wait, you can’t because they’re no longer with us. It’s not always easy. I think the reason Ron Howard has had such a career in the industry is because of an incident that happened one time on the Andy Griffith show set. He told a story about one time where he was acting up on set, just being a loud, energetic kid and being wild and Andy Griffith just sort of dressed him down on set. He said something to the effect of “We’re WORKING here and you have to work too because you’re on set” and just mortified him and he ran off crying and told his dad that Andy was being mean to him. His dad, who was an old cowboy actor, was like, “Well, what did you do?” and Ron told his dad “Well, I was just messin around and havin fun” and his dad said “Well, son, you’re at work, what do you EXPECT people to do when you act that way”. I think if more kids got that type of dressing down on set you’d see a lot less behavior that leads to those darker paths. The other thing is that his dad backed it up and didn’t side with the kid. A lot of the problem also lies in the fact that a lot of these kids parents double as their “managers” and end up having kids that make a LOT of money. Somehow, as a parent, you HAVE to make it more about the art and the job and NOT about the money because in almost every case where a kid goes REALLY wrong in entertainment it’s because their PARENTS lost control at some point. If your kid’s making a million dollars a year and you’re their manager and making fifteen percent of that, your kid is still outproducing you by about 300 percent and it becomes a million times harder to make parental decisions. Your kid can go “Oh yeah mom? I have a million dollars and you don’t”. It’s that simple. You have to be able to keep that perspective as a parent. My parents are very old-school German immigrants who have this small town, work ethic “thing”. They told me point-blank… “It doesn’t matter what you do or what you make, we have to LET you do this, this is our decision and if you start screwing up we will just kill you and make another kid who looks just like you and we won’t miss you at all Robbie”. I mean, I went through my feelings about it and my own little bouts of drinking too much or whatever but I never went off the deep end and I think some of that can be attributed to my parents instilling some of that in me. They let me know it wasn’t about “me” or “money” it was about my resume and the work I do and that was the ONLY thing it was about. They told me that if you’re going to be serious about doing a job that you like to do then it better be something you’re passionate about and you better do the work.
LRI: I’m way into 70s and 80s pop culture but I know you’re EVEN more into it and into the particulars of it than I am. Do you think being on all those classic shows like “Mary Tyler Moore” or “C.H.I.P.S” or “Brady Bunch” gave you even more of a passion for collecting and absorbing that stuff since you were actually a part of it?
RR: No, because I really didn’t get that heavy into it until much, much later. Like, I’m huge into glam rock from like 1971-1976 but that obsession of mine didn’t really start until about 1990. I spent quite a while saying “Oh…the 70s there was just so much CRAP” and there was, like any decade, lots of CRAP but it was only later that I truly appreciated that which was golden about it all. The 70s were probably the last era any of us can remember that still held some shred of innocence.
LRI: Am I wrong for romanticizing the decade? I was born in 75 so I’m really a child of the 80s and everything 70s just seems infinitely cooler. Whether it’s Cheap Trick, Star Wars, KISS, The Exorcist…..I love it.
