NAPLES — For his role as a nationally renowned cardiologist and researcher, actor Tom Riska arrived wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie.

As he read his 100-page script for roughly three hours, he stumbled on a few medical words. “Echocardiography,” the 60-year-old said, laughing.

“Renn-all,” he said, quickly correcting himself and continuing, “Renal arteries.”

After boning up further during a lunch break, Riska was confident with his script’s multisyllabic medical jargon — and his part as Dr. Rajendra H. Mehta went off without a hitch.

This wasn’t a medical TV show or soap opera. Riska was “testifying” as an expert witness in Collier Circuit Court, where a surgeon and his physician assistant were on trial in a medical malpractice case involving Annie Olesky, 61, a popular Immokalee civic leader who died days after heart surgery in 2004.

Mehta, who splits his time between Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and a private practice in Michigan, couldn’t make it to testify Aug. 25, the fourth day of the trial. He’d testified during the first trial in 2006, when jurors couldn’t reach a verdict.

Mehta’s prior testimony was Riska’s script.

“Tom is a perfect Marcus Welby-like character,” Ellen Jacoby, a Miami casting director, said of Riska, who has been in movies and commercials, done voiceovers and modeled. “I don’t think people realize it’s more effective and it keeps the jury awake.”

Riska is among the local actors available at Actors-at-Law, a Miami firm started in 2004 by Miami attorney Marc Brumer, a trained actor, and Jacoby, a casting director for TV series and movies, including “Miami Vice,” “CSI Miami,” “Ace Ventura,” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

Jacoby came up with the idea of using actors after her own trial. She’d been seriously injured in a car crash and spent four months wearing a brace.

“I watched the jurors sleep and the judge didn’t even wake them up,” she said of someone who read to her jury the deposition of an officer who investigated her crash. “I was actually appalled.”

Brumer, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, was her attorney, so she suggested using actors when a witness wasn’t available.

The two bring about three decades each of experience to their company, which receives about a dozen calls for actors yearly and provided two actors for trials this year.

Their ad, shown on their website,, features a level scales of justice with the masks of comedy and tragedy and “The Winning Performance and Verdict” beneath it. “Attn: Trial Attorneys. Don’t Put The Jury To Sleep!” the ad says. “We provide professional actors as deposition readers at trial.”

It’s not unusual for depositions or trial transcripts to be read at a trial due to an expert’s or doctor’s busy schedule. However, it’s usually a lawyer, paralegal or assistant who delivers the absent witness’ testimony in an often dull, monotonous voice.

But with trials often becoming a national pastime, like Casey Anthony’s case, jurors expect some drama and don’t want to be lulled to sleep.

Attorneys hire jury consultants to pick a perfect jury, engineers who use computer animation to reconstruct accidents, and some lawyers take drama or voice lessons to ensure they project and their attitude doesn’t turn off a jury.

“We’re not trying to skew the system. We’re not trying to embellish. But if you read a 300-page deposition, it’s brutal — it’s hard to listen to,” Brumer said.

“If they would see it and see how superior it is to them reading a deposition, they’d do it as well,” Brumer said of lawyers, adding that he doesn’t disclose the reader is an actor, just an assistant.

Florida ethics rules allow reading of depositions and trial testimony if a witness isn’t available, but don’t address actors because the practice is rare. The American Bar Association has similar rules.

“There’s no violation of ethics as long as you disclose that ‘so and so’ is not available and give an attorney advance notice to object,” said Daniel P. Ryan, a Michigan judge and a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law.

In trial advocacy classes, students are taught posture, speaking and eye contact for lawyers and witnesses. “Improve your trial skills using literary techniques,” is an article Ryan just copied for his students that addresses word choice, rhythm, sound, character and point of view.

“Obviously, both sides want to present their side in a persuasive manner,” he said. “…As Shakespeare says, ‘All the world’s a stage’ — particularly when you go to trial. It would not surprise me that a lawyer would utilize an actor for a very important witness.”

Ryan, who presides over many trials, said it’s not uncommon when a witness isn’t available for the “best-looking” male or female prosecutor to read the part. “Do you think that’s not intentional? Of course, it’s intentional,” he said.

News reports show the practice of using actors has been growing.

In 1993, Chicago actor Ian Harris started Law Actors, which has spread to Florida, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Ohio. In 2003, Law Actors provided “lawyers and witnesses” in a mock trial that helped lawyers prepare for a case that ended in a $32 million verdict.

In 2001, Chicago-area actor Richard Shavzin put together 16 actors to re-enact a 1,800-page trial transcript for a legal malpractice case after an insurer, upset over an $8 million verdict, sued its law firm. The jury awarded the insurer $2 million — to be paid by the law firm.

Actors are trained to use voice, tone, inflection and facial expressions to make a reading more lively and interesting, while remaining true to a transcript.

“Lawyers are great at acting as lawyers, but they’re not consummate actors. An actor is more versatile,” Jacoby said. “Lawyers should stick to the law.”

Telling a compelling story can be key to winning a case — and actors are trained story tellers.

“Obviously, you’re not going to get Tom Cruise to come in there, but you want the jury to look at him and believe what he says,” Jacoby said.

Bobbi Spencer of Naples, an actress and coach at, helps prepare victims to be more comfortable and effective witnesses at trial, mostly in personal injury cases. It’s something she did for four years in Tampa, with fees varying for each case.

“We always won,” Spencer said, adding that she was considered a lawyer’s “secret weapon.”

Studies show jurors favor eyewitnesses with accents like their own and attitudes toward foreigners and their speech is significantly tied to comprehension. A 2007 study, Influences of Accent and Ethnic Background on Perceptions of Eyewitness, found that accented eyewitness testimony was perceived less favorably than non-accented testimony.

Blue-eyed with blond-gray hair, the 6-foot-4 Riska looks and sounds nothing like the 53-year-old Indian-born Mehta. And his bill at $100 an hour was far less than Mehta’s, about $200 less hourly, although that wasn’t a factor.

“Believe me, I’d much rather have the doctor there, but he wasn’t available,” said Edward “Ski” Olesky’s attorney, Mark Weinstein.

Weinstein declined comment because of an expected appeal — an attorney’s remark about the actor and jurors not being able to judge Mehta’s demeanor is part of his motion for a new trial.

When Riska took the stand, Weinstein told jurors Riska was an “assistant” and would read Mehta’s past testimony. Jurors didn’t appear to notice the implication when defense attorney Scott Sankey began his cross-examination by straying from the script.

“You’re just an actor,” Sankey said, but Riska stuck to the transcript.

Juror Corey Thomas noticed, but didn’t think paying an actor was much different from paying an expert to testify.

“He was good. At least it was better than the video,” Thomas said of lengthy testimony by a forensic pathologist. “But it’s just not as interesting because you can’t ask questions.”

Unlike with real witnesses, jurors couldn’t pose questions to script readers. Most were fairly monotonous, but Weinstein put so much inflection into his readings, the defense objected.

In contrast, Riska was straightforward. He’s often hired to play a doctor, attorney, politician, businessman — even a scoundrel. Most recently, he’d performed as a senior CIA agent in Hijacked, a movie set for release next year, and a police investigator on America’s Most Wanted. For his latest role, Riska was told Mehta was confident and not intimidated, even though he’d never testified before. As he testified, Riska said he was able to portray Mehta better while making eye contact with the judge, jurors and attorneys.

“I’d say it was very close, if not longer, than a script for a feature-length film,” Riska said. “…It is right up there with other challenging dialogues I have done.”