In the short history of postwar blended-family patriarchy, no one has outdone Mike Brady: He was a successful architect of strip malls, an amorous and attentive second husband, a capable parent; he was stern when he needed to be, fun-loving ("We're all going to Hawaii!") and a little bit groovy, as stepdads go. He drove a convertible, wore a man-perm, had twinkly blue eyes.

So, okay, he was a fantasy construct of television.

Now it seems he's even more nonexistent. Almost 10 years after the death of Robert Reed -- the actor who played him on the TV series "The Brady Bunch" from 1969 to 1974 -- the character of Mike Brady has faded from the Brady universe.

On the 2002 Brady Bunch wall calendar the original characters from the sitcom are all present and accounted for, in their eternal circa-1972 states of being, except for one.

Mr. Brady doesn't live here anymore.

He's . . . gone.

It's not just the calendar. On all licensed "Brady"-related lunchboxes, T-shirts and other merchandise currently available (since it appears Brady stuff will always be available) Mike Brady has been rubbed out.

There's something sort of Stalin-era about it all, once the eye is alerted to Reed's absence, some sinister and creepy feeling. Though Mike Brady lives on in reruns on Nick at Nite, he's been cropped out or digitally removed from the faded Politburo shots in the Brady canon. On the trademark "Brady grid" from the show's opening theme -- the 3-by-3 layout of the faces of those who "must somehow form a family" -- his place has been taken by Alice Nelson (Ann B. Davis), the family's live-in housekeeper. (Her place, in the holiest center square, has been filled with the show's logo.)

In a much-reprinted family shot, Reed's image has been zapped away from his proud perch between sons Greg (Barry Williams) and Peter (Christopher Knight). In an equally unsettling retouch, all six Brady kids and Alice the housekeeper are standing on the family's modern teak staircase in 1969. At the bottom of the stairs, mother figure Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) stands on the landing. Next to her should be Mike Brady, but he's been lopped off. Also, his hand has been erased from her shoulder.

This demands an explanation.

(Wait a sec. Why does this demand an explanation?)

(It demands an explanation because this is America.)

(You ask why because you've somehow missed out on three decades of generational Brady worship -- boomers, then X, now Y -- and the baffling though sentimental addiction to not just a television show but an ideal. Bradymania is quite easily explained: No one was ever that happy, but everyone wanted to be, and everyone still wants to be. It has little to do with bell-bottom nostalgia and more to do with the human condition. So there.)

When pressed, a vice president in the licensing department at Viacom Consumer Products/Paramount Pictures, which oversees all "Brady Bunch" images and trademarks, firmly issued a "no comment." There are all kinds of "no comment." This one did not contain a whiff of "hmmm, silly question" or even outright fear of revelation. It was especially locked down. No. Comment. (Go. Away.)

So you begin to wonder if it's a sad story.

You begin to wonder if Mr. Brady has been banished from paradise.

John Robert Reitz was born in Highland Park, Ill., in 1932, grew up in Muskogee, Okla., played high school basketball and joined the drama club.

He died 59 years later in a hospital in Pasadena, Calif., and by then he was Robert Reed, famous to a world who knew him as Mike Brady. A week after his death of intestinal cancer in May 1992, the world also learned, from his death certificate, that he was infected with HIV.

And so it was, in a roundabout tragic way, that Mr. Brady came out of the closet. Once again, careful observers of junk culture were faced with the underlying letdown of things never quite being as they seem. An icon took on a new veneer of easily packaged sadness, i.e., all this time he was hiding that he was gay?

Reed studied drama at Northwestern University and then the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He married his college sweetheart, fathered a daughter and then divorced two years later. He did Shakespeare off-Broadway, then moved to Hollywood, where he signed a TV contract with Paramount and popped up in brief roles on shows like "The Lawman" and "Father Knows Best."

He considered himself a serious actor. In 1969 Reed auditioned for starring roles in three different series pilots, one of which he was particularly loath to do, because he considered himself a serious actor and it was a cutesy sitcom about a family. He beat out studio choice Gene Hackman for the role of Mike Brady on "The Brady Bunch." But was he happy?

Various Brady scholarship and tell-alls (Barry Williams's "Growing Up Brady" is considered the Q-source of all Brady deconstruction) dwell on Reed's conflicted life as the ur-Dad. Stories abound of his constant on-set bickering with Sherwood Schwartz, the show's creator. Reed, according to Brady lore, deplored the scripts, the plot, the cheap laughs; frequently he would storm off.

Yet he never rejected the Mike Brady within him: Even now, to watch him in the role is to see a man enveloped in the simple pleasure of being good and morally centered. There are also tender stories of Reed's fatherly doting on the actors who played the Brady kids. He bought them each a Super-8 movie camera; he took them on a QE2 cruise to England, to expose them to higher culture. When it came time for reunions -- the ill-fated and wondrously schlocky "Brady Bunch Hour" variety show; the updated "Brady Brides" sitcom; the Nutra-Sweetened "A Very Brady Christmas" -- Reed always leisure-suited up and returned to being Mike.

It was lucrative, after all. Reed and Henderson received residuals on the original "Brady" reruns that the children never got (before 1972, child actors under contract didn't qualify for residuals; they fared better as adults on the reunion shows), and by all accounts, even though he went on to more television work, Reed on some level had come to a certain peace about his contribution to the Me Decade.

Not long before he died, however, Reed took the advice of his then-lawyer Dan Kossow (a well-known entertainment attorney who also represented Adam "Batman" West) and refused to sign a deal with Viacom/Paramount that would let the corporation use his '70s-era visage on Brady products. The rest of the cast had agreed, so Viacom decided it could carry on without Mr. Brady.

