Interview: The Rocky Horror Show’s Richard O’Brien

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

More than thirty-eight years after its June 1973 premiere, The Rocky Horror Show remains a stage and screen phenomenon. Since playing Riff Raff in the 1975 film version, the show’s creator, Richard O’Brien, has starred in a host of film, stage and television projects, including hosting Channel 4’s The Crystal Maze. Laurence Watts caught up with him to talk sexuality, success and turning seventy.

“As a child I loved stories of wonderment,” he tells me. “Knights in shining armour, princes in tights, fairy princesses, that sort of thing. My elder brother says I used to scare myself silly with monsters, skeletons and graveyards. I lived in my imagination because I knew deep down I should really have been born a girl. I couldn’t say that out loud so I pulled the shutters down and lived inside my head.”

I ask if he’s ever considered gender reassignment. He says no. He describes his gender identification and bisexuality in the following way:

“My feeling is that there are hormonal triggers in the womb. For me, hermaphrodites are proof that things don’t always go according to plan. I keep arguing we’re all on some kind of continuum. Some are hard-wired male or female and others are somewhere in between. After a period feeling schizoid I decided I’d just be me. I’m more male than female, but if I want to go out in a frock I will.”

Having emigrated at nine with his family from England to New Zealand he returned at twenty-two and found work on the set of Carry on Cowboy.

“I remember standing at the back of the set watching Kenneth Williams. I’d only just got off the plane from New Zealand. I met him again when I was working backstage at the Cambridge Theatre. He was in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. In my spare time I’d sit down with a book and some pens and do drawings and he’d come over and look at them. He said they reminded him of his friend Joe Orton, which I thought was a terrific compliment.”

O’Brien’s big break came indirectly through being cast in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Australian Jim Sharman.

“I’d come out of Hair and was in Superstar where I was contracted to play in the chorus for three months and then take over the role of Herod. When push came to shove they decided they didn’t want me as Herod. They gave me three hundred quid and let me go,” says O’Brien. “I went home and started writing Rocky on my guitar. I was pissed off because they had the nerve to call Superstar a rock opera. There are some nice songs in there, but rock and roll it isn’t. Writing Rocky was a pleasure because my love of real rock and roll drove the songs.”

Not long after, Sharman cast O’Brien in The Unseen Hand. Richard Hartley acted as musical director. O’Brien told Sharman what he was working on and invited him back to his apartment to hear the songs.

“He brought Richard with him and I sang them Science Fiction/Double Feature and some others and told them how it was coming together. Jim phoned about a week later. He’d been asked to do a play Downstairs at The Royal Court Theatre and had agreed on condition he could have “three weeks’ fun” Upstairs first. He wanted another two songs by the end of the week and fifty pages of dialogue. That’s how it happened.”

O’Brien appeared as Riff Raff in the first and subsequent productions. Did he intend The Rocky Horror Show as a vehicle for himself?

“Yes and no,” he answers. “I didn’t see Frank as a role for myself, nor Riff Raff. All I wanted to do was play Eddie. I wanted to come out, sing a song and get off stage. That way if the show wasn’t going well everyone else would carry the can while I’d be safely back in my dressing room. I’ve never been ambitious. All I ever wanted to do was dress up, make believe and take people on a little journey. Jim wanted me to play Riff Raff so I did.”

Rocky, a musical parody of the horror and sci-fi movies O’Brien enjoyed as a young man, was an unmitigated success. Were the show’s themes of transvestitism, bisexuality and infidelity intended to shock people?

“It had nothing to do with shocking people,” say O’Brien. “I wrote Rocky for me. I didn’t write it with an audience in mind or for it to be a hit. When we transferred to the Classic Cinema from The Pheasantry, I came out of the first night and Michael White, our producer, said: “I think we’ve got a hit, Richard!” And I said: “Have we?” And I got in the car and went home.”

The show initially ran for 2,690 performances in London, but within eighteen months of opening was made into a film that has since grossed more than $360m worldwide.

“It cost $1.25m to make and we shot it in six weeks,” O’Brien tells me. “That film kept Fox Studios afloat for two years.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as the film was called, remains in limited release some 36 years later, making it the longest running release in film history. It developed a cult following based around midnight viewings and audience participation. The film launched the careers of Tim Curry, who went on to win three Tony nominations later in life, and Susan Sarandon, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. Meat Loaf played Eddie in the film two years before releasing the 43m-selling album, Bat Out of Hell.

After Rocky, O’Brien continued to write music and musicals, including a sequel ‘Shock Treatment’, but none matched the phenomenon that was his first.

“I saw Shock Treatment, the other day at a film festival in the New Forest,” he says. “I had fifteen minutes with the audience beforehand, so I was able to tell them it was a completely flawed movie and I was a dreadful performer. It has its saving graces. I think the score is better than Rocky and there are some pretty witty lyrics in there.”

O’Brien had more success forging a career as a bit-part film and TV actor, appearing in cult films like Flash Gordon, Dungeons and Dragons and 1997’s Spiceworld. Who was his favourite Spice Girl?

“I don’t have one,” he insists, no matter how hard I press him. “I remember going into the make up trailer one day and they started harmonising and I thought to myself: “Oh, this isn’t good, is it?” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t strong. They weren’t naturally-born singers, they were just girls that got lucky.”

Between 1990 and 1993 O’Brien hosted four seasons of Channel 4’s The Crystal Maze. At the time it was the station’s most-watched show. As the host he often appeared detached from proceedings, bordering on deadpan.

“One of the things I detest about television is the way people start to talk. They start to stress the wrong words and talk to you in a smart-alec-kind-of-way. I never wanted that. I used to have a big talk to myself in the dressing room beforehand. I used to say: “You’re not the funniest person in the f**king world. Don’t try and be a comedian. Just go out there and have fun.””

Currently, children throughout the world are hearing O’Brien’s voice in the long-running animated TV comedy series Phineas and Ferb. O’Brien voices the title characters’ father, Lawrence Fletcher. How did he get the gig?

“I went along to the audition,” he explains. “I was half way through my bit when I decided I was completely wrong for it. I looked at the chap behind the sound desk and said: “I’m not right for this am I? I’m wasting everybody’s time. Let’s call it a day, shall we?” And he said: “Yeah, I think so, Richard.” I went home. Then the call came and they wanted me to do it.”

With Disney having just commissioned a fourth season of Phineas and Ferb and with a feature film in the works, reports that O’Brien is about to retire to New Zealand are far from accurate.

“I’m not retiring,” he tells me. “I don’t really know what retirement is. There’s always something to do.”

Right now that includes planning a charity concert to mark his 70th birthday, a milestone he’ll reach next March.

“I think I look pretty good for someone who’s about to turn seventy,” he says. “I was on the radio the other day and someone asked me how I manage to look so young. So I told them my secret: vanity.”