May 25, 1992 12:00 PM

WHEN PRODUCER SHERWOOD Schwartz was casting The Brady Bunch in the late ’60s, he originally thought of meat-and-potatoes Gene Hackman for the part of Mike Brady, the Los Angeles architect, widower and father of three boys who marries a widow with three daughters. Instead, the part went to Robert Reed, the crisply handsome actor then best known for his role as The Defenders’ young lawyer learning the ropes, Kenneth Preston.

Reed, who died of colon cancer in Pasadena, Calif., on May 12 at age 59, turned out to be perfect—he wore his parental authority with a dapper lightness closer in spirit to Neil Simon than to Sherwood Schwartz. And the 116-episode series (1969-74), with its charmingly unreal view of middle-class family life, eventually became a cult classic in reruns and recently spawned a much awaited paperback, Growing Up Brady, an affectionate memoir by Barry Williams, who played the oldest son, Greg.

In fact, the ever smiling Reed always hated the show. In his last interview, given to PEOPLE last month at his antique-filled two-bedroom Pasadena house, he rolled his eyes at the mere thought of the pilot episode, in which Mike and Carol many. “I knew when I saw it we were off to Gilligan’s Island,” he groaned. Gilligan, of course, is another Schwartz classic.

Reed—who grew up John Robert Rietz, an only child on a turkey farm in Muskogee, Okla.—always prided himself on his hard-earned theatrical credentials, including studies at Northwestern University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, as well as New York City stage appearances doing Shakespeare and O’Neill in the ’50s. “I was young, brash, so-called classically trained and well educated,” he mused—but there he was, as Mr. Brady, being dealt scripts in which, for instance, son Greg accidentally dyed his hair fluorescent orange. He made his unhappiness known, firing off sarcastic memos to Schwartz, changing dialogue and, when he was truly frustrated, heading off to an Irish pub near the Paramount studio and downing three Scotches.

Reed’s castmates found him impossible but lovable. “We supported him,” says Florence Henderson, who played wife Carol. “Just like in real life, you’re gonna bail your husband and your dad out.” Barry Williams, now touring in the musical City of Angels, called Reed the day before his death. “I got to tell him three things,” he says. “That things were good in my life in part because of what I learned from him, that I appreciated our friendship and that I loved him.”

And Reed—who is survived by a daughter, Karen Baldwin, from a marriage that ended in divorce in 1959—was genuinely, almost paternally, fond of his telechildren. He once chaperoned them on a trip to England and another time took them fishing. “There was Mike Lookinland [Bobby] hauling in one fish after another!” he recalled.

Like any good parent, Reed also felt a little guilty about his behavior on the set. “I should have tried to get out of the show,” he said, “rather than inflict my views on them.”

After the show ended in 1974, Reed continued with work on television (costarring with Michael Learned in the 1981-82 series Nurse) and stage (Deathtrap on Broadway in 1982), but he was happiest teaching Shakespearean acting classes at UCLA this past year. Declared Reed last month: “That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

Which, alas, would be brief. Reed’s battle with cancer began last Thanksgiving, after a tumor was discovered. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy. After checking into Huntington Memorial Hospital on May 1, he refused all visitors except his daughter and a close friend, actress Anne Haney. “He came from the old school, where people had a sense of decorum,” says Haney. “He went the way he wanted to, without publicity.”

In the end Robert Reed had his privacy. He had his beloved Bard. And America had The Brady Bunch. “It was just as inconsequential as can be,” Reed said, summing up his feelings about the show. “To the degree that it serves as a baby-sitter, I’m glad we did it. But I do not want it on my tombstone.”



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