Richard Timothy Smith (born 25 March 1942), known professionally as Richard O'Brien, is a British-New Zealand actor, writer, musician, and television presenter. He wrote the musical stage show The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, which has remained in continuous production. He also co-wrote the screenplay along with director Jim Sharman for the film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and appeared on-screen as Riff Raff. The film has received a large cult following and became the longest-running theatrical release in film history. O'Brien co-wrote the musical Shock Treatment (1981) and appeared in the film as Dr. Cosmo McKinley.
O'Brien presented four series of the television game show The Crystal Maze (1990–1993) for Channel 4. He played the voice role of Lawrence Fletcher in the Disney Channel animated series Phineas and Ferb (2007–2015), as well as its two films (2011 and 2020). His other acting credits include Flash Gordon (1980), Robin of Sherwood (1985), Dark City (1998), Ever After (1998), Dungeons & Dragons (2000), and Elvira's Haunted Hills (2001).
After a long and successful career based in the United Kingdom, O'Brien gained dual citizenship with New Zealand in 2011, where he resided in Tauranga. O'Brien identifies himself as third gender and uses he/him pronouns.
O'Brien was born Richard Timothy Smith in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He emigrated with his family to Tauranga, New Zealand, at the age of 10, where his accountant father had purchased a sheep farm. He went to Tauranga Boys' College. He returned to England in 1964, after having learned how to ride horses (a skill which provided him with his break into the film industry as a stuntman in Carry On Cowboy) and developing a keen interest in comic books and horror films. He launched his acting career using his mother's maiden name, as there was already an actor named Richard Smith.
He says that his upbringing in New Zealand "instilled him with egalitarian ideals that helped him transcend British class restrictions".
To improve his acting skills, O'Brien took method acting classes, and then joined several stage productions as an actor. In 1970, he went into the touring production of Hair for nine months, and spent another nine months in the London production. In the summer of 1972, he met director Jim Sharman who cast him as an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sharman then cast O'Brien as Willie, the alien in his March 1973 production of Sam Shepard's The Unseen Hand at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
Sharman also helped make O'Brien's draft of a gothic-themed, schlock-horror comic-book fantasy romp into a reality. Sharman suggested changing the working title from They Came from Denton High, and The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Theatre Upstairs in June 1973. Within weeks it had become a box-office hit, moving from the Royal Court to the Classic Cinema, a cinema up for demolition on the King's Road, then to the King's Road Theatre (formerly a cinema known as the Essoldo) and eventually into the West End at the Comedy Theatre.
After seeing the second night's performance of The Rocky Horror Show in the Theatre Upstairs, Jonathan King produced the original cast soundtrack in just over 48 hours during an off-stage weekend, and rushed it out on his UK Records label. He also became a 20% backer with producer Michael White, who put up the remaining 80%.
During this period, O'Brien and his wife Kimi Wong recorded and released pop singles under the name Kimi and Ritz.
O'Brien continued writing musicals with arranger Richard Hartley, including: T. Zee (1976), Disaster (1978), The Stripper (1982 – based on the Carter Brown novel and produced in Australia), and Top People (1984). O'Brien and Hartley also provided three songs for the film The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), starring Alan Arkin. O'Brien wrote his one-man revue Disgracefully Yours (1985) singing as Mephistopheles Smith.
O'Brien has appeared in Jubilee (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), Dark City (1998), Ever After (1998) and Dungeons & Dragons (2000), among others. Additionally he guest starred in five episodes in the third series of the HTV dramatisation of Robin of Sherwood, as the corrupt druid Gulnar. A music CD of the songs from Disgracefully Yours entitled Absolute O'Brien was released in 1998.
He became the presenter of UK Channel 4's game show The Crystal Maze in 1990, specialising in sardonic put-downs, occasional eccentricities and playing his harmonica at random intervals. The show ran from 1990 to 1995, with O'Brien presenting the first four series. It was regularly Channel 4's highest-rated programme, reaching a peak of 7 million viewers for the 1993 Christmas special. O'Brien left The Crystal Maze in 1993 after the fourth series; the show was then taken over by Edward Tudor-Pole. After two series without O'Brien, the show was cancelled.
In other roles, O'Brien has conceptualised and played the role of the Child Catcher in the West End theatre production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He also occasionally performs cabaret-style music and comedy on stages around the world, singing songs from Rocky Horror among others. In 1995, he performed a select number of shows as the devilish charmer Mephistopheles Smith in a musical/comedy show he wrote entitled Disgracefully Yours, to which he later gave permission to be adapted into a musical, first by Eubank Productions for the Kansas City Fringe Fest in 2006, and more recently by Janus Theatre Company for the Edinburgh Fringe 2007, simply entitled Mephistopheles Smith. In late 2005, he appeared (as the spirit of the mirror) in the pantomime version of Snow White, which played at the Milton Keynes Theatre. In the summer of 2006, he played the Child Catcher in the Queen's 80th birthday celebrations at Buckingham Palace.
