Rob Riley '03 turned up at his birthday party last October wearing a T-shirt that read, "NY Loves Me." Riley thought the shirt was just a fun and clever play on the ubiquitous "I Love NY" shirts sold on nearly every Manhattan corner, but it wasn't far from the truth.
Riley has gone through a near-meteoric rise that few in his industry experience. He's acted in commercials, appeared on various television shows, traveled the country with a production of Fences, and acted opposite James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad in the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Not bad for someone only four years into his career.
At his October birthday party, Riley added another feat to his resume. Among those raising a celebratory glass were Riley's current co-workers, venerable actors Dan Lauria and Judith Light. The three were working together in Riley's second Broadway play, Lombardi, which chronicles the professional and personal life of Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi.
The play, which opened Oct. 21 at the Circle in the Square Theatre to rave reviews and packed houses, is based on the best-selling biography When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. Riley played NFL linebacker Dave Robinson, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1963 and played on two Super Bowl championship teams. Lauria played a convincing Lombardi and Light portrayed the legendary coach's wife.
The play enjoyed a successful seven-month run on Broadway that ended May 22.
"The more you read about Lombardi, the more you love and respect this man," Riley says. "And the more I read, the prouder I am to be a part of this production that celebrates his life and what he did."
The show is the first to be produced and backed by the NFL, and as such garnered considerable media attention and marketing hype. Riley says that while the play centers on football, it focuses on relationships-between husband and wife, father and son, coach and player.
"People walk out of the theater and say they didn't know what to expect," Riley says. "It's a show that touches you and it's a man that wanted the best out of people and himself. This will be the first time in the history of Broadway where the husbands are bringing their wives to the theater. I don't mind being a part of that one bit."
'A gentle launching pad'
Riley feels a special kinship with his on-stage persona. Long before Riley discovered his calling on the stage, he found it on the gridiron. A Brooklyn native, Riley was raised by a single mother who instilled a practical sense in her son. After applying to 16 schools, Riley settled on Lehigh, where he could pursue accounting and play football-a plan he believed would offer security in the long run.
"I was going to go into business because my mother worked for the New York Stock Exchange," Riley recalls. "Math is my best and favorite subject. I figured with accounting I'd be good to go."
But a class helped change his mind, his major, and his career. Quick to befriend people on campus and always the entertainer, Riley enrolled in an introductory acting class where Kashi Johnson, now associate professor of theatre, encouraged him to audition for a role in the Lehigh production of A Raisin in the Sun.
"I'll never forget this, because I walk through those doors at the Black Box Theatre every day to teach class," recalls Johnson, who at the time was in her first year as an adjunct professor in the department of theatre. "He was walking through the doors and I told him, 'You need to audition for A Raisin in the Sun' and he said, 'No, I play football, I don't do that.'"
Johnson, convinced she knew Riley's talents better than he knew them himself, wouldn't take no for an answer. When Riley finally acquiesced, he was cast as Walter Lee- the lead role.
"That class was a gentle launching pad," Johnson says of Riley. "All he needed was to get in A Raisin in the Sun and that was it. Actors do that one thing that shows them the world."
By his junior year, Riley officially declared theatre as his major. He left the football team after his freshman year to pursue other opportunities, namely playing the Lehigh mascot at sporting events and ultimately acting as "Wave Man"-the self-appointed, yet widely followed, leader of the wave at home football games. His ease in front of a crowd also helped him land as a finalist in MTV's "VJ for a Day" contest. That exposure helped convince his friends, and more importantly his family, that perhaps entertaining could be a serious career.
One of the turning points in Riley's career path came in 2002, when racial tensions flared on campus. Riley, upset and angry, came to Johnson looking for an outlet for his frustrations. Together, they created a play called Untold Truths to act as a constructive response.
"I got the idea to respond and use his frustration and his artistic gifts and mine," Johnson says. "We were able to keep the conversation going using the artistry rather than feeling victimized by it."
The script was based on interviews they conducted with African-Americans who worked or studied at predominantly white companies or schools around the country. Untold Truths had a sold-out run at Touchstone Theatre in South Bethlehem.
"That was when I realized that I could do this for a living," Riley says. "Working in the theater allowed me to concentrate on being the best human being I could be, and that helped me do better at my job. If I can do that, I don't want any other job-because every other job is just a job."
A devoted supporting cast
Riley's mother traveled the two hours from New York to Bethlehem to see her son's performances, including Untold Truths. She recognized her son's talent, but still wondered if he could make a decent living as an actor. She made Gus Ripa, professor of theatre and currently associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, assure her that he would graduate.
"Gus made sure I graduated and gave me very good advice," Riley says. "He told me, 'Don't be afraid to go anywhere, because you don't know where this job will take you.' And I haven't been afraid. I've been all over the country as a result of that."
Ripa says Riley left Lehigh well equipped to succeed. "Pursuing theatre at Lehigh in traditional or studio class or in production will expose students to a most diverse set of challenges, ideas, cultures, and people," he says. "Our students are ready for what they will encounter after Lehigh because they have engaged directly with each other and with demanding faculty, they have produced original undergraduate scholarship collaboratively, and they have developed a critical acumen that helps them separate the good from the bad, and to aspire to the best."
Even with his growing list of accomplishments, Riley's success either hasn't gone to his head or has yet to sink in. He's quick to credit a wide support system that has helped him along his journey from South Mountain to the Great White Way. In addition to the support from faculty like Johnson, Ripa, and Pam Pepper, chair of the department of theatre, Riley received further training and education from other well-experienced faculty at Ohio University, where he received his M.F.A.
Pepper is not the least bit surprised that Riley has made it big on Broadway. "From the moment that Rob decided to pursue a career in performance, he has been fiercely disciplined and focused," she says. "The fact that he's finding success in New York is due to his significant talent and his unswerving commitment to his goals. That he has accomplished what he's accomplished in a relatively short amount of time is impressive by any standard. He is an inspiration."
Other Lehigh alumni and local community members offered various forms of support to "Wave Man" as well. Riley credits Touchstone Theatre's Mark McKenna for introducing him to the Building Bridges program, where he helped at-risk students improve their communication skills through theater games and exercises.
Riley's also grateful to Michael Roche '03, who encouraged him to get his real estate license and gave him a job in New York so he could make a living in between auditions without having to wait tables. And he credits former Lehigh running back Ronald Jean '00, now a personal trainer in Beverly Hills, with helping him get into "football shape" for his role as Robinson.
"I've had people like James Earl Jones and Judith Light, who are legends in the game, say 'You're going to be all right, you're going to be something.' If you're smart, this makes you want to work harder and get better," Riley says.
Through the years, Riley's most constant source of support has been his family. No other Lombardi actor had a coach bus of 35 family members pull up in front of the theater to see the play. Because of this support, Riley is quick to draw parallels between his off-stage story and the one that unfolds during Lombardi.
"I've had coaches and teachers in my life care about me the way he [Lombardi] cared about his players," Riley says. "Being raised by just my mother, I understand it even more when you don't have a father. I know what it means to have a father figure in a coach or a teacher display that kind of care about you. I know what that's like and Lombardi was like that. So I'm honored to be able to present that to people and have them walk away with something."
Story by Tricia Long
Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2011