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Reilly, Charles Nelson (1931-2007)  

Funnyman Charles Nelson Reilly gained fame during the 1970s as a regular guest on game shows and celebrity talk shows. His flamboyantly campy manner and sheer goofiness endeared him to television audiences, both on game shows and in series such as NBC's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968-1970), and to movie audiences in films such as Cannonball Run II (1984).

However, Reilly had all the credentials of a genuine old trouper of the stage. He not only won awards on Broadway for his character roles, but was an acclaimed director, a writer of plays and opera libretti, and an acting teacher.

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Though seldom confrontational about being gay, Reilly also never attempted to be someone he was not, and his unapologetically sissified persona injected a refreshing gay sensibility into all of his roles.

Born on January 13, 1931 in New York City, Reilly was raised in the Bronx by an angry, verbally abusive mother and a depressed, alcoholic father. His father was a movie poster artist, whose skill earned him a job offer from Walt Disney. However, his mother stubbornly refused to consider moving to California, so the family stayed in New York, where the elder Reilly finally drank himself to a nervous breakdown.

Young Charles Nelson escaped from the family pain into a world of fantasy and make-believe. He went on stage for the first time at the age of nine, playing Columbus in a school play, and found that he loved to act. At age 13, he survived a disastrous circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut.

When Reilly was eighteen he began studying acting with famed method teacher Uta Hagen. Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, and Jack Lemmon were among his classmates.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the eager young actor appeared in twenty-two Broadway and off-Broadway plays. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1962). Two years later, he earned a Tony nomination for his performance as Cornelius Hackel opposite Carol Channing in the original production of Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly (1964).

In 1960, while understudying the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, Reilly got to know actor Gene Rayburn, who later became host of the television game show The Match Game. Their friendship would lead to dozens of television jobs for Reilly.

Reilly first came to national attention with his regular appearances on the television variety show The Steve Lawrence Show in 1965. He then spent a two-year stint on the popular NBC situation comedy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, playing the fastidious Claymore Gregg.

In 1969, Reilly secured a role on the children's show H. R. Pufnstuf. He also appeared in its spinoff, the ABC series Lidsville, where he played an evil magician. He later appeared in the title role of another children's show, Uncle Croc's Block.

Throughout the 1970s, Reilly was seen on television as a guest on a number of situation comedies and variety shows, but became best known as a regular panelist on such game shows as The Match Game, Tattle Tales, and Hollywood Squares. In these lightweight venues, Reilly played up his campy side, frequently wearing a captain's hat and ascot, and delivering his lines with mordant prissiness.

Reilly's persona in these appearances, as in most of his guest roles on television, was a version of the film sissy that was a staple of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood movies. Often petulant and waspish, but revealing a less complex personality, he also bore a resemblance to Paul Lynde, who also appeared on many of the same television venues in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though seldom on Hollywood's A-list, Reilly also became a popular guest on a number of celebrity talk shows, including Dinah! and The Merv Griffin Show. He appeared 98 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

It was backstage on the game show Battlestars, in 1980, that Reilly met the man who would become his life partner. Patrick Hughes III was a set decorator and dresser on the show. He soon moved into Reilly's Beverly Hills home, where the two lived a quietly open life.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Reilly appeared in guest parts in a number of television series, including The Drew Carey Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and The X-Files. He earned two Emmy Award nominations for such guest appearances. In addition, he directed several episodes of Evening Shade and made several appearances on the revived game show Hollywood Squares.

Thoughout the ups and downs of his television and film career, Reilly's stage career flourished. He directed many plays, in New York and on the road, from classics like Harvey and The Gin Game to tours de force such as Julie Harris's one-woman tribute to Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst. In 1997, he received a Tony nomination for directing Harris in a revival of The Gin Game.

Reilly also became a respected acting teacher. For many years he taught acting at HB Studio, the acting studio created by Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. Among his students were Lily Tomlin, Christine Lahti, and Bette Midler.

In October 2001, Reilly opened on Broadway in a one-man show about his life, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. Though some critics complained that the show's three-hour length cried out for editing, all were charmed by the versatile Reilly's frankness and gentle humor.

One moment in the show was especially poignant for his gay audience. Reilly reminisced about his first attempts to seek work on television. An NBC executive told him flatly, "They don't let on TV." With arch irony, Reilly pointed out that by the 1970s he had become one of the most familiar faces in American television.

A film version of The Life of Reilly, directed by Barry Polterman and Frank Anderson, premiered at film festivals in 2006.

Charles Nelson Reilly died of pneumonia on May 25, 2007. He was survived by his partner, Patrick Hughes III.

Tina Gianoulis

     

 
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Charles Nelson Reilly on the set of the film The Life of Reilly (2006). Photograph by Joe Piccolo.
  
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  American Television, Situation Comedies

American television sitcoms have consistently reflected the presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, often in distorted and stereotyped ways, but occasionally in ways that acknowledge our humanity and complexity.

arts >> Overview:  Film Actors: Gay Male

Although few gay actors have been permitted the luxury of openness, many of them have challenged and helped reconfigure notions of masculinity and, to a lesser extent, of homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Film Sissies

The film sissy had his heyday in the 1930s, but persists as a film archetype, subtly reminding audiences that there are other ways of being than conventional heterosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Stage Actors and Actresses

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual actors and actresses are among the elite of contemporary theater, but only recently have many come out publicly.

arts >> DeCaro, Frank

Funnyman Frank DeCaro has found success both in serious journalism as a fashion writer and editor and in comedy as a writer, performer, and radio talk show host.

literature >> Dickinson, Emily

Emily Dickinson's poems and letters to her sister-in-law Susan are both passionate and elusive in their homoeroticism.

arts >> Griffin, Merv

Singer, talk show host, and a creator and producer of television shows, Merv Griffin remained in the closet even as his bisexuality was an open secret within show business communities.

arts >> Herman, Jerry

A proponent of the "diva musical," Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman made homosexuality the undisguised subject of La Cage aux Folles but he did so just as gay culture lost its need of a diva to voice its concerns.

arts >> Lynde, Paul

American comedian Paul Lynde, most famous for being the crucial "center square" on the 1970s television game show Hollywood Squares, created a campy bitch comic image but was fiercely closeted.

arts >> Tomlin, Lily

Less well-known for being herself than for the many memorable personages she "becomes" during her performances, comedienne Lily Tomlin has long been a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, but only recently came out herself.


    Bibliography
   

"Charles Nelson Reilly." Rotten dot com. http://www.rotten.com/library/bio/entertainers/charles-nelson-reilly/

Birchall, Paul. "Time Flies When You're Alive." Back Stage West 6.26 (July 1, 1999): 17-19.

DeCaro, Frank. "The Life of Reilly." TV Guide (March 16, 2002): 48A-52A.

Duralde, Alonso. "Charles In Charge: With His Acclaimed One-Man Show Headed For Off-Broadway, Pop-Culture Oddball Charles Nelson Reilly Has the Last Laugh." The Advocate (September 25, 2001): 52-57.

Isherwood, Charles. "Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly." Variety 384.10 (October 22, 2001): 43.

Ozersky, Josh. "Game Show Panelists: A History." New York Times (December 12, 2004): 2.13.

Ryon, Ruth. "Hot Property; Life of Reilly: House, Boat, Memories." Los Angeles Times (May 5, 2002): K1.

Zaslow, Jeffrey. "Late-Night Television Has No Use Anymore for Old Troupers--Charles Nelson Reilly Is Alive and Kicking, But You Won't See Him on Leno."Wall Street Journal (August 26, 2002): A1.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: Reilly, Charles Nelson  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated January 11, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/reilly_cn.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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