Mel Gibson appears in the new motion picture, “Tequila Sunrise,” as a drug dealer who may or may not have reformed. Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars as a restaurant owner who eventually waits on a couple of her customers hand and foot, and all else in between.
A third party in this love triangle is Kurt Russell, who plays an L.A. County police lieutenant decked out in custom-made suits, white-on-white shirts, small-knotted neckties and a haircut that is slicked straight back with some sort of Brylcreem or Vitalis or Dippity Do. Recently I went to see this movie, mostly to watch Russell. My women friends went to check out Mel, and most of my men friends preferred Michelle. But me, I went to see Kurt. I did this as soon as I discovered that the part of the cop was written for--and offered to--mister slicked-back himself, Laker Coach Pat Riley.
True or false?
“True,” Riley concedes.
Robert Towne, the man we have to thank for the screenplay to “Chinatown” and the women’s-track story, “Personal Best,” went to the Forum a few years ago as a guest of Laker boss Jerry Buss. Towne was introduced to Riley, a man who already had made transitions from player to assistant coach to broadcaster to head coach, all roles he played for Hollywood’s favorite team.
“He told me what he was planning to do, that he’d been watching me, sort of visualizing my character,” Riley recalls. “The character was also based on a guy he knew a long time ago, a guy who was San Pedro chief of police in the ‘50s, a guy who dressed like me and wore his hair slicked back, same way I do.”
The part of Nick the narc eventually evolved into a guy who is torn by his sworn professional duty and his Redondo Beach boyhood friendship with Mac, the drug dealer, while the restaurateur gets ensnared in a romantic tug of war. There were, Riley recalls, some pretty hot scenes between “his” character and Michelle Pfeiffer’s in the original script. And the part was Pat’s if he wanted it.
And here I always thought Pat Riley was one bright dude.
“First of all,” he explains, “I was just starting out as a coach. I didn’t have much credibility. It was very flattering, but no, I couldn’t have done it.
“That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it 5 years from now, when I’m out of (coaching).”
Being Hollywood’s coach, handsome, popular, successful, cool, Riley has been offered a number of acting opportunities over the last few years, but says he has never responded to any. Unlike Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who squeezed in “Airplane!” and other films during his free time, Riley does not intend to mix two careers at once, saying, “I just think there’s a certain decorum that a coach has to maintain.”
Does he see “Tequila Sunrise” and wonder what sort of job he would have done with Kurt Russell’s part?
“No,” Riley says. “He plays me better than I can play me.”
And yet, it turns out that Pat Riley does know his way around a Hollywood stage as well as a hardwood court. During his broadcasting days, while also taking communications and speech courses at USC, Riley signed up for the popular character actor and acting teacher Jeff Corey’s drama classes, to cultivate self-confidence and poise, and just to see how he would do.
While there, Riley acted out scenes from plays and films. He did Mel, the Jack Lemmon role, from Neil Simon’s “Prisoner of Second Avenue.” He took instruction from Corey, stood his ground while the teacher attempted to see if he could shake the neophyte actor from his concentration, as when he loudly flung a trash can onto the stage right in the middle of Riley’s lines.
“He really tried to distract me,” Riley says. “One time he put five women up on the stage while I was reading something, and had them wrap themselves around my legs. Try saying your lines with that going on sometime.”
Riley does think he will try his luck at a movie bit someday, if somebody will have him.
Personally, I am trying to picture him in the following roles: As a Western sheriff. (Nah. Can’t see the hair.) As a private eye. (Have to wear older clothes.) As a rock star. (With hair to his shoulders. And an earring, maybe.) As the love interest of Goldie Hawn. (Sorry, Russell. Fair’s fair.) Or how about one of those horror movies, with Riley either as the slasher or the slashee?
Just to determine his preferences, I ask Riley what his favorite movie is, which videocassette he would take to a deserted island if he could only take one, and if the island just happened to have a VCR.
“Hmmm. I guess ‘The Wild One,’ ” Riley says.
You mean the one with Marlon Brando in a motorcycle gang? The one in which, when someone asks Brando what he’s rebelling against, he asks, “Whaddaya got?”
“Yeah,” Riley says, riding an imaginary bike. “Vrrrrrooooom. I remember the Harley.”
I have to be honest here: I can picture Pat Riley as many things, but not as a Hell’s Angel. Anyway, I hope he gets the girl. As Hollywood’s coach, he certainly gets women’s attention. Teri Garr once said during the election campaigns that her personal choice for President of the United States was Pat Riley. Joan Van Ark from “Knots Landing” last month was quoted that in her Christmas stocking she would like to find Pat Riley.
“You know, the Kurt Russell part originally called for a pretty passionate scene between him and Michelle Pfeiffer,” Riley says. “I couldn’t have done that.”
“Because of your own principles or because of the trouble it would cause you at home?” I ask Chris Riley’s husband.
“Because of my own principles,” Riley says. “Well, maybe both.”
Well, there you have it. Pat Riley, PG-13.