It isn't known if Reed was aware of the intense and lasting Bradymania to come. By the early '90s, a Los Angeles comedy troupe was performing extremely accurate, intentionally ironic re-creations of "Brady Bunch" episodes for live audiences. "Saturday Night Live" used a Jan Brady impersonator in recurring skits. Williams's saucy "Growing Up Brady" autobiography was released the same month Reed died.

Paramount Pictures recast the whole family for "The Brady Bunch Movie," a tongue-in-cheek update in 1995, and a "A Very Brady Sequel" the following year, both of which were hits, while Nick at Nite aired hour after hour of Brady reruns. The dormant franchise was now a font of new merchandise, CDs, books. (A new television movie will air on Fox soon, in which Mike Brady -- now played by Gary Cole -- is elected president and moves the family to Washington.)

Reed's image, where absolutely necessary, still appeared here and there. After about 1996, it began to disappear entirely.

The rest of the original Bradys have made a cottage industry of being everywhere, though Brady watchers dispute how much money there is to be made as a former Brady anymore.

They do paid appearances and give motivational lectures; they were contestants together on "Weakest Link"; and, with the exception of Ann B. Davis, who now lives a life of contemplative prayer in a Texas religious compound, make themselves available for documentary reflections on their lives as Bradys. (Even the home movies they shot with Reed's gift of cameras were repackaged into a TV special in 1995.)

Widespread Bradymania is once again fading into the wood paneling. Having fully regurgitated the '70s (and the '80s), pop America now seems comfortable with the idea of exploring a new century, of moving on. Frankly, we're Bradyed out.

Wendy Winans of Cleveland, however, is not Bradyed out.

Winans runs Bradyworld.com, a fan site that has grown to a de facto status of officialdom. No bit of Brady news escapes her -- even the cast members have come to rely on her for updates, and frequently file reports on their lives to the site. She has been on top of the Missing Mike Brady Mystery all along.

"It is disturbing to fans when they buy something and don't see [Reed] in there with the family," Winans says. "People ask about it all the time."

Winans tells them what she knows -- that it's because Reed's estate won't release the rights to his image. "The sad thing is that, with Robert Reed, sometimes people focus on how he died, or certain parts of his private life, and they think it has to have something to do with that. It upsets people when he's not there. But for fans, he's always there. He's always Mr. Brady."

As it happens, Winans has become friends with Reed's daughter, Karen Baldwin. Winans says the two were very close, and Reed was proud of his new baby grandson in his last days.

Winans, Baldwin and another woman, Joann Kahan, got together a few years ago to see if they could sell any of Reed's belongings to memorabilia collectors. Baldwin and Winans flew to Kahan's home in Plantation, Fla., where the women carefully scoured videotapes of "Brady Bunch" episodes, trying to match old shirts and ties that belonged to Baldwin's father to the shirts and ties Mr. Brady wore on-screen. (One of those ties, Winans notes, ultimately fetched $1,300 on eBay.) They also sold copies of Reed's old head shots from his early career.

But something happened. Winans says Kahan and Baldwin had a falling-out, and Kahan is no longer involved in the Reed enterprise. (Kahan, when reached, confirmed that she is no longer selling Reed's pictures or belongings.)

Winans says it's possible that, if Baldwin and her attorney change their minds, Reed's face could be restored to official Brady stuff. "That would be interesting," she says. "We've had 10 years of different [merchandise] without him on it. If he comes back, then something that is missing his picture could become more valuable."

So it comes down to the law.

Unlike the way fictional characters eventually drift toward the public domain, real-life actors actually retain the rights to their images -- even after they're dead. Some things become public anyhow (Marilyn Monroe on the steam grate); some things get nasty (Bela Lugosi's estate fought for years over his image as iconic Dracula). Robert Reed never owned Mike Brady, but he did own Robert Reed, and Robert Reed didn't happen to want to be on a T-shirt for what they'd pay him.

Reed's estate is now handled by Chicago attorney Cary S. Fleischer.

"There's no question that his daughter and his grandson care deeply about his image," Fleischer says. "They're happy the Brady show is played and replayed, and sometimes, when someone wants to use his image for a charitable purpose, we say fine. But we take this very seriously."

Fleischer said he reviewed the Viacom/Paramount offer years ago and still advised Karen Baldwin not to take it. "I told her it would be to her benefit to keep these rights, that any money that could come from it was going to be insignificant." (When pressed, Fleischer says he considers $5,000 to be "significant" and that the merchandise potential was "a lot less than that.")

"The family has turned down offer after offer," Fleischer says, from producers and writers who want to tell the "whole" Robert Reed story: "A lot of the publicity about him has gone toward one part of his life, rather than the way the family wants him remembered."

And in this way, Mr. Brady abdicated part of his throne.

"Does it matter that he's not on T-shirts?" Fleischer says. "I don't think so. His presence still exists. He's the all-American father. He always will be."

What you want here is for them to cue the slow, syrupy Brady music, the part where Mike Brady would stroll into your sad-child bedroom and show you that there's a higher imperative, that this all means something more than money, that we've learned a lesson here.

But looking at a picture of "The Brady Bunch" where he's been permanently cut out doesn't warm the heart. It suggests, in a strange way, that not only is Dad gone, but that the sitcom dream was empty to begin with.

Of course it was. Still, it might be worth it to scissor him out of some old TV magazine, and glue him back on.

Robert Reed, who played Mike Brady, above and below in promotional shots from the show, doesn't appear on new products, such as calendar photos, at left. He (and then his estate) refused to let Viacom/Paramount use his image.Missing person: This photo, from this year's "Brady Bunch" calendar, has Ann B. Davis (Alice) in Robert Reed's (Mike Brady's) traditional position on the grid.