Richard O'Brien Interview (1979) 2,985 views
Exclusive Interview: RICHARD O'BRIEN
The real brains behind Rocky Horror speaks his mind about the whole damned thing.
Interview by PATRICIA MORRISROE
"I never wanted to be a writer," says Richard O'Brien, creator of the successful Rocky Horror stage show and its equally popular outgrowth, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Acting was always the important thing in my life. I had no desire to be an ACTOR and do Shakespeare. I didn't want to be a celebrity. I just wanted to play make-believe. It was all very child-like. Very simple."
O'Brien never became an ACTOR in capital letters. Some might say he never became an actor in small letters. He did become a celebrity, however. Despite his best intentions, Richard O'Brien the actor has been transformed into Richard O'Brien the playwright. "Life isn't very simple, but it's fun ... I guess."
There's something strange about O'Brien. It's not the fact that his skin is the color of Uncle Ben's rice, or that his head is totally hairless. It's not even the fact that his neck is adorned with a sterling silver skull that vaguely resembles Riff-Raff. It's something about the way he talks. A sudden intimacy. An equally sudden shyness. It's almost as if the extravagance of the actor is dueling with the introspection of the writer. At any minute you expect him to jump up and do the "Time Warp" or sit down and give a lecture on Edgar Allan Poe.
O'Brien was born in Cheltenham, England, 36 years ago, moving to New Zealand when he was nine. "New Zealand reminds me very much of the American mid-west. There were two movie houses where I grew up. One showed all the latest releases and the other showed all the B-movies. I went to the movies a lot. What else can you do in a small-town parochial society? You see films, you play sports. If you were a bit of a punk like me you hung out in street corners and tried to pick up girls, not very successfully. The girls wanted to flirt but didn't want to be picked up. This was the fifties, remember."
O'Brien, who readily admits he is not much of an academic, left school at 151/2. "I rarely read books. If something doesn't grab me by the first page then I never pick it up again." After a succession of jobs including farming and hairdressing, he moved to London for a year's trial period. "I should say I liked It and stayed but that wasn't the case. I ran out of money and cashed in my return ticket and have been here ever since. Earning a living became a necessity. Once you start doing that you're trapped, aren't you?" O'Brien laughs a chilling laugh.
With no previous acting experience he tried to break into films as a stunt-man but quickly became disillusioned with work he generously calls "not the most fulfilling." After taking a few acting classes and putting in the obligatory time backstage sweeping floors, he got his first professional job in a musical. "I had only one line. I went on stage and sang the words 'red hot chestnuts.' Or maybe it was 'ripe tomatoes.'"
Although he appeared in Sean Kenny's Gulliver's Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, both directed by Rocky Horror director Jim Sharman, O'Brien found he was "back to square one. I had only one line in Superstar. 'See my purse, I'm a poor poor man.' I used to sing it with great gusto on stage, but off-stage I was getting pretty upset."
O'Brien was scheduled to take over the part of Herod but was fired after his debut performance on Saturday matinee. "The director wanted me to play Herod like a rock and roll star. I was more than delighted with the idea. Elvis was my idol, you see. I had this wonderful white suit with gold lapels and did this great rock and roll dance." Unfortunately, producer Robert Stigwood gave the thumbs down and that was the end of Herod's career as Elvis and O'Brien's career as Herod.
It was during this unhappy period of unemployment that O'Brien started to write The Rocky Horror Show. Although he was soon hired by Jim Sharman for a role in Sam Shepherd's The Unseen Hand, he continued to spend his non-acting hours working on the play. "Writing Rocky was almost like working on a jigsaw puzzle. I had written several of the songs before and all I had to do was slot them in. I didn't start at the beginning and develop the plot from there. I started at both ends and then filled in the middle."
O'Brien showed the finished product to Sharman who convinced producer Michael White to give the show some financial backing and then talked the prestigious Royal Court into giving Rocky Horror a shot in their experimental Theatre Upstairs. From the beginning O'Brien saw himself in the role of Eddie, the rock and rolling ex-lover of Frank-N-Furter. Sharman, however, convinced him to play the cadaverous Riff-Raff. "I was really nervous about the whole thing. All I wanted to do was play Eddie, pop out of a Coke machine, sing a rock and roll song, and pop back into the Coke machine. But I respected Jim and since he felt I should play Riff-Raff I had to go along with him."
The Rocky Horror Show was an immediate hit at the Theatre Upstairs and was extended for two extra weeks, giving Michael White a chance to find a larger theater. Despite the favorable reviews and the audience's positive reaction, O'Brien never thought Rocky Horror had a future beyond the Theatre Upstairs. "I remember Michael White coming up to me after the first night and saying, 'I think we've got a hit, Richard,' I said, 'Oh, that's nice.' and walked away. It just didn't register."
