— 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.”
Williams, who considered Reed a mentor adds, “He felt in some ways that the show was beneath his abilities.”
Before Reed died, he was doing work more along the lines of what he had envisioned himself doing: teaching Shakespeare at UCLA. “It was the happiest he ever was,” says Henderson. “He just loved it.”
A Real-Life Family
Though Reed may have been unhappy working on The Brady Bunch, he never left the show. Perhaps, speculate his former co-workers, he was too attached to his TV family to move on.
“They were a family. They became a family,” says Schwartz of the cast. “They became very attached to each other … Even Bob Reed, who was a personal pain to me, loved the kids and they loved him.”
“Essentially,” says Christopher Knight, who played the middle brother Peter, Reed “fell in love with us as a surrogate father.”
Reed’s final TV performance was in 1990. Reed was fighting cancer, and everyone agreed he looked sick.
“He was very brave, he was very courageous,” says Henderson. “And he asked me if I would call all the kids and tell them. And it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”
After he died at the age of 59, the world finally learned the secret Reed had struggled with his whole life. While the American public may have been surprised, his TV family was not, and they remember him fondly.
“Bob remains to this day my shining example of how an adult should be with kids,” says Susan Olsen, who played the youngest daughter, Cindy. “There was this unconditional, fatherly love that he had for us that we were always aware of.”
“He was the picture of what I wanted to become as a person in his sort of strength,” says Knight.
“I think he was a very brave man, very courageous,” says Henderson. “He faced his death with such courage and dignity. We should all be able to do that.”