NAME: Larry Riley

June 20, 1952, Memphis, Tennessee

June 6, 1992, Burbank, California

Photo: courtesy Estate of Larry Riley

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    Actor, Singer, Composer

    Larry Riley was a vibrant entertainer who in his brief but full career achieved critical acclaim in the New York theatre scene and national celebrity in television. He received an Obie Award for his lead role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play, and became nationally known for his role as Frank in the television show Knots Landing. A self-taught musician, he contributed songs and incidental music throughout his career to many of the productions in which he starred.

    The son of a preacher, Riley had no formal schooling beyond high school. He "audited" classes at Memphis State without ever officially enrolling, and was awarded an honorary degree. During his early years in Memphis Josie Helmings was an influential acting coach and mentor. Riley went first to Chicago to pursue an acting career, and eventually found his way to New York.

    The legendary director Bob Fosse gave Riley his first big break around 1972, casting him in the Broadway production of the musical Pippin, replacing Ben Vereen. Riley was also active in a variety of theatre companies in New York during the 1970s. With two frequent collaborators, Jackee Harry ("Jackee") and Pauletta Pearson, he workshopped an early play by Toni Morrison. He also performed alongside Pearson and Marc Lyn Baker in Randy Newman's musical Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong.

    Ten years after landing the lead in Pippin, Riley reached the highest artistic achievement of his theatrical career, starring in A Soldier's Play. Written and directed by Charles Fuller, the piece featured Riley's original songs and received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For his portrayal, Riley received an Obie Award, a Drama Desk nomination and an ASCAP New Composers Award. The 1984 film adaptation A Soldier's Story, in which he reprised the role of C.J. Memphis, received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

    Riley's first success in television also came during the early 1980s, when he was a member of the daytime drama The Doctors for three seasons. His first prime-time television lead was in the series Stir Crazy, based on the hit film that starred Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

    While on the West Coast, Riley became a part of the Los Angeles theatre scene, landing roles at the Mark Taper Forum and on other stages. Through a production of Dreamgirls at the Shubert Theater, he met his future wife, the actress Nina Girvetz. From a previous relationship, Riley already had a child, Larry Riley, Jr.

    Riley landed guest spots on numerous television series including the popular shows Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. He also starred in many made-for-television movies and documentaries. In Unconquered, a CBS Movie of the Week, he played Martin Luther King, Jr. He also worked extensively in commercials, and received a Clio Award for Best Male Performance for a Burger King spot in 1983.

    Riley became famous for his starring role as Frank in the prime-time soap opera Knots Landing. A spin-off of Dallas, the show was already a huge success when he joined the cast in 1988. For his second season on the show, he received a Soap Opera Digest Award. Among his costars, Pam Greer and Halle Barry played his girlfriend. By his second season on the show, Riley was writing the musical score to many of the episodes.

    A natural musician, Riley was an adept guitarist who took informal lessons from blues artists he met along the way. But he was never musically literate, and was also dyslexic. He played, sang and described his original music so that it could be learned by performers or transcribed by collaborators. Doug Walter was a regular partner in scoring episodes of Knots Landing and other projects during Riley's later years.

    Riley's most ambitious work was a musical, The Legend of Barbara Allen or The Saga of Barbara and Billie. Conceived by Riley and inspired by the children's folk song "Barbara Allen," it is set in the Indian and Black encampments of Florida just prior to the War of 1812. Elements of plot and music draw on Voodoo incantations. Though Riley wrote twelve songs for it, a satisfactory book was never completed nor was it ever staged.

    Through much of his life Riley struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. However, the sheer volume of his many roles on both coasts suggests that this seldom interfered with his professional activities. After being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1989, he remained sober.

    During Riley's final season on Knots Landing, his failing health became obvious and controversial. According to Girvetz, The National Enquirer threatened to out him as having AIDS. In response, Riley went on Entertainment Tonight and claimed that he had kidney failure, which he blamed on excessive dieting. Girvetz credits the producers of Entertainment Tonight for making Riley appear more coherent than he actually was in their interview, and the producers of Knots Landing for faithfully allowing Riley to continue to perform when he was able.

    Shortly after Riley's death, Girvetz went back to Entertainment Tonight to give an honest account of the cause of his death. And in a moving article for Memphis Magazine, she also reveals Riley's desire to return to his hometown of Memphis prior to his death. Because a prolonged effort to first identify an AIDS doctor in Memphis delayed the move, Riley's health declined to the point that it became impossible.

    Larry Riley died of complications from AIDS in Burbank, California at the age of 39 on June 6, 1992.