RR: No, you’re not wrong. The seventies and earlier really were a little different from what you were exposed to. You grew up under the umbrella of post-modernism (laughs). I’m gonna wax pop culture intellectual now, check this out. Everything was BUILDING to post modernism which really timeline wise is somewhere around 1980. In terms of the pop culture stuff we’re speaking of, things start getting post-modern somewhere around 1980 or so. What happens after that is you start re-filtering everything that happened prior to that and seeing it from that modern point, post-1980s of view. Everything was definitely building to that moment in the mid to late seventies, you had your first big “blockbuster” film in JAWS which happened in 1974. That started the entire concept of summer blockbuster. Then you have “Rocky” and “Star Wars” which I think ruined film forever, you at least have to admit changed the playing field forever. We’re just starting to come out of that syrupy glaze again, we’re finally starting to have movies with unhappy endings and the hero doesn’t always win. If you look at movies in the 70s it is so WEIRD because as happy and shiny as some things were there were some incredibly GRIM things coming out of that decade. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a movie like “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” but it’s a movie that came out in 1974 with Peter Fonda where these guys rob a supermarket and are trying to outrun the law. At the very end all they have to do is cross the train tracks into the next county and they’re home free. They’re all shouting “We’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it” and at the last second a train comes over the train tracks, their car hits the train and they roll the credits. It was like “Wow!”. I think at that point in time and before that there were an incredible amount of chances being taken by moviemakers and entertainers. I don’t think you would have seen that kind of movie in the 80s. When you were ten years old in 1985 you were discovering all this weird 70s stuff that came out in a MUCH different time. You were in the middle of the greedy eighties and everything was much more sanitized and cheesier, there were lots of cheap looking shows shot on videotape and you got your “Small Wonders” and “Alf” which were family shows but not like “Brady Bunch” AT ALL. Not at all. The whole tone and look of everything just changed drastically and the cartoons, the sitcoms, everything being sold to you was just DIFFERENT. The funny thing is I still get people who approach me about the work I did in the 80s too like Battlestar Gallactica or Kidd Video or Iron Eagle.
LRI: Which leads us to the negative 90s which weren’t so negative for you. How did you wind up getting involved with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Were you a fan of the original comic books or familiar?
RR: I wasn’t so much a fan, I was aware. I was in a band, I’ve always been in bands, that’s how a lot of things start. I was in a band with a guy who was a really big comic book guy and he had shown it to me. He was like “Hey Robbie, check out this new comic about Ninja Turtles”, this was probably like 88 or something. I was like, “Ok, this is really dark and grim and kind of interesting but o.k, here’s your comic book back”. Then I heard they were making a movie about it and I was like “How are they gonna make a movie about this for kids?” I didn’t know about the cartoon show that was geared towards kids. I basically got the job because that surfer dude Cali Valley voice is something that’s just totally natural for me. All my friends talked that way. To me, “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” wasn’t a movie it was a documentary. All I really had to do was talk like all the guys I went to high school with. When the Frank Zappa “Valley Girl” song hit that way of talking had been going on for a few years already. It was based on real people, it’s just a California/Surfer thing. I was like, this is EASY. Like so many things in my career it was total accident that I pulled off. I know it was. I call myself a trench warfare guy because everything I’ve accomplished was something where I was the lowest man on the totem poll and somehow I pulled it off. I didn’t read for the same roles as Tom Cruise or even Jason Gedrick my co-star in Iron Eagle read for (laughs).
LRI: You managed to be the only voice actor to do all three Ninja Turtle movies. Did you have a certain confidence that allowed you to keep that job? So many times in those scenarios they just replace you.
RR: No, not at all. Anytime I do a job I always feel as though they are about to fire me. I mean Corey Feldman only did two of them. Unless you are on a certain level of fame i really don’t think the money people CARE about actors, especially voiceover actors. They’re making another one right now as we speak, I don’t know how many times they’re going to reinvent this series but I’m trying to weasel my way into this one as well (laughs). I don’t even think there’s a script yet and I don’t think they really CARE who’s in it, even though the fans DO. That’s the weirdest thing about it all. In this world we care about the money people care about nothing but money and the fans care deeply about the details and the material. It’s often not done with any care or interest other than the financial end which really bugs the hell out of the hardcore fans. I am ONE of those hardcore fans. I’m wayyy into giant insect movies and in this day and age it is just so easy to be way overboard into one particular genre or style (laughs). I actually produced a horror/comedy movie called STUMP THE BAND which is available on Netflix. It’s about an all female rock band who is attacked by a gang who collect women’s feet, it’s pretty funny and has a drinking game associated with it which is pretty cool.
LRI: You did tons more voice work including Naruto and now once again, Robbie Rist resurfaces in a major way in 2012. I was just at the Lorax movie with my kids and saw the trailer for your NEW Disney show Doc McStuffins. It looks like a total smash hit for the little kid crowd. My daughter watched it all wide-eyed.
