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unpublished Richard O'Brien interview
NOTE: Due to a myriad of factors, include my schedule, the publishing schedule, Tom's realization that he liked the interview as-is and likely many others, the full-text of Tom's interview with Richard O'Brien was run in the stead of this. At the time I was thankful for the decision, as I was having trouble putting it all together. I'm including this here as much for historical purposes as any other.
As a further note, for the purposes of creator commentary, I often include suggestions for pull-quotes that could be useful for "illustrating" articles, as well as several variations on the title and standfirst (the blurb at the front of an article teasing what it's about). In this case, I included three permutations with separate standfirsts, as you can see in the table.
“In an ideal world I would have been a pole dancer.”
“I'm never going to be cast as James Bond, which I think is a tragedy.”
“I was trying to pass as a woman without the question ever arising in anybody’s minds. And I think we both- me and the director- were asking for the impossible.”
Richard O’Brien has always kind of scared me. He’s just got a look, particularly when tarted up as Riff Raff, that’s unnerving in a naturally unnatural sort of way. Even across the telephone, there’s an eerie edge to his voice- at least, until the conversation gets going, and he reveals himself to be timid, thoughtful, and disarming.
Richard’s most famous role is strangely enough as the second banana Riff Raff in Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Yes Master”ing to Tim Curry’s transvestite extraterrestrial Dr. Frank-N-Furter (from Transexual, Transylvania), but aficionados of the cult classic know he’s also the mad scientist who brought the songs and original script to life while working as a stage actor in “The Unseen Hand” at London’s Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs.
By the very nature of film, his relatively few screen roles have garnered more attention than his long and storied stage career, sometimes leaving fans salivating for years between his celluloid appearances. And a lot of his roles have been dark ones, with Richard bounding gleefully around inside a moon bounce of madness playing monsters and men with mercenary morality, culminating in his playing perhaps the penultimate prick in the Devil himself (his version being the more amiable owner of Club Inferno, Mephistopheles Smith). But he says it’s never been a conscious decision: “It's not that I go for darker roles- I kind of take on what I want to do, and it's a byproduct of that.” He says he prefers the theatricality often demanded of the nefarious, “I mean, the child-catcher [in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] really was a part that really suited my physicality, and my area of entertainment in more of a grotesque kind of manner.”
He also had another theory: “Well, I think it's down to looks, isn't it, really- we can't pretend otherwise. That's just another stupid reality. You know, a good looking actor gets to play James Bond.” He lamented, “I'm never going to be cast as James Bond, which I think is a tragedy,” which he seemed to take in stride, and joked that, “In an ideal world I would have been a pole dancer.”
Despite the fact that he'll never be chartered to order his martinis “Shaken, not stirred,” Richard’s particular look has been immortalized in bronze (as Riff Raff) by none other than Weta’s Greg Broadmore. I interviewed Broadmore for Dangerous Ink’s fourth bastard issue from our first litter (and boy was our publisher’s vagina tired)[i]. Which actually makes the whole thing feel a little incestuous- though I suppose we’re all mature men, and there’s nothing wrong with a little worm fighting amongst consenting adults- besides which, incest is one of Richard’s favorite concepts, one he’s returned to more than once, so it feels appropriate.
slightly larger than life statue resides in
The decision to immortalize Richard in the same metal as Lady Justice’s bare b-cup was no accident- which is not to say he’s a boob, but that he’s easily deserving of the tribute. Richard’s donated much time and effort to charitable causes. His stint as host on the Crystal Maze was in part designed to raise his profile to increase the size of the spotlight he could then turn to a rehab service he was working with.
Of course, it’s his famous creation that allowed him to time warp his way into our hearts. The Rocky Horror Show began in 1973 and quickly became a phenomenon, and its filmic counterpart, with “Picture” slipping into a corset to slide seductively between horror and show in the title, was released a scant 2 years later. The movie had a sluggish start, but eventually achieved cult status, and today is the highest grossing movie never put into wide release.
But the Rocky Horror we’re familiar with almost didn’t come to pass. The film rights were nearly sold as a vehicle for Mick Jagger. But that would have meant that Jim Sharman wouldn’t have been able to direct, and the cast would likely have been replaced, and, “There didn’t seem to be any point in going down that road. We were very lucky to be able to keep the whole cast together for the movie; I think that was really one of the great things about that- I think that’s why it worked so well, we were all seasoned in the roles. We didn’t approach it on the first day of principle photography, kind of guessing at what we were going to do. We knew what we were going to do.”
When writing Rocky Horror, Richard initially thought, “I’d like to play Eddie. Cause I just thought if it’s not going to end very well, all I’ve gotta do is jump out of a fridge, sing a rock n’ roll song, and disappear again- that I won’t be picking up the slack.” Instead, Richard famously took on the part of Riff Raff, a match since proven to be made in one of the creepier parts of Heaven (the neighborhood where undiscovered pedophile priests live)[ii]. But the change was easy for him to make, as he said, “I think all the parts are kind of a piece of me, in a way. They’re all variations of me.”
