Born and raised in Southern California, Robbie Rist has lived the life music and TV geeks dream of. Beginning with his work as a child actor in the early '70s, to his current career as a voiceover actor and musician, Rist has made a living doing what he loves to do. The 50-year-old is perhaps best recognized for his portrayal of Cousin Oliver on the fifth and final season of The Brady Bunch (1974 - 1975). As a youngster, Rist also appeared on such television hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CHiPs, and Lou Grant.
In the '80s, Rist kept busy as an actor, but he was also a fixture on the Los Angeles club circuit playing in a series of melodic rock groups. The Mockers, Wonderboy, and The Andersons are just a few of the different acts he's played in throughout the years. An accomplished producer, Rist has overseen recordings by The Rubinoos and The Masticators.
While he continues to work on a myriad of musical projects, Rist is still an in-demand voiceover actor. Since the late '80s, you could hear his work on The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman: The Animated Series, and Doc McStuffins, among other animated television programs.
Despite his crammed schedule, Rist found time to chat with me about his storybook career.
I noticed that you were born in the San Fernando Valley. I live in Sherman Oaks now, but I'm originally from New York City. I grew up with quite a few kids who went on to pursue acting. Was it the same for you? I ask because a lot of folks who didn't grow up in areas like LA and NYC assume that there are a lot of "showbiz kids" here and there.
Well, El Lay is an industry town, so you are gonna see lots of performers of all stripes. I don't see kid performers as being any different from a kid tennis star or a kid math whiz. They are all freaks in their peer groups.
From a musical standpoint, I'm sure you had heroes from a very young age, but did you have any actors that you worshipped at the altar of early on?
Oh, hell yeah. The first actor who really hit me was Lon Chaney, Jr. The Wolf Man is not only one of my all-time favorite movies but, man, there is something about the melancholy of that story that really dug in deep very early for me.
I was also—and continue to be—a huge fan of Roddy McDowall, John Saxon, Dean Cameron, Earl Boen, Kenneth Mars... I like character actors. The guys who you will be watching a movie and you go, "Holy shit! It's that guy!"
Since you were working from a young age, making decent money, were you able to indulge your record geek habits in the early '70s? I'm assuming you didn't have complete access to your bank account. When I was really young, my parents would buy me a few records a month, but that never seemed to be enough for me.
My crazy record collecting didn't begin until really my 20s. Then it was off to the friggin' races. Mostly, when I was a kid, I listened mostly to the radio and practiced music.
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I'm 40, so I wasn't around for the early '70s when power pop, glam, and what some people call "AM Gold" was first happening. I know you love so much of that kind of music. Did you get to see any of those artists perform live back then? I would have killed to have seen The Raspberries or The Grass Roots in concert!
Those are two awesome choices. I didn't really start going to shows that I was conscious of who the artist was and what they meant in my life until I was about 16 and started playing in clubs myself. Although, in the '70s my music mentor did take me to see The Beach Boys, Barry Manilow, The Spinners, KISS, Cheap Trick, and, in a life changing moment, The Knack. It was about a year before they got signed. I remember sitting in The Troubadour watching them and going, "I wanna do that."
I saw The Raspberries a few years back. They are still freakin' awesome.
You did a ton of television acting work in the '70s. Were you also playing in bands during that period? If so, what were their names and what kinds of styles were you playing?
I have always gravitated toward melodic, hooky stuff that no one else liked. So any Top 40 band I played with ended up playing a lot of non-Top 40 stuff! I started writing my own stuff around 13 and, god, so many bands, and so many I got fired from [laughs].
Were any of the actors you met throughout that time as big of a music fan as you were?
Hmmm, not that I remember. In later years I got to know Tom Kinney [the actor behind the voice of Spongebob Squarepants]. His love of music shames me.
Outside of The Brady Bunch, you also appeared in some of my other all-time favorite television shows such as The Bionic Woman, CHiPs, and What's Happening!! I know you're a fellow pop culture junkie, but did you ever get jaded during those years? Did it ever become "just another gig" to you?
It was always just another gig. Not in a negative way, but I credit my small town European World War II era parents for this. They made it all about the work. I was appreciative for every job and I think that kinda helped me not get jaded. I was always just happy to be working.
In 1984 you co-starred in a Saturday morning cartoon/live action hybrid called Kidd Video. I remember loving that show! What was working on that series like for you? I read that the producers took the Kidd Video band out on a promotional tour, but that you guys were just playing along to a pre-recorded track.
Kidd Video was super fun. It incorporated everything I had worked on up to that point. We did get to play a little, we did get to sing, got to do some acting and pretend to be rock stars. What's not to like? Through the wonders of the Internet, I have made contact with all of the cast members again. Sweet people.
Yeah, the live shows were lip-synched but, the way I look at it, we were prescient. We were New Kids on the Block before there was one!
In the mid-'80s, the Sunset Strip music scene was beginning to explode with bands like Ratt and Quiet Riot leading the charge. Did you hang out at places like The Rainbow during that time, or did you avoid the hair metallers like the plague?
