NEW YORK — As the character known as Riggo — “a role I played for 15 years,” he said — John Riggins was the model of straight ahead consistency on the field and unpredictable wackiness off it. There seems to be a Riggins story for each of the 11,352 yards he gained as a Hall of Fame running back with the Redskins and, before that, the New York Jets. Some of them are even true.
Now Riggins, who started taking acting classes in 1994 and starred in an off-Broadway play last year, has taken on a new role. He is Mitch Hendon, a character in the soap opera “Guiding Light,” which at 50 is the longest-running show in the history of television and only a few years younger than Riggins, 53.
Hendon is a tough ex-Marine, a wealthy owner of several auto dealerships and not a very nice person. He is shrouded in mystery. Riggins himself knows little about Hendon, but thinks he might be a CIA operative. In one of the multiple plot lines, Hendon’s wife, who was cheating with a younger man, has been murdered. Some folks in the town of Springfield believe Mitch might have done it. Explaining the character, executive producer John Conboy said, “He would hang you up by your feet if he wanted to get information. He would rather handle a situation physically than discuss it.”
This is fine with Riggins, who, when he played, also preferred to handle situations physically, especially situations that called for crunching out a first down. He has taken a liking to Mitch Hendon, describing him as himself between the ages of 8 and 12. “I used to be a little bit of a bully,” he said. “I was bigger than the other kids.”
Once again, Riggins is the biggest person in the room. Looking younger than his age, he looms large as he paces nervously on the set in Studio A of the New York Production Center in midtown Manhattan. He is 6-foot-2, and brisk, nine-mile walks around Central Park have helped maintain the same 240 pounds he employed to pile-drive into opposing defenses. Or would-be thieves. Riggins recently surprised an intruder in the West 39th Street apartment he shares with his wife, Lisa-Marie, a law student to whom he has been married seven years on Thursday, and his 6-year-old daughter, Hannah. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; Riggins ended up pinning the unfortunate fellow to the ground in the lobby until police arrived.
But in the studio, something is a little off. Namely, Riggins. He has not worked in six weeks, as Hendon is what is known as a “recurring character,” not a regular, and has rehearsed only a little. Still, in soaps, that’s the way it is. Also, an alarm clock rudely jolted Riggins awake at 6a.m. As he paces, wearing a tan suit, Riggins not only mouths his lines but tries to shake off the rust and the cobwebs. “My day was shot from the beginning,” he groused later. “I felt like I had a hangover without having a hangover.”
Riggins has some experience with such matters. As a member of the Redskins’ “5 O’Clock Club,” he shared beers with the offensive linemen, the “Hogs,” behind a shed every day after practice. He occasionally played with real hangovers, and was charged with DUI twice and public drunkenness (nothing stuck in court) after he retired at the age of 36 in 1985. But all that is old news. While he still enjoys a frosty beverage now and again, Riggins has cleaned up his act considerably. “I think you kind of outgrow that stuff,” he said.
Riggins was in bed by 10:45 the night before, and he can’t understand why he feels so out of it. Also, in his first scene, Riggins is sitting in a restaurant booth with actor Justin Deas, a six-time Daytime Emmy winner who plays Buzz Cooper, one of Hendon’s few friends.
“That was kind of a struggle a little bit,” Riggins said. “I was uncomfortable physically because I had to sit in a stilted position and all that stuff. It didn’t feel quite right. But so what? You still have to get the meaning across.”
So there, Riggins is still a gamer. Give him the ball, or a script, and he’ll know what to do. When he played for the Jets from 1971 through 1975, he missed several games and some within the organization suggested he didn’t know the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. That wasn’t a problem with the Redskins, especially after Joe Gibbs arrived as coach in 1981, the same year Riggins returned after a season-long holdout. Gibbs helped popularize the one-back offense, and Riggins was the one back. The “Riggo Drill,” as it was known, was simply Riggins repeatedly getting carries until the defense caved in.
Acting is less painful than football, at least in the neck, shoulders and knees, and Riggins overcomes the discomfort. He breezes through a dress rehearsal and then the actual taping without a hitch. He later said he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his work. But he likes his next scene better. Riggins unfolds himself from the booth, walks outside the restaurant and confronts a character named — no kidding — Harley Davidson Cooper, Buzz’s daughter and an ex-cop.
The dialog cannot be revealed here because the episode, and subsequent ones Riggins taped, won’t air until July, and such disclosure would be tantamount to leaking national security information. Or worse.
It can be said, though, that Riggins, or Mitch, is his usual menacing self, bad intent bubbling just beneath the surface. “When I walked out with Harley, now that, all of a sudden, was when it started to come to life for me,” he said. “I got into this guy who’s sort of on the edge. There’s a lot of intimidation he gives off.”