December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

He has a new, somewhat sinister-looking mustache and is showing a lot more forehead than when last we saw him. Still, it’s hard to think of Barry Williams as a singer, dancer and Broadway star. He may look all of his 34 years, but those dark-lashed blue peepers make it easy to slip and call him Greg—eldest Brady Bunch son, teen heartthrob and big brother to a generation of TV addicts. In fact, when Williams stepped into Broadway’s most lovable little musical, Romance/Romance last month, co-star Alison Fraser had to swear off Brady Bunch reruns for good. “It’s hard for me to separate Barry from Greg,” she says. “The first day I met him, I said, ‘I wrote you a fan letter and you never answered me.’ ”

Keep in mind, Alison, that by the time ABC canceled The Brady Bunch in 1974 after a five-year run, Williams was receiving about 800 fan letters a week. “I never expected that,” says Barry, who never quite figured out why a show about Mom, Dad, six kids and a maid named Alice became one of the most popular shows in TV history. “Maybe because we were a family that could always work things out, usually in 22 minutes. Or maybe it’s just a good baby-sitter for the kids.”

Last summer, Williams reunited with most of the original bunch to tape A Very Brady Christmas, which airs on CBS Dec. 18. “Whether we like it or not, the Bradys have each other for the rest of our lives,” he says with resolve. “And like any family, we can make it work or not work. I’m not interested in things in my life that don’t work.”

Yet work for Williams in his post-Brady period has usually meant reviving some solid-gold musical comedy in a small regional theater. “I’ve been doing my woodshedding, paying my dues,” says Barry, who took his first acting class at age 11 and began landing TV parts the next year. At the time, America’s future big brother was the youngest of three sons living “an amazingly middle-class” life in Santa Monica. His father owned a chain of credit bureaus, his mother was a housewife, and his siblings, Craig and Scott, discovered Barry’s natural talents at an early age. “In my brothers’ clubhouse, the question was always how to get copies of Playboy and Cavalier. Me being the mascot, they’d send me to the convenience store. I’d make up stories about how my father couldn’t get out of bed and really needed these magazines because his life was empty, and they’d sell them to me. I graduated pretty easily from there to television.”

Most of his acting experience was hands-on. “Shelley Winters introduced me to Method acting,” says Williams, who played her son in the 1968 film Wild in the Streets. One scene called for Winters to slap the boy, and she asked him if he’d mind taking a real hit. “Being the tough little youth that I was, I said I didn’t mind,” he recalls. “About seven takes later, my face was, like, stinging. She must have projected one of her husbands onto me.”

Williams survived to make numerous guest appearances on such shows as Gomer Pyle and Mission: Impossible. At 14, he became a Brady. “He had a take-charge attitude, on-and off-camera,” recalls Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz, but that hasn’t always endeared him to his peers. Maureen McCormick, who played Greg’s oldest sister, Marcia, says she and Williams engaged in a hot-and-cold flirtation throughout the series. It was an ill-fated romance. “He takes things much more seriously than I do,” says Maureen, who’s still acting. “We made out in his dressing room, but we could never go too far because there were always six mothers and a social worker around the set.”

Williams was dismayed when the show was abruptly canceled. “I loved going to work every day,” he says. “I wanted the show to run one more year.” Fresh off the series, he landed the lead in a road production of Pippin but had trouble getting subsequent roles. “I didn’t want to audition,” he admits, “and I don’t think that exactly endears you to producers.” He enrolled at Pepperdine University but was miserable, “because I didn’t have any social skills,” and dropped out.

As his modest Brady residuals waned, so did Williams’ career. Too old to play a teenager, Williams was a has-been at 24, even as reruns were turning Greg Brady into a pop icon. Drinking provided one escape, he says. “And I was gambling to support myself, betting my unemployment checks. It was the closest thing I can imagine to a teenage rebellion, which I hadn’t gone through because I was too busy.”

Musical theater—which began as a way to stay fed—soon became a labor of love. “The more I did, the more I discovered I liked it,” says Williams, who has a rich baritone voice. He began auditioning and doing about four productions a year. Off the road, he surfed and worked on his tennis game.

Williams was en route to a tennis tournament in Dallas when the call came to try out for Scott Bakula’s role in Romance/Romance. (Williams plays about 14 amateur tennis tournaments a year, including the Barry Williams Celebrity Tennis Tournament to benefit a Los Angeles center for missing and abused children.) He bought his own ticket to New York with no guarantee of getting the part. After the audition, he was given only nine days before going onstage. He left his girlfriend of more than a year, Diane Martin, a model and former Miss Arizona, in Los Angeles, moved to New York and “lived, ate and slept this show. I’d dream about it at night and wake up writing notes.” Says co-star Fraser: “He’s one of the hardest-working actors I’ve ever seen.”

He’s also finally able to answer his fan mail. “Fortunately or unfortunately, I can keep up with it now,” says Williams, who when he’s not on the road shares a Malibu beach house with his two cats. “I just wish fans would send their own stamped envelopes—this is getting expensive.”

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