Let me explain. A couple of months ago, I served as a moderator at a horror and pop culture convention known as Scare-A-Con, giving me the rare opportunity to interview two members of The Brady Bunch cast. Now in their late 50s, Mike Lookinland (who played youngest brother Bobby) and Susan Olson (who portrayed little sister Cindy) could not have been nicer as they recalled their days as child actors on a popular TV show that lasted for five seasons. The interview with the two former actors, who have now found success with other business ventures, turned out to be one of many highlights of the convention’s weekend.
For those who don’t remember, The Brady Bunch dealt with a blended family created by Mike Brady, a widower, and Carol Brady, a divorcee. Each with three children from their first marriage, they united to form a family of three boys, three girls, and a friendly, funny housekeeper named Alice. The show rarely dealt with hard-hitting subject matters, but instead offered a whimsical look at an ideal, nearly model family dealing with zany, if rather trivial problems, like trying to verify photographs of a UFO, or sibling jealousy between older sisters Jan and Marcia. Every once in a while, the show’s writers would tackle more serious concerns, like schoolyard bullying or the adoption of a foreign-born child.
During our Brady Bunch interview at Scare-A-Con, I asked Mike and Susan about the parade of contemporary athletes who made their way onto the show, everyone from Joe Namath to Don Drysdale to Deacon Jones. To my surprise, the two actors did not have much recollection of the guest appearances of those athletes; they seemed to have far greater recall of the week that actor Vincent Price visited the set to take part in an episode called “The Tiki Caves,” the finale of the famed three-part arc covering the family’s adventure-filled visit to Hawaii.
One former ballplayer I asked the Brady actors about was Wes Parker, who took part in a rather famous episode called “The Undergraduate.” Again, Lookinland and Olson had little recall, if only because that episode involved brother Greg (played by Barry Williams), giving the younger siblings little access to the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman during his days on the set. Their lack of memory of the episode motivated me to learn more about it, thus creating the impetus for this article.
The episode aired in January of 1970, during The Brady Bunch’s first season on ABC Television. The story line centers on oldest brother Greg, who is struggling badly in math class, culminating in an “F” on his test. Sensing that something is wrong, parents Carol and Mike (played by the late Florence Henderson and the late Robert Reed, respectively) begin to search for the reasons behind Greg’s sudden delinquency in math. They discover that Greg is distracted because of a crush he has developed on “Linda,” whom they assume to be one of the girls in his class. Little do they know that “Linda” is actually Linda O’Hara, Greg’s math teacher!
Ms. O’Hara asks Mike Brady to meet with her at school. That’s where Mike, in the days before he went with the full perm look, notices Wes Parker’s presence in the parking lot and learns that Linda is engaged to the current first baseman of the Dodgers. Thinking quickly, Mike arranges for Parker to meet Greg and Ms. O’Hara in the classroom. The wide-eyed Greg, a devout baseball fan and follower of the Dodgers, immediately loses his infatuation with Ms. O’Hara and becomes far more interested in Parker. The ballplayer, aware of Greg’s struggles in math, offers him two tickets to Dodger Stadium—but only if he can pull an “A” on his next test.
Parker is clearly the headliner of the episode, but only in retrospect. His name is not mentioned by any of the cast members until the final scene. Additionally, Parker does not make his first appearance on screen until that final scene, courtesy of the reveal from Mike Brady and Ms. O’Hara. For his part, Parker has always been modest about his Brady Bunch appearance, saying it really shouldn’t be a part of his acting resume. “You can’t count that,” Parker told writer Sam Weisberg in an interview for the Hidden Films web site. “I played myself for 10 seconds. That’s not acting.”
In actuality, Parker shortchanges his performance on The Brady Bunch. Once Parker steps into the classroom along with Mr. Brady, he immediately takes the spotlight, helped by his handsome looks, his ease of manner, and his melodious voice. Wearing a brightly colored blue and white-striped shirt that just screams of the late 1960s, Parker delivers his lines smoothly. As athletes go, he appears quite comfortable in front of the camera. Granted, he doesn’t rise to the level of an accomplished veteran actor, but his performance is more than respectable.