O'Brien performed in Thank-You for the Music, a 90-minute ABBA documentary for ITV, directed by Martin Koch, who previously directed the musical Mamma Mia! The documentary included a remake of the mini musical '"The Girl with the Golden Hair" which ABBA performed during their 1977 world tour and featured on ABBA: The Album (also 1977). The musical was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre and featured O'Brien, Liz McClarnon and the Dynamos. He also hosted the 1993 Brit Awards.
A patron of the Five Stars Scanner Appeal, which benefits the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. From 2001 to 2006 he hosted the annual Transfandango, gala gathering of Dearhearts and Trans 'n' Gentle People to raise money for the hospital. This has since been superseded by Richard O'Brien's Halloween Party.
A script for another rumoured sequel entitled Revenge of the Old Queen of Rocky Horror, has been circulated on the web and reproduced on various fan sites, although it has been officially denied as O'Brien's work by his representatives. While he has worked on a screenplay by that title, it was never publicly released. He wrote the lyrics for The Stripper (based on the book by Carter Brown), a musical which had its British premiere at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch (London) on 28 August 2009.
In 2004, members of the Hamilton City Council in New Zealand honoured O'Brien's contribution to the arts with a statue of Riff Raff, the character he played in The Rocky Horror Show, on the site of the former Embassy Cinema.
In September 2007, he reprised his role as the Child Catcher for the final two weeks of the five year British run of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He then played the role in its Singapore engagement for the month of November, extended to 9 December. Also in December, he visited Hamilton, New Zealand for An Evening With Richard O'Brien, with presenter Mark Sainsbury and director Fiona Jackson.
In December 2008, O'Brien donated his original script Pig in Boots to the Wireless Theatre Company, who converted it into an audio pantomime. The show was recorded live at the Headliners Comedy Club in front of a studio audience with live FX and music. The production was opened by an original interview with O'Brien. In October 2012, O'Brien judged "Stage Fright" with the Wireless Theatre Company as part of the London Horror Festival and performed an acoustic set of Rocky Horror songs.
In March 2012, he gave a performance of song and autobiographical stories, It's Party Time with Richard O'Brien at the Hamilton Founders Theatre to celebrate his 70th birthday. In June 2012, he returned to Hamilton, New Zealand, to appear on stage as Fagin with the Hamilton Operatic Society's production of Oliver! at the Founders Theatre.
O'Brien appeared in 2015 in The Rocky Horror Show in the West End in a limited 11-performance run.
In September 2016 O'Brien opened the second stage Embassy Park in Hamilton together with Mayor Julie Hardaker. In October 2016, he appeared as the Crystal Maze Computer in a one-off Celebrity Crystal Maze episode for the charity 'Stand Up To Cancer' on Channel 4.
In a 2009 interview, O'Brien spoke about an ongoing struggle to reconcile cultural gender roles and described himself as transgender or "of a third gender". O'Brien stated, "There is a continuum between male and female. Some are hard-wired one way or another, I'm in between." He expounded on this in a 2013 interview where he talked about using oestrogen for the previous decade, and that he views himself as 70% male and 30% female. In 2017, O'Brien caused controversy when he said that he supported the statements of Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries that transgender women are not real women. He offered his sympathy to the trans community. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, O'Brien was reported as stating: "I think anybody who decides to take the huge step with a sex change deserves encouragement and a thumbs-up. As long as they're happy and fulfilled, I applaud them to my very last day. But you can't ever become a natural woman".
In June 2010, the media reported that O'Brien had been denied New Zealand citizenship owing to his being too old under the country's immigration criteria. He commented, "They build a statue of me and celebrate me as a New Zealander, but I have to go on my knees and do all sorts of things, and I'm probably too old." O'Brien's application appeared to garner public support and the decision was later overturned on appeal. In August 2010, New Zealand's Dominion Post reported that O'Brien would be allowed residency and possibly citizenship as an "exceptional" case. According to the Waikato Times, he was officially registered as a New Zealand citizen on 14 December 2011.
On 16 August 2010, he appeared on an episode of Celebrity Cash in the Attic, where he donated the takings from his sale of memorabilia to the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, Manchester.
O'Brien has been married three times and has three children. He and actress Kimi Wong were married on 4 December 1971 and had a son Linus in May 1972. He has a son and daughter from his second marriage to designer Jane Moss.
On 7 July 2012, aged 70, he proposed to Sabrina Graf, aged 35, a native of Germany, whom he had been dating for three years. They married on 6 April 2013 at their home in Katikati, Bay of Plenty.