Downtown: The Real 'Mike Brady'

— On screen, he was the quintessential dad.

But the man who played Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, Robert Reed, had a real life that was not as picture perfect. Reed kept it a secret that he was gay until he died in 1992. While the cause of his death was cancer, his death certificate indicated that he was also infected with HIV.

“Here he was, the perfect father of this wonderful little family, a perfect husband,” says Florence Henderson, who played his TV wife, Carol Brady. “He was an unhappy person … I think had Bob not been forced to live this double life, I think it would have dissipated a lot of that anger and frustration.”

Henderson says she knew of Reed’s secret, as did others on the set. But no one brought it up with Reed.

“I never challenged him,” says Henderson. “I had a lot of compassion for him because I knew how he was suffering.”

Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady, was friends with Reed for decades, but they never discussed his sexuality.

“Robert didn’t want to go there,” says Williams. “I don’t think he talked about it with anyone. I just don’t think it was a discussion. Period.”

While homosexuality has been more visible recently on network TV with shows like Ellen and Will & Grace, when The Brady Bunch first aired in 1968, Reed’s sexuality would not have been well received. Network TV executives, for example, didn’t even want to make Carol Brady’s character a divorcee, so she played a widow instead. Off network television too, Reed’s sexuality might have been controversial, particularly for a public that was tuning in to watch the perfect TV family dealing with issues like growing up, responsibility and trust.

“It probably would have caused the demise of the show,” says Williams. “I think it would have hurt his career tremendously.”

“I don’t think The Brady Bunch could have existed at that time with the public knowing that Robert Reed was gay,” says Henderson. “I just don’t think they would have bought it.”

From Shakespeare to Sitcom

Though The Brady Bunch, which was taped for six years, turned into a huge success, spawning reruns that are still aired internationally, numerous TV specials and feature films, Reed was not proud of the show.

Reed had moved to Los Angeles to work for Paramount in the TV version of Barefoot in the Park. When that didn’t work out, the studio offered Reed a part in The Brady Bunch. Though Reed thought the show would never make it, he took the job, partly for the money. He was shocked when The Brady Bunch became an instant Friday night hit on ABC.

Because Reed had spent two years studying Shakespeare in England, explains Sherwood Schwartz, creator of The Brady Bunch, “television, in general was beneath him. And situation comedy was beneath television, in his opinion.”

Schwartz, who had also produced Gilligan’s Island, loaded every Brady script with gags and pratfalls. Reed, who wanted a more realistic show, often clashed with the show’s creator.

“He wound up on a show that he didn’t want to do in the first place, and it became more and more difficult for him” says Schwartz. Referring to Reed’s more serious acting style and preference for a different kind of family comedy, Schwartz adds, “His idea of a show was based on the Encyclopedia Brittanica.”

But, says Schwartz, “He was a good actor. So whatever he chose to do after arguing and fussing and so forth, he would do well.”

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