By Tom Gliatto
June 22, 1992 12:00 PM

WHEN KNOTS LANDING RETURNED to the air in February after a five-month hiatus—during which CBS’s long-running (13 seasons) but sagging nighttime soap was being retooled—viewers were disturbed by a wholly unexpected development: They could barely recognize Larry Riley, who had been with the show for five seasons as cop turned attorney Frank Williams. The 6′ actor had dropped 80 lbs. from his once-powerful 220-lb. frame and suddenly looked much older than his 39 years.

Riley attributed the drastic change to “a complete shutdown of my kidneys” brought on by high blood pressure; he would, he explained, be on dialysis the rest of his life. When he died only four months later—on June 6, at the St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank—his widow and his doctor revealed that the kidney ailment was the result of AIDS.

“I didn’t tell my family,” says his second wife, Nina, 37, whom he married in December after a six-year relationship. “He didn’t tell his family. We didn’t tell a soul. Larry was very concerned that the word would have gotten out and ruined his career.”

When Riley learned he had the disease, says Nina, he asked his doctor not, “How long can I live?” but “All right—how long can I work?” “To Larry Riley,” Nina explains, “life equaled work and work equaled life.”

Riley’s career began in his hometown of Memphis. He appeared in school shows at Melrose High, then studied drama at Memphis State before graduating to stage roles in Pippin, Dreamgirls and A Soldier’s Play (plus the 1984 movie version, A Soldier’s Story). In 1988, Riley arrived in Knots Landing; along with Lynne Moody, who played his wife, he was the series’ first black regular.

Nina praises Knots executive producer and head writer David Jacobs for making life easier for her ailing husband—though neither Jacobs nor anyone else on the show knew Riley had AIDS. Jacobs rearranged shooting schedules and rewrote scenes so that the actor, no longer able to stand because of exhaustion and pain in his arms and legs, could be filmed sitting. After Jacobs informed Riley that he would be re-signed for another season, despite his failing health, “Larry cried all the way home,” Nina says. But Jacobs wishes Riley had given him the chance to show even greater understanding. “We accommodated his disease,” says Jacobs, “but we didn’t deal with it.”

Costar Joan Van Ark harbors similar regrets. “This cast is such a family,” says Van Ark, “and we are wondering now: Did the family fail?” She and other cast members say they assumed his story of kidney failure was the truth. Landing’s Kevin Dobson, aware only that his friend’s health was deteriorating, says he tried to call Riley the day he died, planning to offer to donate blood. And Michele Lee, who directed Riley in the season cliff-hanger, says, “I knew he was not well, but I expected him to live, to get better.” During the final shoot, she recalls, “his wife was holding a blanket around him between takes.”

Riley learned that he was HIV positive in 1990, four years after he met Nina, a former actress. “There were tiny clues,” she says. “He had shingles four or five years ago. And he would catch cold.”

As to how Riley, who was once briefly married to a businesswoman and has a 21-year-old son, Larry Jr., from another relationship, contracted AIDS, Nina says, “He was not gay. He was not bisexual. He did not use needles at all. He speculated it was from a woman. Because he was quite the womanizer.” His lifestyle, though, could scarcely have bolstered his immune system. “He had a very severe problem with drug and alcohol abuse,” she says, “and he had gotten clean and sober in May ’89,” detoxing at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. His doctors, she says, believe he could have been HIV positive for a decade (he was treated by Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who has also treated Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Glaser). Nina has so far tested negative, and continues to be tested every six months.

Riley was too sick to even get on the plane for one last trip to Memphis in April to visit his mother, Corine, his sister Georgia and his brother, Joe. (Another sister, Debra, lives in Houston; his father, George, a contractor and minister, is deceased.) Afterward, Nina says, “he was depressed and withdrew into himself.” Fortunately, Riley’s love of music, especially blues and jazz (he had done the score for several Knots episodes), helped ease his pain.

“Near the end, I finally brought in his boom box,” says Nina, “and played some blues tapes. He was the biggest fan of the blues, and he turned to Dr. Gottlieb and said, ‘Did you bring the horn section?’ The doctor started laughing. I did. Larry did. He kept his sense of humor up to the very last moment.”