In 1972 Richard O’Brien took some of his favourite things — including comics, science fiction movies and rock’n’roll — and created The Rocky Horror Show. After opening in a tiny upstairs theatre in London, it would pack theatres and cinemas for decades. In Rocky Horror - From Concept to Cult, British author David Evans argues that the “raw, confrontational” show “could never have been created and developed by anyone from the British theatrical tradition”; he notes almost all of its key creators were children of the colonies.
Richard O’Brien was born in the English spa town of Cheltenham, as Richard Smith. When he was around age 10, his mother and accountant father relocated to New Zealand. The family did six years in Tauranga, before time in Hamilton. O’Brien has recollections of watching double features at the Embassy Theatre, and “shouting lines at the screen” (the Embassy was also where he saw his first female impersonator). “Rock'n'roll kept me going. I was a gauche undereducated teenager who loved comics, B-movies and all things populist.”
The classless, egalitarian attitude seen in New Zealand stayed with O’Brien when he returned to England in the mid 60s. “The freedom it gave me in Great Britain was phenomenal … it enabled me to go anywhere, across any borders, lines of demarcation.”
O’Brien wrote his first rock’n’roll song as a teen. “But I actually wanted to be a comedy actor”. Horse riding skills learnt on the family farm saw him doing extras work on Carry on Cowboy and Bond parody Casino Royale. He was also talking his way into record company offices, trying to sell his songs.
Rocky Horror began as a form of self-amusement, between the occasional acting gig. “I didn’t see it as writing,” he says in From Concept to Cult. “I saw it more as building a picture like a collage and putting a lot of things together that I particularly liked, like Hammer (horror) films and B-movie dialogue.”
The Rocky Horror Show debuted in June 1973 at a small experimental space at London’s Royal Court. It was the tale of a straight-laced couple who encounter Dr Frank’n’Furter (Tim Curry), a seductive cross-dresser from Transylvania. Australian director Jim Sharman decided O’Brien should play “the resentful butler role”: hunchback Riff-Raff.
Rocky’s winning mixture of silliness and sexual liberation quickly strained the venue’s 60-something capacity. As the show’s fame spread, the glitter and fishnet tights became part of the soup that created punk.
There were a couple of early backwards steps — a short Broadway run failed to match openings in Los Angeles and Sydney, and the 1975 movie version initially faced near cancellation, limited publicity and low audiences. Yet Rocky would go on to endure for decades. In this 1999 documentary, O'Brien expresses surprise Rocky was a hit, "even as a stage show ... I had no idea that it was going to have such a wide cross appeal." Elsewhere he has credited the story’s entertainment factor, but also its subtext: “as a parable or analogy for the end of the American Dream”.
Sometime in 1976, an American viewer at a Midnight Movie screening began talking back to the screen. Although regular screenings of cult movies dated back at least to the 60s, Rocky saw cult becoming ongoing ritual. Fans returned for dozens, sometimes hundreds of screenings, reenacting what was unfolding on screen. Some dressed as their favourite character, fuelling academic essays on the phenomenon. By 1978 Rocky Horror was playing each weekend at roughly 50 cinemas and student campuses across the US, and other countries followed. O’Brien was gratified the film was bringing people together.
Rocky Horror finally toured New Zealand in 1978; a 1984 season offered up ex PM Robert Muldoon as narrator.
In 1981 O’Brien reunited with Jim Sharman and other Rocky veterans for movie Shock Treatment, “not a prequel, but an equal”. O’Brien’s bald visage gleamed from the poster. Audiences largely avoided this musical about a couple living out their problems entirely inside a television studio. In April 2015, a stage version debuted in London.
O’Brien has continued to perform on stage and screen. The screen roles have ranged from 80s television hit Robin of Sherwood (as corrupt druid Gulnar) to Alex Proyas movie Dark City (as an alien) and British fantasy series The Ink Thief (starring as the stealer of imaginations). He was one of many names to appear in Derek Jarman's dystopian classic Jubilee, and provided the voice of Ferb’s British father on Emmy-winning animated series Phineas and Ferb.
In 1983 O'Brien acted in Digital Dreams, an experimental work inspired by the fantasies of former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. O’Brien had a key role as Wyman’s surly servant, alongside animation by Gerald Scarfe (The Wall).
Although O’Brien has done his share of presenting roles, the one he is probably best remembered for is 90s hit The Crystal Maze. Over four seasons of this British game/adventure series, he led contestants through a set which was as big as two football fields. O’Brien brought comedy, a fur jacket, and a touch of anarchy to his role. Website Popshifter argued “his style and wit was sardonic, yet never exclusionary, and pointed, yet never bitter”.
In 2012 O’Brien won a long campaign to gain New Zealand citizenship, after initially being told he was too old. In the same period he told British journalists that he felt “kind of third sex in a way. I’m in the middle there somewhere. There’s a lot of male in me, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s a lot of girl in me as well.”
In 2015 O’Brien began hosting the first of two seasons of The DNA Detectives, in which he follows a series of Kiwi celebrities as they set off overseas, armed with new information about their DNA.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Updated on 19 September 2018
John Brosnan, ‘Richard O’Brien’ (Interview) - Starburst 43, March 1982, page 46 (Volume 4, No 7)
Paul Casey, ‘The Crystal Maze And The Magic of Richard O’Brien’ Popshifter website. Loaded 30 July 2011. Accessed 16 October 2015
David Evans and Scott Michaels, Rocky Horror - From Concept to Cult (2002: Sanctuary Publishing, London)
Alan Jones, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (Interview) - Starburst 36, August 1981, page 46 (Volume 3, Number 12)
The Rocky Feature Double Feature Video Show (Documentary) Producer Patrick Cousans (20th Century Fox, 1995)
Kimberley Rothwell, ‘Sorry, no Riff Raff allowed’ (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 5 June 2010
Matthew Stadlen, ‘Richard O’Brien interview” There’s a lot of male in me - and a lot of girl as well’ - The Telegraph, 14 September 2015
Gareth K Vile, ‘Richard O’Brien: Still Rocking’ (Interview) The Skinny website. Loaded 7 March 2013. Accessed 16 October 2015
James Wenley, ‘EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien’. TheatreScenes website. Loaded 30 January 2011. Accessed 16 October 2015
Coming Home - Richard O'Brien and Patrick Power (Television Documentary) Director John Carlaw (Touchdown Productions, 1999)