    —Joseph Dalton



    A Soldier's Play (1982) by Charles Fuller
    Music and words to songs by Larry Riley
    Received 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

    The Legend of Barbara Allen or The Saga of Barbara and Billie (1987)
    Songs by Larry Riley
    Book (uncompleted) by Eugene Lee.
         Tain't No Mean Trick
         Headin' West
         Bad Men Coming
         Mississippi Mud-Colored Man
         Devil Take Him Off
         God's Own Truth
         Ballad Of Barbara Allen
         Ain't No Good
         You Can't Own Yourself
         The Vision Once More
         I Knew You Was Real
         Ballad Of Barbara Allen

    West Memphis Mojo (1989)
    "Can't Get Your Lovin' Off My Mind"
    (lyrics, music, guitar, production, arrangements)


    Blind Side (1986) — Score for Warner Brothers feature film (music, lyrics, arrangements, production, vocals, guitar, harmonica)


    Knots Landing (1989) CBS — Scored many complete episodes (production, vocals, guitar, arrangements)

    Long Gone — Two songs for the HBO feature (received ACE Award), including "Stogie Stomp" theme song (guitar, vocals, music, lyrics)

    Dead Solid Perfect (1988) HBO
    "Dead Solid Lock" (a song made for the film, but never used) (lyrics, music, harmonica, guitar, vocals, production, arrangements)

    Commercial radio demos for Budweiser, Kodak Film and other companies


    Pippin — Cast by Bob Fosse to replace Ben Vereen as Leading Player in original Broadway production (ca. 1973) and also starred in national tour
    A Broadway Musical — Ran 12/21/78-12/21/78
    I Love My Wife (musical) — Replacement cast, played 4/17/77-5/20/79
    Night and Day (play) — Ran 11/27/79-2/16/80
    Shakespeare's Cabaret (music by LANCE MULCAHY) — Ran 1/21/81-3/8/81
    Big River — Replaced first Jim, played 4/25/85-9/20/87

    Off-Broadway, etc. (New York):
    Amerika [sic] — Music Theatre Lab
    A Broadway Musical
    — Prior to Broadway run
    Diamonds — Circle in the Square Theatre (1984)
    The Dream Team — Music by Thomas Tierney, lyrics by John Forster, book by Richard Wesley (ca. 1985)
    Frimbo — Grand Central Station
    I Love My Wife — Ethel Barrymore Theater
    Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong (1982)
    Night and Day — ANTA Theater (?)
    A Soldier's Play — Negro Ensemble Co. (1981)
    Styne After Styne — Manhattan Theatre Club

    Los Angeles (Theatre):
    August 6 — Mark Taper Forum
    Dreamgirls — Shubert Theater
    Let the Good Times Roll: A Tribute to Louis Jordan — Produced, directed and performed at the Hollywood Roosevelt's Cinegrill
    Pippin — Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
    A Soldier's Play — Mark Taper Forum (1982)
    West Memphis Mojo — Ensemble Studio Theater

    A Soldier's Story (1984) — Directed by Norman Jewison
    Crackers (1984) — Directed by Louis Malle

    Television Films and Specials:
    Badge of the Assassin (1985) (CBS Movie of the Week)
    Blind Side
    Brown vs. The Board of Education (PBS)
    Dead, Solid, Perfect (1988) (HBO)
    Invictus (CBS Movie of the Week)
    Long Gone (1987) (HBO)
    Muggable Mary (1982)
    One Police Plaza (1986) (NBC Movie of the Week)
    Polly (1989) (NBC Movie of the Week)
    Polly: Comin' Home! (1990) (NBC Movie of the Week) as Reverend Gillis
    Space Baby (Hanna-Barbera cartoon) voice over as Boogieman/Jack
    Unconquered (1989) (CBS Movie of the Week) as Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Who Owns The Sun (PBS)
    commercials for AT&T and many others

    Television Series and Pilots:
    Chicago Grape Vine [sic] (ABC pilot) as Julian Perry, with Oprah Winfrey as Natalie Graham
    The Doctors (NBC daytime) — Three seasons (1980-82) as Calvin Barnes, also with Alec Baldwin
    The Fall Guy (ABC) — Guest star (March 1986)
    Hill Street Blues (NBC) — Guest star (November 1982)
    Knots Landing (CBS) — Starring role as Frank Williams (1988-1992)
    Miami Vice (NBC) — Guest star (October 1984)
    Morning Maggie (CBS pilot) — With Hank Azaria
    Spencer: For Hire (ABC) — Guest star (March 1987)
    Stir Crazy (CBS) — Starring role (1985), based on the movie with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor
    The Twilight Zone (CBS) — Guest star (February 1986)
    The Magical World of Disney — "Polly" (1989) (two episodes), with Phylicia Rashad


    For A Soldier's Play:
    Obie Award (1982)
    Drama Desk Nomination (1982)
    Clarence Derwent Award (1982)
    ASCAP New Composers Award (1982)
    NAACP Black Image Award
    Soap Opera Digest Award for 1989-90 season of Knots Landing
    Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Man of the Year (1988)
    L.A. Dramalogue Awards (1983)
    Downtown Theater World Award (1983)
    Clio Award (1983) for performance in a Burger King commercial





    • Obituary, New York Times, June 10, 1992.
    • "Look Homeward, Angel" by Nina Riley, Memphis Magazine, March 1993.
    • "In Memory of Larry Riley (Frank Williams)"

    ASCAP (Dobie Music)


    Nina Girvetz (wife)
    2825 Third Street
    Santa Monica, CA 90405
    Tel: (310) 399-1122
    Fax: (310) 450-4002


    With Nina Girvetz (see Executor).


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