January 13, 1931– Charles Nelson Reilly
Before he came to La La Land where he became the very best person to have on any type of television show, Reilly worked regularly on Broadway.
He won the Tony Award for playing Bud Frump in the original Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962). He was the original Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly! (1964), and one of stars of a favorite Broadway musical flop, Skyscraper (1965).
He was also a noted director, responsible for The Nerd (1987) and The Gin Game (1997), and he directed Julie Harris to another of her Tony Awards in the one woman show The Belle Of Amherst (1976) based on the life of Emily Dickinson which he claimed was his greatest achievement. He was also a noted director of opera for major companies around the country.
Reilly’s openness about being gay was decades ahead of its time, especially for someone on television. Initially, Reilly paid a price. He was dismissed early in his career by a network executive who told him:
“They don’t let queers on television.”
Reilly later had the last laugh when he would page through TV Guide and count how many times he was on the air that week. If that exec could only watch an hour of any network or cable programming nowadays, he would probably drop dead.
Reilly was renowned as an acting teacher, in NYC, Los Angeles, and at colleges around the USA. He spent years teaching at the HB Studio, the acting school created by Herbert Berghof and his wife Uta Hagen, where I studied in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have him as a teacher, but I said hello to him in the hallway many times, and he was jittery, but warm and funny, just as he was on talk shows. Many of his students went on to have careers and win Oscars and other awards, including Liza Minnelli who was coached by Reilly when she was young.
My first childhood memory of Reilly was as the character Claymore Gregg on the television series The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1968-1970) starring Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare. Reilly became close to Lange and they remained friends until her passing in 2003. I also remember him from the nutty Sid and Marty Krofft series Lidsville (1971-73) that played on Saturday morning. This show was accused of using frequent drug references, including the very title, and indeed, it was best viewed while being stoned. Reilly played a villainous magician, Horatio J. HooDoo, who tormented the protagonist played by Butch Patrick, the former Eddie Munster. The Kroffts managed to get ABC to air a children’s show that takes place in a land of living hats and then deny that it had anything to do with smoking pot.
Reilly also guest-starred on just about every popular sitcom of the 1960s and 1970s, including Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63), Here’s Lucy (1968-1974), and The Doris Day Show (1968-1973), and he was always the highlight of each episode.
He absolutely ruled The Match Game beginning in 1973. If you were one of the millions of housewives or home-sick-from-schoolers or on summer vacation, you probably caught this show; I know I did. I enjoyed a period in my youth when I was rather dedicated to the genre, with the campy rejoinders of Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares (1969-1977) and the daily barbed exchanges of Brett Somers and Reilly. For a decade, Somers and Reilly provided a delicious mid-afternoon snack that was bawdy and puerile, but somehow never cheap. Their repartee was not Mike Nichols and Elaine May, they basically tried to match contestants’ answers to questions that called for a lot of toilet and underwear jokes, but with Somers and Reilly what worked was not what was being said, but who was saying it. Fans ate it up.
Reilly once told an interviewer:
“When I die, it’s going to read, ‘Game Show Fixture Passes Away’. Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn’t bother me.”
Reilly was both strapping and doughy, the essence of the gay sissy stereotype, with his ascots, hairpieces, shirts opened to the third button and tidy penmanship, and also a send-up of the hyper-butch gay clone, especially when he lowered his voice and became his alter-ego “Chuck”. Reilly, like Lynde and other gay actors of their era, never named the love that dared not speak its name, but never did he try to hide it.
Because they were real actors with Broadway experience, they weren’t just panelists on The Match Game, but characters. Somers was the middle-aged man-hungry broad, and Reilly was the fussy creampuff always disparaging her answers, her wardrobe, and her decorating skills. They were forerunners of Will & Grace, the gay man and his gal pal with a bitchy, loving disregard for each other.
My teacher at HR Studio, Austin Pendelton once related this anecdote: Reilly was staying at a hotel in NYC and found himself riding in the elevator alone with Sir Laurence Olivier. He said nothing to Olivier on the way up but as the elevator door opened, he turned to the best actor on the planet and deadpanned: “If I’d known this was a theatrical establishment, I would have booked elsewhere”.
Reilly didn’t stop working until he got sick, and he was known to more recent audiences for roles on The X Files (1993-98) and Millennium (1996-99) and as the voice of the Dirty Bubble on SpongeBob SquarePants (1996- ).
His final work was an autobiographical one-man show, Save It For The Stage: The Life of Reilly, where he related tales of his difficult childhood. Born in The Bronx, Reilly was the only child of a Swedish mother and an Irish father, where he was considered the oddest member of a decidedly odd family.
He explained the title of his show by saying that his mother would often cut him off from speaking by admonishing him to: “Save it for the stage”.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Reilly, with his ascots, oversize eyeglasses and over-the-top double-entendres, was a regular on television. Reilly was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than 100 times. Reilly was such a smart, funny and reliable guest and lived within blocks of the NBC Burbank studios and he was often asked to be a last-minute replacement for scheduled guests who cancelled or were no-shows.
But, Reilly still wanted to be taken seriously as an artist:
“You can’t do anything else once you do game shows. You have no career.”
Despite appearing with a full head of hair during his career, Reilly was in fact bald, wearing a toupée throughout most of his appearances in the 1970s and 1980s. During the taping of Match Game ’74 his toupee became the joke of the show when Reilly had to go to NYC to have his toupee adjusted and attached. In many episodes, Reilly is seen wearing different hats because his toupée is back in NYC waiting for him. This began a series of long-running jokes on Match Game about his hair. He abandoned the toupée in 21st century and appeared bald in public for the rest of his life.
Patrick Hughes III, a film and television set decorator, was Reilly’s longtime partner, They met backstage in 1980 when Reilly appeared on the game show Battlestars. They lived a quietly open life together at Reilly’s funky Coldwater Canyon home. Reilly’s final credits rolled in spring of 2007, taken by pneumonia. He was 76-years-old. Somers was taken by cancer a few months later.