As a young fan of baseball in the early 1970s, I can remember watching Parker’s performance in re-runs. Granted, what I knew about acting could have been fitted on to the head of a pin, but I thought Parker was great, a real natural. My friends at school all came to the same conclusion: Parker, smooth and good-looking, had been a real hit during his sitcom debut.
Parker’s appearance on The Brady Bunch was filmed in the late 1960s, while he was still in the midst of his playing career with the Dodgers. By 1973, he had become fed up with baseball, in part because of the state of labor relations, his own dissatisfaction with the Players Association, and the general unseemliness of baseball as a business. As the Dodgers’ player representative, he was the lone union rep who chose not to vote in favor of a player strike; instead, he decided to abstain from the vote. (Parker felt that the players had become too greedy, and believed the owners were unfair in binding the players to their teams “like slaves,” echoing the words of Curt Flood.) Given his feelings toward labor relations, it should not have come as a complete surprise that Parker decided to step aside after the 1972 season, even though he appeared to have ability left in his ballplaying arsenal.
Parker broadcast games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1973, but quickly realized that he missed the game on the field. So in December of 1973, he signed a contract with the Japanese Leagues, playing one productive season for the Nankai Hawks before calling it quits for good.
Now that he was no longer consumed by the game eight months out of the year, Parker used his spare time to take acting classes. Following up on his successful debut on The Brady Bunch, Parker honed his acting skills and began pursuing other roles.
Directors and producers took note, hiring Parker to appear in such shows as Emergency, the drama that followed the adventures of two Los Angeles paramedics (Gage and DeSoto) as they dealt with serious, sometimes life-and-death situations. Parker also appeared on the short-lived spy series, Matt Helm. More established TV shows, like McMillan and Wife, Police Woman, and Simon and Simon, also came calling, giving Parker a chance to appear as a guest on single episodes and work alongside notables actors like Lloyd Bridges, Angie Dickinson and Rock Hudson. Other than his Simon and Simon appearance, in which he played himself, Parker portrayed actual characters, giving himself a tougher acting challenge in the process.
In 1977, he took on a recurring role on a show called All That Glitters, which starred Lois Nettleton and Chuck McCann. Parker was particularly complimentary of Nettleton: “She just went out of her way to be nice to me.” Unfortunately, some of the other cast members did not offer similar support, in part because they were too consumed with their own roles. Due to his own relative lack of experience as an actor, Parker felt “singled out” while on the set of the show.
Branching out from sitcoms and weekly dramas, Parker eventually took roles in made-for-TV films and even made one feature film appearance. For an ex-athlete getting a late start in a demanding career, he did well, but also came to realize just how difficult it was to perform as an actor, particularly when asked to take on the role of a fictional character. “I found out that I was never really comfortable in front of the camera, like you need to be,” Parker admitted to Weisberg. “I was not good at being vulnerable in front of a camera.”
By the mid-1980s, Parker decided to change course. Leaving Hollywood, Parker worked for a televised religious ministry. He also did some broadcast work for NBC (usually on the backup Game of the Week) and for the Dodgers on local radio.
In recent years, Parker has used his ample voice skills to do audio work on video games, but has not made a film or television appearance since 1985. That doesn’t mean that he has completely lost interest in the industry. Parker collects rare films and vintage movie posters, along with first-edition books, allowing him to assemble one of the better personal collections in the country.
In many ways, Parker is a renaissance man among baseball figures. From acting to voice work to broadcasting, he’s done it all before and since his athletic career ended over 40 years ago. I suppose he’ll always be remembered first and foremost for his playing days with the Dodgers, but coming in a close second, at least for me, will be that smooth, slick appearance on the TV show about an all-American family, The Brady Bunch.
References & Resources
- Wes Parker’s biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
- Interview with Mike Lookinland and Susan Olson