ON THE telephone from California, from the great carnival heart of the Michael Jackson trial, is Rigg Kennedy, who is suddenly loving life. Kennedy hasn't gotten this much attention since he danced on Baltimore's old Buddy Deane TV show and got fan letters all the way from Highlandtown. Now he's playing Jackson's lawyer on TV, and getting plaudits from the whole wide world.
How do you like that? Forty years after he left his old Hampden neighborhood and headed for Hollywood, he's an overnight hit. Finally. At 62, he's got teenage girls stopping him in the grocery store aisles. Strangers on the street ask to take his picture. They're coming up to him everywhere and asking, "Aren't you Thomas Mesereau?"
Well, yeah, more or less. Mesereau's Michael Jackson's real-life attorney. Kennedy's playing Mesereau on the E! Entertainment Channel, which has been doing daily re-enactments of Jackson's trial, since no TV cameras are allowed in the courtroom. The programs are broadcast to 100 countries in 120 different languages, says Kennedy, his voice full of pride and wonder.
"So how's the case look from your angle?" I ask Kennedy, figuring, as Michael Jackson's "lawyer," he's got some hot inside information on the case.
"It's an amazing process," he says.
But he means the TV process. At the end of each trial day, the E! channel folks get transcripts from the trial, which are then boiled down to half-hour segments. Cast members re-create each day's highlights.
"We're in makeup at 4 o'clock each afternoon and start shooting," Kennedy says. The show runs at 7:30 p.m. and 11 a.m. each weekday, plus a weekly Saturday roundup, such is the level of salacious interest in the child molestation case against the pop singer Jackson.
"As his `lawyer,'" I ask, "how do you see his chances?"
"Well, it's been going on for two months," says Kennedy, not quite answering the question, "and it could go another month or two. Naturally, I'm hoping it will. I love doing it. I can't wait to get up and go to work. I come home around midnight each night, I have something to eat and watch a tape of the day's show, and get to see what we've done. It's validation for me. It's the validation of finally being paid as an actor."
When he left Baltimore in the early '60s, he never imagined the struggle awaiting him. He'd grown up around Waverly, hung out at the old Boulevard and Waverly theaters and caught the movie bug. Attended St. Bernard's School, got a reputation for doing show biz imitations, for convulsing friends with over-the-top dramatic Shakespeare recitations. Danced on the Buddy Deane show and got letters from girls all over town. Spent a lot of time at the old Famous Ballroom on Charles Street, where "the prettiest girls and the toughest guys" would hang out and dance.
First touch of real showbiz? Rigg Kennedy did a real good imitation of John F. Kennedy. He does it over the phone now. It's dead-on JFK. Four decades ago, John Pica Sr. ran for a City Council seat. Pica knew JFK through political pals, but couldn't approach him about a piddly City Council endorsement.
So he did the next best thing. If he couldn't get John Kennedy, he'd get Rigg Kennedy - whose "JFK" voiceover highlighted Pica's broadcast ads and helped him get elected.
With such lustrous background, Rigg figured he'd give Hollywood a shot. Landed a bit part in something called Dayton's Devils, with Rory Calhoun, Leslie Nielsen and Lainie Kazan. Figured stardom was right around the corner.
"And that was it," he says. "It's been a hell of a struggle since then."
He got some small movie work that did well in film festivals, but nothing big-time commercial. Some small roles on TV's McMillan and Wife with Rock Hudson, and a few soap operas, but it was all "two or three days of work at a time, nothing sustaining.
"Believe me, it's tough to support yourself like this. You learn frugality. It means going to the theater only when you get comps, or eating out only when you have friends who own restaurants. Or your family helps you out, or you sell your car just to keep ahead of the bills and keep your dignity."
He wrote some poetry along the way and got published in Harper's magazine. Drank a little too much, prayed a lot, rediscovered every helpful saint he'd ever heard about back in Baltimore. And then, when the Jackson trial opened and they started casting parts, Kennedy's ship finally came in.
"People say I look like Jackson's lawyer," he says, although Kennedy's 5-8 and Mesereau's 6-3. They've got similar hair. "I haven't met the guy. I've called his office, but they say he's too busy to talk. I base his character on what I've read, and what people have told me about him. I know that he defended Robert Blake for a while, and Mike Tyson. I even got his birth date so I could do some astrological assumptions. You have to reach for the soul of the character you're playing."
Speaking of soul - how's Michael Jackson's? As an "insider," does Kennedy think his "client" has a shot?
"I could tell you," Kennedy says, "but I'm forbidden by contract to discuss the case in public."
"How about off the record?"
"Oh, sure," Kennedy says. "Off the record, Michael Jackson hasn't ... "