Here's the story ... Of a man named Brady ... Who has skipped out on his wife and their six kids. Well, not quite.

The ultimate American dad, Mike Brady, still dispenses fatherly advice on never-ending reruns of The Brady Bunch. But he's disappeared from all Brady merchandise, everything from tin lunch boxes to wall calendars to T-shirts.

The rest of the bunch is all there: Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Cindy, Bobby, Mrs. (Carol) Brady, and even Alice the housekeeper. But Mike, played by actor Robert Reed, has been cut out, even from such famous images as the staircase-set Brady family picture.

So what happened?

The answer isn't nearly as mysterious as say, the fate of Mr. and Mrs. Brady's first marriages (we know he was a widower, but that's about it). The case of the missing Mr. actually hinges on a very un-Brady reality: Lawyers.

Quite simply, Reed's heirs don't believe they've been given a fair fee for the rights to use his likeness. When Reed died in 1992, his daughter and grandson rejected an offer of less than $5,000 from Viacom/Paramount, said Reed estate lawyer Cary S. Fleischer, and the issue has been unresolved ever since.

And so, Carol Brady became a single mother.

Many passive fans may not have noticed Reed's disappearance. But die-hards certainly have.

"Obviously the fans miss him and would love to have him on the merchandise," said Wendy Winans, who runs bradyworld.com, the unofficial Brady Web site. "But the fact that he isn't there makes people think more about him."

Interest in Reed's life has piqued since his death. The public cause of death was listed as intestinal cancer. But several months later reports surfaced Reed had been gay, and was also suffering from AIDS.

Some speculate his lifestyle is part of the reason he's been banished from Bradyland. But those in the know deny it.

"That has nothing to do with why he's not on the merchandise," said Winans, 31, who is in contact with most of the former cast members.

Viacom/Paramount, which is in production for an upcoming movie, titled Brady in the White House, declined comment.

Fleischer acknowledged the estate has denied permission to use Reed's image in some "true story"-type television programs. But he said Reed's personal life has not influenced the merchandise issue.

"The basic concept is there is an estate here and we are willing to listen to proposals and offers from various people," he said. Reed's image has been used in some Brady projects and for charity events, but the estate is selective.

The latest resurgence in Brady mania spawned in 1995 when the satirical The Brady Bunch Movie was released. These days most Brady memorabilia is sold on eBay. But interest remains steady: One recent search yielded more than 300 items.

The new movie, however, could spark a Brady renaissance and a new round of tchotchke, all missing the image of Reed and his character. But in a way, that's OK with some fans.

"Robert Reed is always going to be the patriarch of the Brady family, whether he's there or not," said Winans.