Exclusive: Actor Robbie Rist Talks Cousin Oliver, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and His Beef with Michael BayWhile the rest of us were roller skating, tie-dying, or shoving shoulder pads into our sweaters, actor Robbie Rist was quietly making himself into a pop culture cornerstone. We first met Rist as Cousin Oliver of The Brady Bunch, the mini-John Denver look-alike who simultaneously charmed and jinxed the Brady kids. He went on to appear on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bionic Woman, What’s Happening!!, CHiPs, The Love Boat, One Day at a Time, and Galactica, 1980. Later, he inspired surfers everywhere as the voice of Michelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Today, Rist is a respected voice-over actor, musician, and the all-around realization of pop culture. Recently, we spoke with the actor about his wild ride to fame and how he really feels about Michael Bay taking over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise. (Spoiler—he’s pissed.) By Katherine Butler
Snakkle: So, Brady Bunch. What was it like appearing in a cultural phenomenon at the age of 9?
Rist: [Laughs.] Well, with the prism of history to look through, everything looks more significant than it did at the time. When I got The Brady Bunch, I had already logged three or four years in entertainment, and I was more of a Six Million Dollar Man guy. To me, it was just another job. It only got weird after it went into syndication, when it was on three to four times a day. That’s when there were some TV-obsessed kids who probably caught every episode multiple times. So now it’s this cultural touchstone that everyone shares. It’s pretty amazing.
Snakkle: Come on, tell us what you really think of The Brady Bunch.
Rist: I was 9 when I did the show, and I was concerned that was as good as it was going to get. I never want to be the 47-year-old “former cheerleader” who only talks about senior year of high school. I could have peaked at 9, which would have been really frustrating. But then people started telling me their stories, and I realized it wasn’t just a silly TV show. There are people who feel like the Bradys are their own family.
Snakkle: Do people usually recognize you—and if so, what do they say?
Rist: Oddly, I get recognized all the time. I get everything you can imagine, from “Were you that guy?” to “Yo, cousin Oliver!” It happens with some frequency, which is funny because it was going on 40 years ago. I’d like to think I look like an adult, but people are still responding to The Brady Brunch and are still talking to me.
Snakkle: In Barry Williams’s autobiography Growing Up Brady, he wrote that you had a tough time trying to fit in with the family. Did they welcome you into their family?
Rist: Right, he called me obnoxious. It’s hilarious, and I’m not upset with Barry. He is the P.T. Barnum in the Brady universe. Barry is the only guy who, outside of the show, really managed to carve a Brady-related career out of it. And he’s the only one who has successfully done it. Sure, Christopher Knight has reality TV, but Barry is the only one who is entirely Brady-centric. [Laughs.] Yeah, I think about this stuff.
Snakkle: What was life like for you as a kid actor after The Brady Bunch?
Rist: It was amazing. And we’re back to me being really lucky. I’m that rare kid actor who never achieved a really high level of awareness—I was never on a series for any length of time. I was on the Mary Tyler Moore show for two years, which was awesome television. And I had a boatload of guest-starring roles, including four CHiPs episodes. It was completely insane, doing all this character acting stuff. I worked constantly, and I really haven’t stopped. In entertainment, that’s the most you can hope for.
Snakkle: Do you think working nonstop can help with the transition from child to adult actor?
Rist: When I was young, I was told to not specialize. So I’ve done a lot of different things. I play a lot of music too. So when acting is slow, I produce music and tour with bands. When I’m not doing anything, the “thought police” go to work on me. I have immigrant parents, small-town German World War II babies. They have this amazing work ethic. To my parents, if you weren’t working, you were s–t. Even today, I want them to enjoy their retirement, but they won’t.
Snakkle: After being a part of such a huge part of our pop culture zeitgeist with The Brady Bunch, you did it again in the ’80s and ’90s by voicing Michelangelo on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How did you get into voice work?
Rist: When I was in my late teens, I was with an agency that had a print, commercial, kid, and voice-over department. Whenever they needed young people, they’d call the kid department. I started picking up voice-over jobs. I was like, this is amazing and so much better than on-camera! It appeals to my ADHD personality—it’s over fast and you get paid for it.
TMNT came through an audition process. I was already aware of the comic book, which probably helped. Also, my 1982 graduating class of Taft High School [in the San Fernando Valley] pretty much invented Michelangelo’s surf-speak. I mean, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a fun movie for some, but for me it was a documentary about my life in 1981. All the archetypes in that movie were in my high school.
Snakkle: So what do you think of director Michael Bay taking over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film franchise?
Rist: It all depends on if he is a filthy liar or not. And judging by what he did to the Transformers films, I’m thinking he’s a filthy liar. There isn’t a Transformer fan on the planet that is happy with him. He’s a disconnected rich guy, totally out of touch with the rest of the world.
Look, I am on the side of the fans—always. In a very similar way to The Brady Bunch, I have heard tons of amazing stories about the Turtle movies. I know someone who was picked on heavily at school. Then she went to see the Turtle movies. She had an epiphany that she could defend herself, and so she started taking martial arts classes. We need that kind of humanity in our films.
And I seriously don’t think Michael Bay knows what it’s like to have a hard-core emotional connection to something. I mean, yes, he knows how to make millions from a movie. But you will make millions more if you actually try to appeal to the fans. They will reward you. Bay knows how to write a hit film. So why does he have to take out everything important to the fans and spit on it?
Snakkle: What are you working on these days? I’m thinking it’s not with Michael Bay.
Rist: [Laughs.] I’m on a Disney Jr. show called Doc McStuffins. It’s a really awesome gig. I play Stuffy, the brave dragon. He’s comic relief, the guy who falls down a lot. I hope Disney knows how big a weapon they have in Chris Nee, the creator of the show. Chris is that rare bird in entertainment because she really is doing the work for the right reasons. I mean, the scripts are so sweet. I’m a 47-year-old man crying over the story before I go in to record. The show is about alleviating fear. To me, if that’s your reason for creating any entertainment, that’s a really good leaping-off place.
Snakkle: What’s the role you’re most proud of?
Rist: Oh, come on, which kid is your favorite? I was on the Mary Tyler Moore show; I was on The Brady Bunch, which was a cultural atom bomb that went everywhere. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle thing is amazing. I’ve done a lot of stuff that I’m really proud of. The luck that I have had in my crazy mess of a career is that I keep stumbling into things that slip into the cultural bloodstream.
Snakkle: Very true. So why do you think this happened to you?
Rist: There are a lot of talented people out there—everyone is good. But I’ve adopted the Tim Conway model, meaning it is great being “a third banana.” You see people pass you on their way up and pass you on their way down. I have seen incredibly professional behavior out of a 7-year-old and deplorable behavior out of a 60-year-old. Entertainment attracts everyone.
I myself did nothing but show up. I would basically just read for it and then get the job. In the end, I am ridiculously lucky.
Snakkle: So, do you have any parting words for the cultural zeitgeist?
Rist: Oh, yeah. Watch Doc McStuffins.
You can find Rist as Stuffy the Dragon on weekday mornings at 10am/9am Central on Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffins.
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