Richard O'Brien (born Richard Timothy Smith) created a musical phenomenon. His first musical, 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is possibly the biggest cult movie of all time. Born in Britain during the war, the slight O'Brien emigrated to Tauranga in New Zealand in 1951 to live on a farm. Regularly taunted by peers due to his size, compensation came in other forms as he became an accomplished horse rider and avid filmgoer, regularly attending late night double features and immersing himself in sci-fi, Hammer and the low-budget movies of Ed Wood. In 1964 he returned to England and meandered through jobs as a truck driver and hairdresser before horsemanship proved an entry into the world of entertainment, after he was hired as a stuntman for 1965's Carry On Cowboy and 1967's Casino Royale. O'Brien started to lean towards becoming an actor, taking on any passing role to make ends met. His first break came when he joined the touring cast of Hair in 1969, a part that introduced him to both actor Tim Curry and his first wife Kimi Wong. In 1972 he landed a small part in the chorus line of Jesus Christ Superstar, which proved the start of an enduring professional friendship with Australian director Jim Sharman, who gave O'Brien his next job as Willie The Space Freak in Sam Shepard's movie The Unseen Hand.
While theatre kept the wolf from the door O'Brien's musical ambitions bore fruit when he teamed up with his wife as Kimi & Ritz, releasing two singles 'Merry Christmas, Baby' (1973) and 'I Was In Love With Danny, But The Crowd Was In Love With Dean' (1974) that have since taken on rarity status. O'Brien used all his free time to develop his songwriting and wrote 'Science Fiction Double Feature' in homage to the movies of his youth after being invited to perform at an EMI Christmas party. The warm reception it received convinced him it could be the overture to his first musical, which he provisionally titled They Came From Denton High. With songs and storylines now flowing freely, O'Brien approached Sharman about directing it, the Australian initially agreeing to put on the retitled The Rocky Horror Show on for a five-week run at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. After that soon sold out it moved to the King's Road Theatre, where it ran for two years as former music impresario Jonathan King produced the first original cast soundtrack, recorded in just over 48 hours during an off stage weekend. Rushed out via his UK Records imprint it helped preserve camp O'Brien originals such as 'The Time Warp' and 'Dammit Janet' for posterity. Also hovering in the wings was Californian producer Lou Adler, who moved fast to snap up the movie rights. With a script co-penned by O'Brien and Sharman that made the most of their shoestring budget, 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show mostly reprised roles from the musical with an imperious Tim Curry in the scene-stealing lead role as mad scientist and transvestite Dr Frank N. Furter. The only imperative from backers 20th Century Fox was that the cast included Americans, with Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon flown over to play Brad and Janet. Despite the excitement of O'Brien's first stage success, the movie's resolute box office failure proved a bitter blow.
After his marriage collapsed O'Brien made several attempts to recapture the magic of his first stage hit, but Royal Court productions such as Tee Zee and Disaster failed to resonate in the same way. O'Brien kept his head above water playing small roles in Derek Jarman's Jubilee and The Odd Job in 1978, as well as 1980's comic strip adaptation of Flash Gordon. While O'Brien was jobbing between studios New York's Waverly Theatre had began midnight screenings The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the film assiduously began building momentum as an all-singing cult classic. Its revised status persuaded 20th Century Fox to commission a sequel. While O'Brien enjoyed the lead role of deranged psychoanalyst Cosmo McKinley, 1981's Shock Treatment failed to make the impact of its predecessor, even if the songs were among his best. O'Brien continued to work in a musical vein, creating the devilish alter-ego Mephistopheles Smith and touring under the title Disgracefully Yours. His relative success in television was a crucial buffer during the leaner times as he played the vampiric villain in children's TV series The Ink Thief and enjoyed an idiosyncratic role as the wacky host of Channel 4 game
show The Crystal Maze, notable for his sardonic put-downs and habit of playing harmonica at random intervals.
As the new millennium beckoned O'Brien was a regular on film sets and red carpets, starring in 1998's Dark City alongside Kiefer Sutherland, turning up in The Spice Girls first movie Spice World and Ever After: A Cinderella Story alongside Drew Barrymore. He also released his first studio album, Absolute O'Brien, a typically eclectic mix of jazz, swing and rock 'n' roll housed inside a vivid pink cover. After returning to the stage in 2007 to play the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, O'Brien relocated to his childhood home of New Zealand, where he celebrated 70 years as a musical and movie maverick with a one-off concert It's Party Time With Richard O'Brien in 2012.
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