RR: Thank you. Yes, Doc McStuffins comes out on Disney Channel March 23rd, Disney Jr. which is the morning slot for the younger kids. The promotional push is ongoing right now though so if you’re a kid between the ages of 2 and 7 you REALLY wanna see this show (laughs). It’s actually really good to tell the truth. It’s an animated show about a little girl who is a doctor for toys. Each episode is dealing with some issue or problem kids that age might actually face like one week it’s about a fear of going to the doctor and another week it’s about how to deal with it being really hot out, you need to drink lots of water. Things like that. The creator of the show Chris Nee is wicked smart and funny and has an incredibly kind and caring soul. I truly believe she is doing this for all the right reasons. Chris has somehow gotten this mega corporate conglomerate in Disney to buy into a show and piece of art that actually aims to do GOOD. There are so many episodes of the show where I would actually read the script before work and start crying because there’s that much soul, heart and depth to it. I’m proud to be a part of it and I also get to sing in it and do these other things I don’t always get to do.
LRI: We’re of course a rock and roll page and I know that you’re a music guy as well and share a fascination with Cheap Trick and KISS who are my two favorite bands. I’ve talked to so many people who are from the L.A. music scene everyone from Kim Shattuck of the Muffs to Alex Kane and Bobby Blotzer and they all know you or have shared a stage with you. Is it hard keeping track of how many bands you’ve been in? I know the one common undercurrent is the power pop you love so much.
RR: You’re right John, I have been in so many bands it’s almost crazy. All poppy, all 70s influenced. The 70s were a really weird musical well. At any given time there would be a lot of very different things on the radio, I had an older sister and listened to a lot of radio growing up. All of that stuff finds its way into whatever music I get involved with. I come from a very pop background. I’m actually in the middle of a project which I call “The project which will never be finished” where I’m recording a song from everyone I’ve ever been involved with in my life and I think it’s approaching about 100. I did a Warren Zevon Tribute album thing, a Nick Lowe thing and I also have a song on the Runaways Tribute album coming out. I’m in Nice Guy Eddie and working on a CD as we speak. I have been also playing drums with a great band called Your Favorite Trainwreck who are also preparing a release. Your Favorite Trainwreck is a band with some really talented ex members of FARSIDE and GAME FACE. Those are a few of the things I’ve been up to musically as well as producing a band called Suzy Loves Quattro which is a really cool female fronted band.
LRI: You’re gonna be on our short list if we ever produce the Cheap Trick Tribute album we wanna do.
RR: Of course. I’d even do stuff off of “Next Position Please” or “The Doctor”. My band actually played in Rockford a few years back and Bun E. came out to the gig and showed me his back scar. It’s kind of a drag that he’s not playing in the band anymore but Daxx is doing a great job. It’s not the same but it’s good. I am so cynical when I see a band. I’m always like “Well, they’re probably gonna suck this time, I mean how long can they possibly be good for” especially if it’s one of my favorite bands like Cheap Trick. I remember seeing them a couple times in the 80s and 90s and being a few songs in the set and going “Ehh…” and then SOMETHING happened both times and they were the greatest band on the planet again. They’re just so important to me and always consistently brilliant live. They are probably THE best live act I have ever seen. The first time I saw Cheap Trick was at the Forum here in L.A. when they were opening for KISS who I was just obsessed with in 1977. I was there and actually they handed out buttons that night that said “I Was There” (laughs).
LRI: So, you sing, play, guitar, drums, pretty much everything. Is that multifaceted entertainer thing something your parents also instilled in you at a young age?
RR: I’ve always been into music. I started violin when I was three and was just always into music and all art actually. I was writing screenplays at 6 (laughs). It’s just all I seem to want to do. I’ve tried working other jobs, I worked for a web company for a few years but I always seem to find my way back to entertainment because it’s what I love to do. I’ve always been in a band.
