A Man of Many Talents: Charles Nelson Reilly

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We continue our series getting to know some of the Match Game regulars. Today Charles Nelson Reilly is on my celebrity panel. Little did Charles Joseph Reilly, an Irish-American, and Signe Elvera Nelson, a Swedish-American, know when they gave birth to Charles in 1931, they were creating one of the country’s best-known celebrities. From details he later shared, his home life was not a particularly happy one.

At 13, he had a traumatic experience that he would refer to often. He was at the circus in Hartford, Connecticut when a fire broke out, killing 167 people and injuring another 700. It left him with a fear of being in public-filled areas, and he avoided being a member of the audience anywhere, including theaters.

However, he did not fear performing in these spaces. He studied at the Hartt School of Music, with the goal of becoming an opera singer, but realized he did not have the voice skills he needed and turned to the theater and acting. He paid his dues working as a mail clerk at the Waldorf Astoria, an orderly, and an usher. He received a small role in A Face in the Crowd in 1957. He then went on to become a regular comedy performer in Off-Broadway shows. Opera continued to be a passion of Charles, and he would later guest star on many opera radio broadcasts and become close friends with many opera singers.

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In 1960, he transitioned to Broadway with a part in Bye Bye Birdie, where he was also Dick Van Dyke’s understudy. This led to his being a member of the cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1962 for which he won a Tony for the role of Bud Frump. The rest of the 1960s found him on Broadway performing in various shows, including Hello Dolly with Carol Channing, for which he earned another Tony nomination.

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He also began appearing on television in the 1960s, showing up in Car 54, Where Are You?; The Farmer’s Daughter; The Patty Duke Show, and became a cast member of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1968-70. Charles played the nephew of Captain Gregg, the ghost who befriends Mrs. Muir and her family. As the bumbling Claymore he was fussy and sarcastic, traits attributed to Charles from then on.

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The 1970s continued his television acting career, and we saw him on Here’s Lucy, The Doris Day Show, McMillan and Wife, and Love American Style among others. He had a recurring role on Arnie in 1971-2 and starred in a show, Uncle Croc’s Block. When you see characters named Witchy Goo-Goo, Uncle Croc, Mr. Rabbit Ears, and Basil Bitterbottom, you know it’s not your normal show. This spoof on kid’s shows only lasted for 16 episodes.

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Charles also appeared on game shows, talk shows, and was a favorite on The Tonight Show, appearing about 100 times. Nelson Reilly shared a story about one of his Tonight Show appearances.  A pretentious fellow guest asked Reilly, “What do you know about Shakespeare?” Charles stood and performed a long Shakespearean monologue, concluding with, “That’s what I know about Shakespeare!”

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He also did commercials for Excedrin, Purina Kibbles, and Bic Banana Crayons which he promoted in a banana costume.

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Beginning in 1976, Charles transitioned to directing both Broadway and television shows, although he continued to show up on series during the 1980s and 1990s, including The Love Boat, Madame’s Place, Evening Shade, and The Drew Carey Show. He won his third Tony nomination for directing Julie Harris in The Bell of Amherst.

Charles also continued making movies over the years, including the musical Two Tickets to Paris in 1962, the comedy The Tiger Makes Out in 1967, and the star-filled Cannonball Run II in 1984.

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CANNONBALL RUN II, Telly Savalas, Charles Nelson Reilly, Frank Sinatra, 1984. ©Warner Bros.

In addition to all of his other talents, Reilly was a well-respected teacher. Burt Reynolds was a close friend of his, and Charles moved to Florida in 1979 to teach at the Burt Reynolds Institute. He also taught at the HB Studio of Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen. Some of his students were Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Gary Burghoff, and Christine Lahti.

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Charles may not have had the voice skills for opera, but he was perfect for animation and was kept busy during the 1980s and 1990s voicing characters for Wind in the Willows, Rugrats, Goof Troop, The Pink Panther, SpongeBob, Tom and Jerry, and as Hunch in the big-screen film, Rock-A-Doodle.

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With his vast array of acting and directing fame, it seems ironic that he is best remembered for Match Game where he and his friend Brett Somers became a feature of the show.

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The original Match Game can be seen on The Game Show Network. The concept of the show was easy and fun. Two contestants were each given two questions with a blank in them, such as “The surgeon said, ‘The man I’m operating on must be a magician. When I reached in to pull out his appendix, I got a ___________ instead!’” Six celebrity panelists wrote down their answer to the question and then the contestant got a point for each person who matched their answer.

Brett and pal Charles Nelson Reilly, who often referred to her as “Susan,” kept each other in stitches and provided entertainment for the other panelists. In a September 12, 2012, Whitney McIntosh (in the blog ”This was Television”) referred to them as “rambunctious school children left to their own devices” which captures their relationship on the show perfectly. Their banter and quick quips kept viewers tuning in. For example, on one show, someone had mentioned that one of the younger panelists had a nice body. Charles turned to Brett remarking that her body was just as beautiful as the other woman’s.  The audience clapped, and Brett had just finished saying thank-you, when Charles added, “But you should take yours back because you’re putting a lot of wrinkles on it.” No one laughed harder than Brett.

I mentioned in my blog last week that Somers toured the US with an autobiographical performance. She was diagnosed with cancer while doing the show and passed away in 2007.

Reilly had a similar show, “Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly” which also became a film. Like good friend Brett, Reilly became ill during his show as well. He retired due to respiratory problems; unfortunately, the illness got worse and he died of pneumonia in 2007 also.

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Reilly was one of the few performers who never hid his gay lifestyle. An NBC network executive once told him, “They don’t let queers on television.” He proved him wrong, becoming a television star.

Despite his extroverted television personality, Charles was a very private person. One of the most surprising things I learned about Charles was that he was bald and wore a toupee during the 1970s and 1980s. If you watch Match Game often, you will notice he went through a period where he wore a variety of hats; this was because his toupee was being adjusted. In the late 1990s, he accepted his baldness and quit wearing hats.

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One of the best descriptions I read about Reilly came from Danny Miller on his blog dated May 28, 2007. He said “As anyone who met him knows, from his celebrity friends to the fans on the street to his nurses in the hospital, being in Charles’ presence was like being a willing victim of a high energy tsunami. Hearing him tell anecdotes about his crazy life was irresistible and you never wanted him to stop, he was so much fun to be around. He seemed to know everyone in showbiz, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he spoke reverentially of many of his talented friends, including Uta Hagen and Julie Harris.”

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Paul Linke, his director for his one-man show, wrote after his death: “The world is a slightly less funny place now.” I have to agree.

 

 

3 thoughts on “A Man of Many Talents: Charles Nelson Reilly

  1. That circus experience sounds like a terrible thing to go through. Interesting that he didn’t like attending those places but didn’t have an issue performing there. Like Brett I recognize him from the Match Game but did not know any of his career path. I would not have pegged him for someone that had a go with Opera. I love that he had a character in Rugrats and Rock-A-Doodle is a movie I barely remember but sticks out for some reason. It is interesting that they died in the same year.

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    • Same here. I mainly knew Brett & Charles from Match Game. Seeing the photos of Brett on The Odd Couple, I do remember her on that but nothing more. Likewise, I recall Charles from commercials and The Tonight Show but thought those arose because of his work on Match Game. They both had much fuller careers than I knew. Very interesting reads.

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