The Valley was pretty much ground zero for the whole hair metal explosion, so I was going to high school with guys who were discovering Van Halen and learning to play that plank spanker style. I personally kinda hated it. It lowered music to the level of a sport and god knows, jocks can fuck up anything. That, of course, didn't prevent me from learning how to play a lot of that stuff in that style because it was my form of rebellion to show these metal dunderheads that their music was way easier to play than mine.
Funny thing about guitar-driven pop music, have you ever tried to play a Dickies song? It's way more complicated and arranged than one might think.
You started getting voiceover work in the late '80s. I have a friend who is a voiceover agent and he's told me that he always gets people approaching him to bring them on as clients. In other words, a lot of people think they can do voiceover, but it's definitely a specific talent, like playing the guitar, or doing graphic design. What's your take on that?
VO acting is like on-camera acting, only harder. You can be a crappy actor, but if you are unique looking or really beautiful, you can be an on-camera actor. So, if you want a career in VO, you have to have kick-ass acting chops.
The first time I became aware of your music was an album I came across called Here that you did with a wonderful singer-songwriter named Paul Pope. What's the backstory behind that album/project?
I was looking for a drummer and this bartender at a restaurant that was near my house said the old drummer from Rick Springfield used to come in all the time. I got the guy's number (his name is Jack White, an amazingly kick-ass drummer) and while we didn't necessarily hit it off as music partners, his roommate, Paul Pope, and I did.
Paul and I played together for three or four years. We released an album of our stuff as well as, since by then we had a recording studio together, we played on each others' solo records a bit as well as well as being engineers. It's not a bad record that we did. I listened to it recently and, yeah, I hardly cringed at all.
Like all of the music stuff I've heard from you, that Paul Pope stuff is packed with tons of melodic hooks. You straddle the line between power pop, melodic rock, and pop-rock on that material, but there's always a strong sense of melody throughout it all. If it's not hooky, you can't be bothered, right?
Yeah, I was raised on AM radio of the '60s and '70s. All hooks, all the time. The '90s were hell for me. Most art, specifically music, was so dour and downcast. It's like all of the artists threw up their hands simultaneously and said, "I dunno. I got nothin'."
Anyone reading this who loves the bands Farside and Gameface should know that you played in a band called Your Favorite Trainwreck with the two singers (Popeye and Jeff Caudill) from those bands. Your 2012 self-titled album is so fucking good! I recommend it to any fans of The Refreshments, Soul Asylum, and Gin Blossoms. How did you guys come to form the group and what's its status right now?
[Sighs] Yes, Your Favorite Trainwreck.
I had been playing with Jeff Caudill for a bunch of years already in a more mellow version of Your Favorite Trainwreck and, at some point, he brought in Popeye to play guitar. Next thing I know, they are making more aggressive stuff together and they decided to make a go of it as this new thing. So, we made a record and, I dunno, it just kinda fell apart, not even in a bad way, we just stopped playing.
I guess you would have to ask Popeye and Jeff about that. I still talk to them, though. Jeff has expressed interest in starting that mellow thing up again. I admire the hell out of the guy, and I hope he follows through.
I listen to some of those Your Favorite Trainwreck songs and I think to myself: "Why isn't this song on the goddamn radio?!" Does the state of commercial radio drive you mad, too?
What is commercial radio? Oh, you mean that thing that's become a shit conduit for your ears? Fuck radio, the public gets what it deserves, just like politics. Thank god for the iPod revolution.
You've posted a ton of videos on your YouTube page where you're covering older pop songs. I particularly enjoyed your takes on "Clair" (Gilbert O'Sullivan) and "Looks Like We Made It" (Barry Manilow). Can we expect a Robbie Rist all-covers solo album sometime in the future?
Maybe. I am so lame at getting my own stuff out there. I feel much more confident as a soldier than a general, I think. In the meantime, I currently have a band called The Wrong Dots and we should be releasing stuff during the next year.
Of all the different albums you've played on throughout the years, which one do you think is the most overlooked/underrated? "All of them" is not an acceptable answer.
All of... oh... damn. That is tough for me to say, I mean how do you gauge that? I never really saw myself as this big commercial juggernaut. All of the bands I like and have been influenced by (Trip Shakespeare, XTC, Elvis Costello, Too Much Joy) hardly got played on the radio at all, but that doesn't deny their awesomeness.
But I would say the most radio-ready I guess were Your Favorite Trainwreck and the singer from this '80s band called Translator (Steve Barton), who I did a few records with should have been heard more. I think they had it all. Commercial appeal—again, whatever that means—and great songs.
Other than the bands you've played in, who did you think was going to be massive but didn't?
There was an '80s band called Candy which featured a future member of Guns N' Roses (Gilby Clarke) as well as the guy who manages Fall Out Boy (Jonathan Daniel), who were like an updated Bay City Rollers. They had great pop songs with just enough edge to make it rock.
I was so into that band.
I could go on at length on this one. So much great music made, and so many people with shitty taste that think if you make it sound as robotic as possible, it will somehow sound good... is?
Follow Robbie Rist on Twitter to keep up with his various projects.