Riffing With Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien

Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) & Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien) from the iconic Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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As an out-of-work actor, he wrote one of the most successful musicals of all time, now Richard O’Brien is giving back to the community, hosting this year’s Rainbow Celebration Gala. He talks to Oliver Hall about his rollercoaster life, rainbow inclusion and writing a Rocky Horror sequel.

On a rainy Auckland evening, express shadows Richard O’Brien, who has come up from Tauranga to promote his appearance at the Rainbow Celebration Gala. Our night is frequently interrupted by fans asking for his autograph and the passion people still have for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (46 years after its release) is palpable. Everyone wants to know if the rumour is true. Has he written a sequel?

The answer is yes. In fact more than one! Firstly he points to his pulpy 1981 musical ‘Shock Treatment’, saying, “the first draft was very much a sequel, we even got (Rocky Horror director) Jim Sharman in to direct it, but he didn’t think it was working and we threw the script out and started again.”

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Six drafts later he admits the end result, “doesn’t really work but there are some good songs in it… it wasn’t the sequel it should have been.”

A few years later 20th Century Fox encouraged O’Brien to have another go and paid him to write a script for ‘Revenge of the Old Queen’; a sequel that saw his character Riff Raff take centre stage and is rumoured to show Rocky Horror hero Brad work as a bottomless go-go dancer! Fox took the project no further than the first draft, he tells us with a chuckle.

O’Brien is under no doubt that he has been very lucky. Considering himself an actor, first and foremost, his memorable roles stretch well beyond Riff Raff, from Robin of Sherwood to Spice World; even in his 70’s, he is still offered parts.

“I’m very lucky that I’m allowed to be me… I’m allowed to say what I want and dress how I like and by allowing myself to be me, it has enabled other people to also allow me to be me!”

This gratitude makes him want to help out others and led him to the New Zealand Rainbow Charitable Trust who each year dish out scholarships that aid queer young people who are making an impact on the community, with their tertiary education.

“Anybody going through those uncertain stages particularly in adolescence, I want them to know that they are not alone. We’re here to support you because we have been there ourselves,” he tells us, applauding the work of the Charitable Trust, “because they are taking the marginalised and letting them know that they belong!”

Richard O’Brien (right) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Throughout his life, O’Brien’s own gender identity has evolved, in the past, he has identified as trans and for a decade took oestrogen, but now sees himself in a non-binary light. “I think that’s where we are,” he confirms.

Our evening begins with my Steven (Oates of Woof! Dog Show fame) and I, picking him and his wife Sabrina up from their High Street hotel and taking them to the studios where TV3 film The Project.

In the car, we discuss their love story. She was a fan, from Germany, who went to see him in a London production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (he played the child catcher). They met at the stage door and Richard invited her and her friend to an after-party. Their courtship continued in a similar vein, her travelling from Munich to London to accompany him to theatre-scene gatherings and nights out on the city’s gay scene.

When he moved to New Zealand she visited to attend his 70th Birthday party and tells me she thought it would be the last time she would see him as the physical distance between them had become so great. Instead, he took her into a quiet room and asked her to marry him. She agreed without hesitation, and when they re-entered the party, O’Brien announced at the top of his lungs, “she said yes!” Champagne corks began to fly.

The party days are now behind them but their admiration for each other is clearly not. In The Project’s Green Room, Richard grabs an abandoned acoustic guitar and begins serenading us with Buddy Holly songs. She looks on, entranced. Following his brief interview, we head to Coco’s Cantina for dinner with the Charitable Trust’s board.

At dinner, Richard doesn’t drink, but begins many of his stories with the immortal phrase, “Well, I’d had a jazz cigarette (his term for a joint) and I decided it would be a good idea too…” This sentence is then followed by witching hour tales involving the likes of Kate Moss and The Rolling Stones.

But the story everyone really wants to hear is what it was like to be an out-of-work actor who spent a Winter writing a sci-fi musical to pass the time, that became one of the most enduring cult classics ever written. The answer is more humble and vulnerable than any of us are expecting.

“It was rather lovely, but I always tried to be quite dispassionate about it… I divorced myself from it because I didn’t want to get too excited.”

He tells us ever since childhood he always had a fear of things being taken away from him. “If I get too involved I’m going to get hurt and disappointed. But if I’m dispassionate, nothing can touch me emotionally,” he says with sobering resonance.

His candour continues as he discusses the ‘difficult’ level of fame he received when hosting the British game show The Crystal Maze in the nineties, and experiencing depression in later life: “all I could see was men strapping bombs on boys and sending them off to war… the world was just a fuck up as far as I could see, and if I couldn’t find sanity out there, how was I going to find it in myself.” With the support of doctors and his family, he recovered with a renewed passion for helping others.

His signature impish exuberance returns to our conversation when he discusses his love of acting (“maturity has never been my strong suit, so putting on voices and losing myself in a character is appealing”) and singing (he praises Bill Holiday for singing with ‘no ego’, and loathes Madonna for not). Even at the ripe of 77, these are the talents O’Brien is still booked for, voicing the character of Lawrence Fletcher on popular Disney musical cartoon, Phineas and Ferb.

As we drop them back at their hotel, O’Brien mentions that Phineas and Ferb’s creators are currently in Hollywood optioning a satirical fairy tale that he has written. “That’s amazing,” I exclaim awed by his unwavering creative talent. “Oh I’ve never watched any of the episodes,” he casually replies, displaying a lack of ego that would make Miss Holiday proud.

The Rainbow Celebration Gala will take place at Auckland’s Cordis Hotel on Saturday 31 July. Tickets can be booked at rainbowcharitabletrust.org.nz

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