Richard describes Rocky Horror’s central character, the infamous and scandalous Frank as “basically just a hedonist- a shallow, empty hedonist, but because he's so willful and gorgeous, you want to forgive him.” Of the many Franks over the years, Richard called out David Bedella’s as “reserved and sexy and charming and dangerous,” but for his favorite Frank he said, “I think we have to start with Tim, don’t we? It was a definitive performance.”
While Curry breathed life into Frank, the character’s physicality and fashion sense owed to an American rock star, and Richard said, “Alice Cooper was obviously somewhere in my mind at the time.” Cooper’s breakthrough album “Love it to Death” came a couple of years before, in 1971- though it was some time before Richard noticed in his notes that he’d initially described Frank as “a kind of Alice Cooper type person.”
In the 90’s, Richard wrapped his fishnetted legs around Frank himself, and found he “did enjoy playing Frank, actually, and I had a lot of fun.” He decided if he was going to return to Rocky Horror, he’d “have some fun and play Frank, in that case. If I’m going to go do it, then I may as well get the best songs and strut around in a pair of high heels.”
His fascination with gender reversals doesn’t seem to have dissipated through the years, as his most recent role was a turn with Danny Glover in “Night Train” as Mrs. Froy. Richard’s part isn’t meant to be in drag, but was an attempt at pulling a noncomedic Eddie Murphy, though he was less enthusiastic about his results in the film, and explained, “I wasn’t very good. I was trying to pass as a woman without the question ever arising in anybody’s minds. And I think we both- me and the director- were asking for the impossible.” Yet, he still finds a break with his deity too drastic a step, and says he’s, “I'm not really mature enough to dispense with the concept of God.”
Perhaps Richard’s gender-bending is simply an indication that he’s in touch with his feminist side, “The oddest thing about the human being is that we are a sentient species who kind of decides that strange societal agreements are better to us, church certainly comes into play, to think that men are superior to women are odd. Debasing 50 percent of the species doesn't seem to make much sense to me. I think that we're fucking mad- because we don't open up enough, we're not free enough and open enough with our reality. We're so used to duplicity, and deception and lying bastards in society. We've lost our way, I'm afraid, if indeed we ever had it.”
playing male characters, there’s an angular androgyny to him, like Richard is
the forebear of a monosexual future humanity. No place else is this better
displayed than in
When asked about MTV’s remake of Rocky Horror, which has irritated the Rocky Horror fan base worse than an ill-fitting set of stilettos, he replied rather diplomatically, “I know nothing about that, and I prefer to keep it that way. That’s all I can say, I’m not going to involve myself in the machinations or whatever, so not for me.” But then, he couldn’t help himself: “Anyway, unless of course what they did was, I don’t know what you can do, new girlfriend and a new story, modernize it, perhaps, I don’t know, anyway. I’m talking about it- stop it- go away.”
The fabled Rocky Horror 2 (and various other genuine sequels- and no, “Shock Treatment” doesn’t count) has been under development for more than a decade, and many feared that it was never going to happen, that like da Vinci’s risqué “Mona Lisa 2: Her Lower Smile” or Michelangelo’s “David less flaccid,” it was doomed to alternate histories or secret Vatican archives. Richard assured this was not the case, that “As we’re speaking here I’m supposed to be writing a song at the moment and I’m afraid that I’ve gone into a black hole with this fucking song so I’m doing everything to avoid confronting the problem, really. I don’t know what I expect, it’s going to come out of some hole, out of left field and hit me. I don’t know what’s going to happen really; it’s a bit boring.” At the suggestion of perhaps using songs that he had crafted for other plays or performances, he said, “Maybe I should revisit some old songs, fit them in, whether they like it or not, shoehorn them in.”
Richard’s career showcased a long list of talents, and an even longer list of appreciations. He’s almost certainly too modest (and almost channeling Groucho Marx) when he says, “I appreciate musicians- real musicians- very much, and I would never call myself a musician, but I’m musically inclined. I’m musical, if you like. But I have too much respect for musicians to label myself a musician.”
“I’m very fond of draftsmanship and drawing, I’m very fond of the craft and the artisan at work. I like illustrators very much.
I can push a pencil round a bit, and sometimes I get lucky,” but when it comes to fine art, “I just don’t get it.” He elaborated, “Art is, I guess, a craft that transcends mundane craft…”
For the fruits of his myriad talents he admits there’s always a parachute. “If it’s going to be bad, it’ll never see the light of day… Always the waste paper bin- never forget the waste paper bin.” Then he added, with admirable humility (and humanity), “If you go through this and you decide there’s nothing for an article, don’t worry, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.” But when it comes to Richard O’Brien, I think it’s safe to say we can forget the damned waste paper bin.
 A substitute might be the Thinker’s tinkler.