Lord of the Ring 

Long before pro wrestling became a multibillion-dollar industry, Dick Steinborn ruled the ring as the ultimate good guy. Now he's ready for his second act.

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Steinborn and third wife, Sheila, 19 years his junior, divorced. "She told me that I had nothing left," Steinborn recalls. "I said, 'I got me.'"

He toyed with moving to Montana, where he loved to fly fish, or Barbados, where the windsurfing was excellent. But a two-week visit to Richmond, where he'd lived for two years in the 1950s, convinced him this was the place.

click to enlarge On his way to Australia, Steinborn stopped in Hawaii to wrestle in a match refereed by boxing legend Rocky Marciano.
  • On his way to Australia, Steinborn stopped in Hawaii to wrestle in a match refereed by boxing legend Rocky Marciano.

He says the Fan reminded him of some parts of Europe and allowed him to be closer to family than another region or country would allow. (He has seven kids and 11 grandchildren, two of whom wrestle in high school.)

Retirement wasn't quite retirement — he trained clients in his gym and in 1988 was a temporary wrestling coach at Liberty Junior High School in Ashland (Steinborn also wrestled in high school). He married a fourth wife, Hazel.

And even in Richmond, drama beckoned. In 1987 he wrangled a small part as a policeman in "The Murder of Mary Phagan," a TV miniseries about Leo Frank, a man convicted of a 13-year-old girl's murder who was lynched by anti-Semites. It was to be a nonspeaking part, but when the cameras rolled, Steinborn improvised, yelling as loudly as he could, "Arrest that man!"

The ad-libbed words netted him a bigger check. He knew this from his first role: In the '70s, a Georgia promoter had managed to get Steinborn and a few other wrestlers chances to explore their acting chops. The film was "Moonrunners," a prequel to TV's "Dukes of Hazzard." Steinborn's role, as listed in the Internet Movie Database, was "obnoxious bar patron."

Steinborn knows what story he wants to tell in his play, which is his next act of sorts. He has the dramatic highs and lows. He understands how to manipulate the audience. "I used to get in that ring. I had 3,000 people. I had 38,000 people," Steinborn says. "They belonged to me."

What he doesn't have is the dialogue, he says. He wants the words that will keep people in their seats. He got in touch with Woody Eney of the Barksdale Theatre. Eney, a veteran actor whose lengthy résumé includes small parts on "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," helps lead a scriptwriting group at the Barksdale. He invites Steinborn to attend a meeting. "What goes on in the 45 minutes before a wrestling match — you'd be surprised," the wrestler tells the group when he's introduced.

click to enlarge Today, Steinborn trains a few clients out of his home gym in The Fan, a neighborhood he loves. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Today, Steinborn trains a few clients out of his home gym in The Fan, a neighborhood he loves.

The night's scripts include a tale of a woman and her husband visiting Mexico after her mother's death. While he listens to the three actors read dialogue, Steinborn's brow furrows. The highs and lows aren't there.

"I've seen plays like that," he says afterward. "They're very dull."

Days later, he's undaunted.

"I've done a lot of things in my life, and I know that this will be a success because I can see the ending."

Back in the 1990s, Steinborn and an old friend, wrestler Johnny Heidman, went to see "Cocoanuts" at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The Marx Brothers gag fest delighted his buddy. At one point, a cast member ran out into the audience and plopped himself in Heidman's lap.

Heidman, who died at age 90 at a Charlotte-area nursing home in January, roared with laughter. "I never saw someone laugh so much in my life," Steinborn recalls.

As much as he loves the theater, Steinborn isn't above walking out at the end of the first act if the story doesn't capture his attention. On another night at Swift Creek, he was thinking about doing just that. The play featured a man in a wheelchair who seemed to play mute. While the other characters moved around the stage, he didn't say a word. "It wasn't too intriguing," he says.

Then, left alone onstage right before intermission, the man jerked to attention. He addressed the audience knowingly: "I wonder how the second act's going to go?"

Steinborn was hooked.

He stuck around to find out.

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