Surviving ‘The Brady Bunch’: The Brady Kids’ 50-Year Journey to Making Peace With Fame
The six surviving members of the iconic TV family once resented fame. They talk conquering their demons and why they finally agreed to reunite for HGTV’s “A Very Brady Renovation.”
Here’s the story of a lovely lady. Of Cindy Brady, in fact.
Well, it’s of Susan Olsen, who nearly 50 years ago to the day made her debut as the precocious youngest of the The Brady Bunch. So yes, here’s the story of a lovely lady, Susan Olsen, but of so much more: Earth, Wind & Fire; the Wienermobile; and a group of shell-shocked tourists you could have knocked over with a feather.
It was 2011, and Olsen got a call from Ailee Willis, who co-wrote several of Earth, Wind & Fire’s hits and is a friend—“don’t ask me how.” From the other end of the line, Willis says, “I have the Wienermobile tomorrow.”
Olsen is the kind of person who just accepts such things at face value. She explains how, the next day, she found herself in a hot dog-shaped, Oscar Mayer-branded automobile near Studio City, Los Angeles. She even scrolls through her phone to find photos to show me.
At some point during the ride, Willis tells her that they’re very close to “the Brady Bunch house,” as in the unforgettable home that was used for the exterior shots that punctuated commercial breaks of the series. Olsen mentioned that she had never been to the house. The show had filmed on a studio set, after all. “Well,” Willis said. “That’s where we’re going.”
Olsen gives a eureka yelp. She’s found it. She hands her phone over to me and, there she is, standing on the street next to the Wienermobile, a gathered crowd with mouths agape to her left and, looming behind it all, the 1959 split-level home that became the symbol of 1970s groovy Americana and wholesome family values, thanks to its recurring role on the show.
“Ailee says to her dying day she will never forget people’s faces when the Wienermobile pulls up and Cindy Brady walks out,” Olsen says, cackling as she remembers the scene.
Behind only the White House, the building on 11222 Dilling Street is the second most-photographed home in America, hence the tourists there, bowled over by the surreal sight—as perfect a first time as could have been orchestrated for Olsen to visit the attraction. In recent months, however, Olsen as well as her Brady siblings—Barry Williams (Greg), Maureen McCormick (Marcia), Christopher Knight (Peter), Eve Plumb (Jan), and Mike Lookinland (Bobby)—have been regular fixtures at the landmark.
Despite having mixed feelings about spending the last five decades living double lives as “a Brady,” the six surviving members of America’s platonic ideal of a blended family reunited to participate in the HGTV event series A Very Brady Renovation, premiering Sept. 9.
Only Williams has been inside the house before. After the original show was canceled, he was invited to lunch at a house in the Valley, only to find everyone else at the table leering and snickering at him. “Don’t you know where you are?” one said. It’s only after they walked him back outside to look at the exterior that he realized he was at the Brady house.
In addition to Olsen, Lookinland and Knight have been to the house. Knight remembers the bizarre experience of seeing the woman who owned the house walk out in her bathrobe to turn on the sprinklers while carrying a white poster board on a stick to shield her face from the tourists on the street.
Suffice it to say, the pandemonium outside reached a different level when the entire surviving Brady clan arrived to film the renovations.
It’s a rare occasion that all six Bradys have agreed to a nostalgia-soaked reunion like this. Resistance to being continually associated with their iconic characters usually keeps at least one of the core cast away from most projects over the years.
McCormick, for example declined to participate in the 1990 sequel series, The Bradys, while Plumb’s absence from The Brady Bunch Hour variety show led to the invention of “Fake Jan Day,” celebrated on Jan. 2 in honor of the actress who stepped in to play the middle daughter, Geri Reischl, aka “Jan 2.”
But after HGTV purchased the house last summer and developed the idea to draft its biggest network stars—Property Brothers' Jonathan and Drew Scott and Restored By the Fords’ Leanne and Steve Ford among them—to help renovate it, each of the original cast members accepted the invitation to participate in the series as well.
Though some of the sextet have left the business entirely, half no longer live on the west coast, and all have gone through some uneasy moments tied to their Brady-minted fame, they all agreed that this project, with this house, pegged to this monumental anniversary was worthwhile. (The first episode of The Brady Bunch premiered Sept. 26, 1969.)
“This is the first time the magic is back,” Olsen tells me about the unlikely reunion.
That’s how the Bradys found themselves not only renovating a warped version of the childhood home, but also blanketing programming across the suite of channels owned by Discovery Networks, including HGTV and the Food Network. And that’s how I found myself talking to Olsen, McCormick, and Knight—Cindy, Marcia, and Greg—about their lives as Bradys until, later, Williams, Plumb, and Lookinland crash the conversation to deliver tutorials on getting good hair plugs and nose jobs. (Talk about surreal…)
They all marvel over the fact that this project, so perfectly timed to 50 years, was born out of happenstance.
The iconic house was put on the market last year, kicking off a bidding war that included none other than former pop star Lance Bass. But seeing television potential in the home, HGTV bid Bass out of contention, securing the home for a reported $3.5 million, nearly double the $1.9 million asking price.
McCormick had seriously considered bidding on the home, until she heard Bass was involved and figured she didn’t stand a chance against his NSYNC wallet. “I just didn’t want it to get the wrecking ball,” Olsen says. “I was sad Lance Bass didn’t get it because I knew he would love it.” But when they found out that it was HGTV which had scooped it from the singer, they all felt a tingling suspicion that something was about to happen in their own lives, too.
“I thought they must have something up their sleeve,” Knight says. “What are they going to spin out of this?” Adds McCormick: “And are they going to call us?”
The life of a Brady isn’t an easy one.
