Broadway and Off-Broadway gave the actor an adventurous background needed to play the upstanding newlywed in the cult movie classic.

barry bostwick photo
Barry Bostwick

Barry Bostwick’s career started in a grittier place than his best-known roles might suggest. He played Mayor Randall Winston opposite Michael J. Fox in the sitcom Spin City from 1996 to 2002, and before that he played the title character in the mini-series George Washington in 1984. The role that looms larger over those and the other 143 roles he has played according to his IMDB page is that of Brad Majors, the newlywed husband to Susan Sarandon’s Janet in 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bostwick’s Brad was the slightly dim, straight-laced guy who is perplexed and scandalized—before he is seduced—by the sexually omnivorous Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Tim Curry.  

Bostwick will be in New Orleans for the Wizard World Comic Con this weekend, and it's a tribute to his performance that since then he has been seen as the upstanding guy because his career as a stage actor was more adventurous than Brad might suggest. He began acting in the theater in New York City in the early 1970s, where he lived in the Bowery. His apartment was across the street from Andy Warhol’s Factory, and he used to regularly see Holly Woodlawn—the inspiration for Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”—around the neighborhood. As a young actor in adventurous times, he took whatever roles he could get. 

“There was a lot of danger Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. Warhol was around and the glitter rock fantasies. I was doing a lot of weird stuff, risky stuff. I was in an Off-Broadway show naked behind a scrim. That’s what we all did back then in the ‘70s.”  

Brad was the role that introduced Bostwick to the larger world, but he received a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of Grease in 1972. Today, that doesn’t seem particularly adventurous, but the 1978 film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John did a lot to sanitize the image of the play. The musical was controversial in its day for its raunchy humor and depictions of teenage sexuality including teen pregnancy. Even in the film version, no didn’t necessarily mean no to Danny and his gang, who ask in “Summer Nights” about how far he got with Sandy during their summer fling, concluding, “Did she put up a fight?” 

Grease was a pretty gritty piece when it started in Chicago,” Bostwick says. “The real Danny Zuko ended up in jail. He did more than steal hubcaps.”

With that background, the idea of being in the film adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show didn’t seem that strange. “Rocky was such a hit on stage in L.A. with Tim and London, and I knew people in the cast,” he says. “I knew that it was going to become something at least interesting to do for a month or a month and a half.”

At first, The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t affect his career because it sank without a trace in 1975. Bostwick had been a part of the final workshop version of A Chorus Line and won a Tony for his role in another musical, The Robber Bridegroom when Rocky Horror started to find its midnight following in 1976 and ’77. Once that happened, the movie became a phenomenon and changed everything. The film continues to play every Saturday night at midnight somewhere with audiences interacting with the movie, making themselves as much a part of the entertainment as its actors.

The movie performed the function of the Internet as a place where people with specific interests could find their people, and the participatory nature of Rocky Horror fandom can be seen as a pre-Internet version of fan fiction. Since 1976, audiences have tailored the film experience to their interests, and each community of watchers adds to the canon of shout-backs and cued props. That has rightfully created a sense of ownership among fans who help to create the experience in their theaters, but the combination of the film’s enduring audience and the extreme role of Dr, Frank-N-Furter caused Tim Curry to shy away from talking about the movie for decades. Bostwick doesn’t share his reluctance.

“I have no regrets,” he says. “I love the movie, and I have a great relationship with the fans. I’m honored that the film has changed so many people’s lives. Every time I do a panel, there’s always somebody who comes up who brings tears to people’s eyes about how their lives were affected so dramatically by finding their group, finding their groove, finding who they were sexually or socially. There’s a documentary that was just made called Rocky Horror Saved My Life, and it’s a very affecting documentary. That’s what I’m proud of. Actors don’t always get a chance to do things that affect people in a real way.”

A little Brad has been a part of almost every role Bostwick has had since, whether it’s his good-natured dimness, or his upstanding quality. Bostwick’s okay with that too. “I play upright guys,” he says. “If I can get a part where I start off as an upright guy and end up raping the president’s wife, which I did in Scandal last year or two years ago, that’s the fun part.”