It's not that O'Brien isn't perceptive. It's just that he's exceedingly modest about his own talents. "What is Rocky Horror anyway?" he asks. "It's just some rock and roll music, a little foot tapping, a few jokes, a bit of sex." He fails to mention that the rock and roll music contains some of the wittiest lines since Mel Brooks, that the jokes are a brilliant parody of assorted kitsch cliches and that the "bit of sex" is outrageously brought to life by a Transylvanian transvestite whose sleazy Five-and-Dime-decadence makes him one of the most memorable characters of the decade.
"The element of transvestism wasn't intended as a major theme, although it turned out to be one. Writing a transvestite into the play was a very naive judgment. Maybe there was a lot of subconscious feeling about that subject coming through. I don't know. I've always thought of Frank as a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Cruella de Ville of Walt Disney's 101 Dalmations. It's that sort of evil beauty that's attractive. I found Brad and Janet very appealing too, especially the whole fifties image of boy-girl relationships. In the end you see that Janet is not the weak little thing that society demands her to be and Brad is not the pillar of strength."
O'Brien played the role of Riff-Raff for nine months in the stage production and then left to write the screenplay. "When someone suggested we do Rocky as a film I just went along for the ride. I said, 'Oh yeah, sure.' I was very casual about the whole thing. It seemed quite surreal to me. I never went home and said, 'Wow! We're going to make a movie!' I've thought about it since though and said, 'Wow! We made a movie!'"
Except for the addition of the opening wedding sequence, the dining room scene and the deletion of the usherette who originally sang "Science Fiction," The Rocky Horror Show was easily transformed into The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "The strange thing is that Rocky is a parody of the cinema for stage so actually putting it on film was a bit disorienting. Were we reverting to the original, the thing that was being parodied? Or was it a comment upon a comment upon a comment?"
Despite the fact that Rocky Horror was a smash hit in London, a success in Los Angeles and now a 20th Century-Fox motion picture, O'Brien was still more concerned with his performance as Riff-Raff than with his rave reviews as a young English playwright/screenwriter on the rise. "When I first saw the film I said, 'Yeah, it looks terrific, it sounds terrific, but God, look at me, look at Riff-Raff.' I agonized over my performance. 'Why did I do that movement? I'm not any good. In fact, I'm downright awful.' And then 'Hey, that's not too bad. It's pretty good.' It's that love-hate thing that actors have. You can't concentrate on the film when you are the one who's up there on screen."
Saddened by the play's unfavorable reviews in New York where he played Riff-Raff to Tim Curry's Frank-N-Furter, O'Brien was to be disappointed again when 20th Century-Fox failed to distribute the film nationally. "It was a great pleasure for me when I finally found out that Rocky Horror was gaining popularity on the midnight circuit. I always thought I would have to take the play back to New York to give it a second chance. Now it doesn't need one."
O'Brien was "totally astounded" the first time he experienced Rocky Horror fever at a convention in Long Island 18 months ago. "While I was in New York I did a few guest appearances. I remember coming out of a radio station one night and seeing several dozen fans doing the "Time Warp" to a tape. It was quite eerie. The night was very dark and the skyscrapers looked very large and grey and in the middle of this urban landscape you had 20 silent figures, dressed in street clothes, miming the words to "Time Warp." It was very weird. Incredible really."
Although psychiatrists and sociologists are putting their heads together to explain the cult phenomenon, O'Brien thinks the answer is quite simple. "They've asked a lot of people to interpret the show's success and they all seem to miss the very obvious answer: It allows the kids to dress up. I see guys on the street in fishnet stockings and corsets and I think it's terrific. It's a major breakthrough. Women have been cross-dressing for years. Now they can wear almost anything, but a man can't. Thanks to Rocky Horror a guy can put on fishnets and strutt his stuff and feel okay. I see no harm in that at all."
"I think the kids are also responding to Rocky because there's an element of naivete about it which is very endearing and not threatening. Its innocence is its strength. All the characters appear to be sophisticated, knowledgeable people but they're really not. That allows people of a similar adolescent nature to feel they could be part of the whole thing. And now, in fact, they are."
Since Rocky Horror O'Brien has written two plays, T.Zee, which focused on the Tarzan myth, and Disaster, which utilized the talents of Rocky Horror actors Pat Quinn, Jonathan Adams, production designer Brian Thomson and composer/arranger Richard Hartley. Both plays were commercial failures. "People said Disaster was too much like Rocky or not enough like Rocky. You couldn't win on any level." O'Brien plans to restage Disaster in Canada early next year.
Currently O'Brien is waiting to hear if 20th Century-Fox is interested in his Rocky Horror II screenplay. "The Rocky Horror Show has opened a lot of doors for me. It cemented friendships. It has given me a lot of pleasure," O'Brien says with a smile, but then his voice trails off. "Despite my so-called success, I guess I still see myself as an actor who is temporarily unemployed."