LRI: I know it’s not always been cool to be a “pop” musician in L.A. especially in the 80s.
RR: It’s STILL not cool. It’s NEVER been cool other than that little moment in time when the Knack and the Cars were big. I’ve always been an outcast and my little group of friends that I hung around were outcasts as well. I’ve always been somewhat on the outside of whatever’s been cool in L.A. I’m still always looking for bands that have that little poppy spark that makes my head spin.
LRI: Even pop songster Rivers Cuomo of Weezer was in a metal band called Shrinky Dinks in that L.A. scene back then.
RR: Oh, of course, I know. They were a Madam Wong’s band which was one of those L.A. venue’s that’s been like a second home to me. I saw them and was like “Eh…they’re okay”. Rivers can play those arpeggio sweeps and I will admit that I can play that metal stuff and learned that stuff because I HAD to. It was just one of those things, I had to learn to play it in the context of a band so that I could play but I was always telling people it’s fool’s gold. I was of the opinion that it was fine but it was a musical game of three card monty and I was still chasing that pop sound. The metal thing, the Nuevo metal thing in L.A. wasn’t like the Ronnie Dio or Motorhead metal it was an altogether different thing. The same thing happened to the metal scene that happened previously in the punk rock scene, it just got watered down and made for mass consumption and dumbed down. The jocks figured out they could go to punk shows and slam into people and just beat people up and some of that same mentality crept into metal. It became “I can play faster” rather than about the purity of the songs which is something Ronnie James Dio always had because he wasn’t a johnny come lately, he had been doing that music FOREVER. If need be I can certainly bust out a sweeping guitar run or play any of that stuff in my sleep and will on occasion but it’s kind of like being able to kill a man in seven different ways. You know it but you don’t go around doing it unless it’s entirely necessary.
LRI: Did you see some value in the originators or people like Randy or Eddie?
RR: Are you kidding me?? Of course!!! Those guys like Randy Rhoads or Eddie Van Halen were at the forefront and were very exciting. I remember Dokken and George Lynch before the whole scene got carried away. If you really wanna get technical about it though it all comes from Michael Schenker back in the U.F.O. days. To me, he’s the flashpoint of that style because he’s melodic but he’s also fast. I remember seeing Guns and Roses at Madam Wong’s which is also one of the two times I have been horribly wrong about a band. I remember walking out of there going “That is going NOWHERE”. Boy was I wrong (laughs). The other time was when I in a band who had a residency at The Troubadour and one night one of the bands opening for us was Motley Crue. I remember thinking “God, this is SHITE!! This band is so bad, they’re never going anywhere”. Again, way WRONG!!!
LRI: Thanks for talking to us Robbie. Before I let you go I also wanted to mention your radio show The Spoon which is basically you and some of your bandmates from Nice Guy Eddie along with guests tackling much of the same pop culture nonsense I’ve been talking with you right?
RR: YES! It’s called the Spoon, it’s on www.newdissidentradio.com and it’s me, Chris Jackson of Nice Guy Eddie and also a guy named Thom Bowers who does another show called Geek Agenda. It’s totally a pop culture mish mash. I equate it to playing with a cat and a laser pointer because it’s all over the place and totally a.d.d. The show does involve guests coming in but it often becomes whatever we happen to be talking about and isn’t really following a set format. It’s a LOT of fun.
LRI: Gun to your head and we ask you to pick a KISS song to tribute, what do you pick?
RR: The Paul Stanley Folger’s commercial. Absolutely. The thing about KISS is that it’s so difficult, like which era do you cover. There’s the Mark St. John/Vinnie Vincent/Bruce Kulick metal era, the glitter glam Ace Frehley era or the horrible Psycho Circus era in the late nineties. I think the Elder gets a bad rap compared to Psycho Circus which is just crap to me. I really am a solid member of the army up until about UNMASKED although I could probably do a decent “Shandi” if I had to.