By TIM KELLY
Barry Williams looks back on his years playing Greg Brady, the wise, calming influence on his younger sibling characters on the iconic 70s TV show “The Brady Bunch,” and sums up the role: “I played someone who came to be seen as America’s most reliable older brother.”
As an actor, it is an enviable legacy for Williams, now 65, who will step into two new roles in Ocean City on April 18: leading the Doo Dah Parade as its grand marshal and later that evening serving as emcee of the Mr. Mature America pageant at the Music Pier.
Reached by phone Tuesday following a gym workout in his adopted hometown of Branson, Missouri, Williams said he was “excited, thrilled and honored” to be coming to Ocean City for the events, seen as warmups for the coming summer tourism season.
“The parade is going to be fun, and for Mr. Mature, I thought I better hit the gym,” he said with a chuckle. “I was doing weights and some cardio.”
The pageant, now in its seventh year, has gained national attention for its parody of traditional beauty pageants featuring male contestants aged 55 and up.
Although best known for his memorable performance as Greg Brady, Williams is also an accomplished Broadway performer (“Pippin”), author, singer and musician, whose band, Barry Williams and the Traveliers, tours venues nationwide. In addition, he is a writer, producer and director.
With all that going on, one might expect Williams to want to move past the role that made him a household name as a child star. On the contrary, he embraces and celebrates the show about a widowed architect (the late Robert Reed) with three sons who marries Carol, played by the late Florence Henderson, the mom of three girls.
The series portrayed a non-traditional family unit facing traditional issues such as coming of age, peer pressure and the like.
“The show is not realistic, but it is idealistic,” Williams explained. “It gave an idealized view of how a blended family could come together and be functional. People relate to it. When I meet people, everyone has their own story and personal connection to the show. I’m always hearing people talk about their favorite episodes and quoting lines from the show. I meet middle-aged women who revert back to being teenage girls when they talk about it.”
“The Brady Bunch,” which ran from 1969 to 1974, took on a much longer second life in syndication and spawned what Williams termed “a cottage industry” of sequels, movie versions, even a HGTV reality show about renovating the Brady’s TV “home.”
But make no mistake, it was The Brady Bunch’s five-year stint kicking off ABC’s Friday night lineup (followed by the Partridge Family for four of those years) that had a profound impact on his success and growth in show business.
Executive Producer Sherwood Schwartz sold the show to ABC following the cancellation of his previous hit, “Gilligan’s Island.”
“Sherwood didn’t much care about critical acclaim or awards,” Williams said. “He had a tremendous ability to come up with two shows that appealed to the masses. He might not have won over the critics, but he knew that he had the numbers (both Nielson ratings and huge audiences).”
Greg Brady was the big brother his siblings confided in, but was still vulnerable to his own teenage foibles, making for perhaps the most complex character among the six kids on the show.
Greg was also well-rounded, participating in both sports and music, a trait shared by the actor portraying him.
“I look at sports these days as a way for me to stay healthy,” Williams said. “I look at music as a means of creative expression.”
When asked which co-star or fellow celebrity “wowed him” most as a child star he rattled off four mentors: Vincent Price, Robert Wagner, Robert Young and Leonard Nimoy.
“Vincent Price taught me about professionalism. He was the first on the set, the last to leave and always knew his lines,” Williams recalled. “And he was such an established star. He played roles that were always scary to me, especially as a seven-year-old.”
Williams worked as a guest star on Wagner’s hit adventure-drama “It Takes a Thief” in a two-part episode and was touched by Wagner’s attitude toward him.
“He didn’t treat me like some kid. He treated me as a young fellow actor,” Williams said.
He recalled part of the script calling for Williams’ character to knock on a door.
“(Wagner) asked me what I was feeling before I knocked on the door. I never considered that. The script just said ‘knocks on door.’ (Wagner) said, ‘You’re going to knock on the door differently if you are mad than you would if you were scared.’ That really opened up a whole new side of acting to me,” Williams recalled. “It was just so generous for someone that accomplished to take that kind of time to work with my development.”
There were also numerous memorable guest stars who wound up at the Brady household, including pro football Hall of Famer Joe Namath and Monkees lead singer Davy Jones among many others.
“Joe Namath was a big crush of Florence Henderson,” Williams dished, “but he just fit in perfectly in the Brady world. He was playing catch with us in the backyard. Imagine as a kid playing catch with Joe Namath. I met up with him again about six or seven years ago and he was just (as warm) as ever.”
“Davy Jones was what you might expect: a big pop star who reveled in all the attention he received,” Williams added.
With all of that in the rear view mirror, Williams is still looking ahead. He said his website www.barrywilliamsofficial.com will keep fans up to date on what’s on tap for the show biz legend, and the Ocean City appearance is something he’s especially jazzed about.
Williams said he came to O.C. once but very briefly, and years back. “It was a while ago and I remember being on the Boardwalk. I’m really looking forward to learning more about what Ocean City is all about,” he said.
He was reminded that as grand marshal of the Doo Dah Parade he will join a fraternity of such luminaries as Barbara Eden (“I Dream of Jeannie”), Erik Estrada (“CHiPS”), Dawn Wells (Maryann from “Gilligan’s Island”), Soupy Sales and many others. It was then suggested that he fit right in with such a roster of Doo Dah and Mr. Mature emcee greats.
“I’m not sure I know what that means,” he allowed. “But I think I will by the end of that day.”