When the series premiered in 1969, Olsen was only 8 years old. Lookinland was 7. The oldest of the Brady siblings, even Williams was only 14 at the time. That’s a formative period in a person’s life to rocket-blast to fame as the most prominent siblings in Hollywood certainly then, perhaps even before, and arguably since. It’s a precarious time to be identified with your pigtails and your lisp, middle-child angst, or the televised representation of puberty and awkward teenage hormones.
(Olsen jokes that she was so traumatized at a young age by being branded forever a tattle-tale and bullied because of the famous Brady Bunch episode that she has vowed to take any secret ever she’s ever been told to the grave.)
It tracks, then, that, for all the lucrative opportunities that mined or sometimes exploited Brady nostalgia in the years since, the young actors were desperate to leave their Brady identities behind when they finally moved on from the show.
“It never ended,” Knight says, feigning exasperation—or maybe not really feigning at all—when I ask if he’s surprised that, 50 years later, people are still this interested in them simply because they were on The Brady Bunch as kids. “There was a time when it was very frustrating,” he laughs, the kind of laugh that is almost unsettlingly serious.
“For everyone,” Olsen chimes in, Knight nodding as a lifetime seemed to flash in front his eyes. “There were some years…” he says ominously.
“I think we’ve been all through our frustrations with it,” McCormick says.
“We’re a member of someone’s family by extension,” Knight says. “That’s been the hardest thing to get used to. It’s taken 50 years because I’m still not completely used to it. There is a passage of time and behavior to get close to someone normally. But not for us. All of a sudden we’re a member of their family. They know you, they think. You have no idea who they are.”
Olsen calls it an altered reality. “On a subconscious level, people might just be nicer to me because they think they have a kind feeling towards me because they think we grew up together.”
McCormick confesses that it took years—decades, really—to get to a point of appreciation rather than resentment, but she’s happier for it. “I think honestly it’s so great when we can get to the point where you can totally embrace it. There’s so much love within this show and what it’s about and the whole thing. It’s incredible to be a part of that.”
It’s inevitable that young actors would sprint away from a seemingly inescapable gee-golly image at some point, especially if that image is preventing them from working. McCormick says “the hardest part” was not being offered or even seen for roles because she was typecast as Marcia Brady, citing Midnight Express as a specific film she wasn’t cast in because of her “Marcia connection.” Despite training at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, Olsen quit acting after Cindy Brady became too much of a liability in audition rooms.
“I was definitely not proud [of the show],” Olsen says. “There was so little respect for the show. Oh, you were on that show.”
“There was a chasm between the audience and the industry of artists,” Knight says. “You wanted their respect, and this was not something that you would get at all.” Even his parents hated the show. “They thought it was banal.”
There were off-screen demons to wrestle with as well. McCormick has been outspoken about becoming addicted to cocaine at age 18 and the depression that followed, eventually appearing on Vh1’s Celebrity Fit Club to work off the weight she had gained. Knight made scores of headlines and was even given his own reality series after starting a relationship with model Adrianne Curry, who was 25 years his junior, after the two met on the Vh1 series The Surreal Life.
It goes without saying that they’ve all come out the other side, and have been on it for years. In that respect, A Very Brady Renovation is a welcome reminder that you can go home again—whatever that means to you.
At what point did they decide to embrace being a Brady? “Last year,” Olsen says, letting out a hearty laugh.
It’s at this point that their TV siblings arrive alongside Discovery CEO David Zaslav. It’s remarkable to see how quickly and naturally they slip into schmooze-and-banter mode when the executive shows up. It’s as if they’d been trained all their lives in the practice...
Zaslav is talking up all the big plans he has for the six of them. “Can’t we do something great for Christmas? We gotta do more.”
Knight playfully points to my recorder, alerting him to the journalist present. “Anybody see Almost Famous?” Zaslav says, quoting the movie: “We’re talking in front of the one guy we shouldn’t be talking in front of.”
He touts the plan to promote A Very Brady Renovation across the entire suite of networks, while reminiscing with Williams, Plumb, and the rest of the siblings about Columbo, The Love Boat, The Monkees and the other classic shows of the Brady Bunch era they all still love. It’s here that he remarks at how great Williams and Knight look, as if they’ve “never lost a hair on their head.”
“It’s called micrographing,” Knight says, launching into a detailed explanation of how the process works and the science of follicles with little vanity as Williams nods along: “It’s called looking good.” Knight continues to brag. “Not a one you can tell was planted.”
All the girls coo in agreement, as the conversation continues to other examples of undetectable plastic surgery. Olsen volunteers her own nose job as an example. “They can’t tell with me. I’ve had four of them. It kept growing back. I looked like I had a potato on my face. They had to do it four times because it kept growing back. I’m like a starfish.”
“It looks great, Susan,” McCormick says.
“I’m proud of it,” Olsen says, “so I like to let people know.”
And with that trippy reminder of age and the passage of time amid a conversation about nostalgia and the past, the Bradys are off to do more press, where they’re asked to reflect on their childhoods, what’s changed, and what they’re up to now.
McCormick and Plumb still act. Knight owns a furniture business. Olsen hosts a radio show, teaches acting, and is an artist. Williams lives in the Ozarks, where he plays in a band. Lookinland is in Salt Lake City selling concrete countertops. “We were right in thinking that this was the right thing to do,” Olsen says, “because it’s proven to be a path with heart.”
The entire time they walk down the hallway together, they are recognized. People gasp, coo, and smile. “It’s so new to us,” Knight cracked the first time I noticed all the attention they were getting, smiling politely, as if it’s instinct, and nodding at the well-wisher across the room. “First time that’s ever happened…”