Richard Timothy Smith was born in Cheltenham, England on March 25, 1942. At the age of ten, the family moved to Taraunga in New Zealand, to farm. Mostly, Richard hated it – New Zealand in the fifties was, he said “No place for a sensitive boy” – he was slightly built, not in the least interested in rugby and the inevitable target of bullies, which meant that he disliked school, and did badly. He did learn to ride a horse though, a skill that was to stand him in good stead in later life.
He left school and began work on the farm at fifteen, but his addiction to Sci-fi movies, and his distaste for things agricultural drove him back to England in 1966.
He had a succession of jobs ranging from truck driving to hairdressing, but he discovered his riding ability could get him an ‘in’ to films – he worked as a stuntman such as Carry On, Cowboy and Casino Royale but he soon decided that he wanted to be a “proper actor” and took several acting courses and workshops, while working as a jobbing actor taking any role he could find to keep starvation at bay. This was the point he decided that his Grandfather’s name, O’Brien, was more resonant than “Smith”.
In 1969 he got his first break as part of the touring cast of Hair. It was during the course of this production that he met his first wife, Kimi Wong, and another important person in his life, Tim Curry. In 1972, his son, Linus was born, and he joined the chorus of Jesus Christ Superstar, and understudied the role of Herod. Unfortunately, his interpretation of the part when he came to play it – an Elvis Presley impersonation - was met with stunning indifference, and he was removed from the role. Rather than return to the chorus, he left the production. His next role was Willie the Space Freak in the play The Unseen Hand, a part given to him by Superstar director Jim Sharman, who must have seen some value in his work.
While he was doing this, he wrote and recorded three singles with his wife, Kimi Wong, as Kimi and Ritz: Merry Christmas, Baby; Pseud's Corner; I Was In Love With Danny, But The Crowd Was In Love With Dean; In addition, Eddie which was later to be included in The Rocky Horror Show was a B-Side.
Between Superstar and Hand, Richard concentrated on songwriting, the thing he enjoyed most. He was invited to perform at a Christmas party at EMI studios and set out to write a song for the occasion, a homage to the films he’d loved as a kid. What emerged was Science Fiction Double Feature, and it was very well received. This led Richard to the idea that it might be a suitable opening for a comedy musical. He started to write one, with the working title "They Came From Denton High".
Richard approached Jim Sharman with the idea for the show – he played him and musical director Richard Hartley Science Fiction, and showed them the parts of the script he’d developed so far. On the strength of this, Sharman agreed to put on the musical for a five-week run at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court. O’Brien’s old friend Tim Curry was cast in the starring role of Frank N. Furter, and Richard played Riff Raff.
The initial run was a success, and the retitled Rocky Horror Show transferred to the King's Road Theatre, where it ran for 2 years. Lou Adler saw it, and immediately bought the movie rights. With a tiny budget, members of the stage cast, and two American newcomers, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as Brad and Janet, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was made, and released in 1975.
In the wake of this failure, Richard’s marriage to Kimi broke up, and he tried to fruitlessly to recreate the theatre success of Rocky with productions like Tee Zee and Disaster at the Royal Court.
In 1978, Richard was in Jubilee as John Dee, and he began to find a few film roles, character and bit parts in general, in movies like Flash Gordon.
While he was doing this, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was gathering an increasing cult following, and Richard was approached by 20th Century Fox to make a sequel. Shock Treatment didn’t make the same impact – possibly due to what Richard himself calls his worst acting ever. The songs were great though.
In 1983 Richard married Jane Moss; their son Joshua was born in the same year, and daughter Amelia in 1989. His film and TV work continued during this period with roles as villains in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Robin of Sherwood and the title role in the kids TV series The Ink Thief - His resume was a bit of a mish-mash at this time, with him taking roles for friends far more than actively planning his career.
For four years between 1990 and 1994 he hosted The Crystal Maze giving an eccentric and engaging performance – and it was a performance, no other game show host ever acted like “Reckless Rick” before that – that was almost certainly the primary reason for the show’s appeal. When he left, he was replaced by Edward Tudor-Pole from Tenpole Tudor, but the show’s popularity faded.
Richard has produced The Rocky Horror Show all around the world – in New Zealand he even managed to get former Prime Minister Rob Muldoon to play the part of The Criminologist. In 1996 a 21st birthday video of RHPS was released, together with Shock treatment, to great success.
In 1998, O’Brien appeared in the Spice Girls movie, Spice World, in Dark City, and as Drew Barrymore’s rich but unwanted suitor Pierre Le Pieu, in Ever After(possibly named after the cartoon skunk, since the character had about the same appeal)
Richard released his first studio album Absolute O'Brien in 1999 and 2000 saw him appearing in Dungeons and Dragons as the leader of the Thieves' Guild, Xilus, and The Mumbo Jumbo. In 2001, he starred with Elvira in Elvira's Haunted Hills. Most recently he has been starring as the Child Catcher in the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.