Saturday, January 13, 2018

Born Today in 1931, Actor, Director, 'Match Game' Funny Man Charles Nelson Reilly

Charles Nelson Reilly was born today, January 13, in 1931. He was an actor, comedian, director, and drama teacher, known for his comedic roles on stage and in films, television shows, cartoons, and as a game show panelist, primarily on Match Game in the 1970s.

Reilly was born in The Bronx, New York City. When young, he would often make his own puppet theater to amuse himself. His mother, foreshadowing his future as an entertainer, often would tell him to "save it for the stage."

At age 13, he survived the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed 169 people in Connecticut. As a result, he never sat in an audience again throughout the remainder of his life. Because of the event's trauma, he rarely attended theater, stating that the large crowds reminded him of what happened that day.

As a boy, Reilly developed a love of opera and desired to become an opera singer. He entered the Hartt School of Music as a voice major, but eventually abandoned this pursuit when he realized that he lacked the natural vocal talent to have a major career. However, opera remained a lifelong passion, and he was a frequent guest on opera-themed radio programs, including the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. He directed opera productions for the Chicago Opera Theater, Dallas Opera, Portland Opera, San Diego Opera, and Santa Fe Opera, among others.

Reilly made his film debut with an uncredited role in A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan, although most of his early career was spent on the stage. He was a regular and popular performer in comic roles for several summer seasons in the 1950s at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. Reilly appeared in many Off Broadway productions. His big break came in 1960 with the enormously successful original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie. In the groundbreaking musical, Reilly had a small onstage part and was the standby for Dick Van Dyke in the leading role of Albert Peterson.

In 1961, Reilly was in the original cast of another big Broadway hit, the Pulitzer prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For his memorable origination of the role of Bud Frump, Reilly earned a 1962 Tony Award for featured actor in a musical.

In 1964, Reilly was featured in the original cast of yet another giant Broadway success, Hello, Dolly!. For originating the role of Cornelius Hackl, Reilly received a second nomination for a Tony Award for performance by an actor in a featured role in a musical.

While he kept active in Broadway shows, Reilly would soon become better known for his TV work, appearing regularly on television in the 1960s. For example, he appeared both as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests and as a panelist on that popular TV program. In 1965, he made regular appearances on The Steve Lawrence Show, which aired for a single season.

From 1968 to 1970, he appeared as the constantly flustered bumbler Claymore Gregg on the television series The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, which also starred Hope Lange. The series updated a popular fantasy romance film of the 1940s into a broad situation comedy, and Reilly's character, who was not in the original movie, was the focus of many of the gags.

Reilly was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than one hundred times. Because Reilly was such a lively and reliable talk-show guest and lived within blocks of the Burbank studios where The Tonight Show was taped, he was often asked to be a last-minute replacement for scheduled guests who did not make it to the studio in time.

Reilly was perhaps best known as a fixture on game shows, primarily due to his appearances as a regular panelist on the television game show Match Game. Reilly was one of the longest-running guests, and often engaged in playful banter with fellow regular Brett Somers (the two generally sat next to each other on the show—Somers in the upper middle seat and Reilly in the upper right seat). Reilly typically offered sardonic commentary and peppered his answers with homosexuality-themed double entendres that pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.

From 1976 on, Reilly primarily taught acting and directing for television and theater, including directing Julie Harris (with whom he had acted in Skyscraper in 1965–66), who was portraying Emily Dickinson in her one-woman Broadway play The Belle of Amherst. In 1979, he directed Ira Levin's play Break a Leg on Broadway. Despite the previous year's success of Levin's Deathtrap, Break a Leg closed after one performance. Reilly earned a 1997 Tony Award nomination as Best Director of a Play for the revival of The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris.

Magazine and newspaper profiles of Reilly throughout the 1970s and 1980s did not mention his personal life or sexuality. Many years after the cancellation of Match Game, he revealed his homosexuality in his theatrical one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly.

Much like fellow game-show regular Paul Lynde of the same era, despite Reilly's off-camera silence, he gave signals on-camera of a campy persona. In many episodes of Match Game, he lampooned himself by briefly affecting "YO!" in a deep voice and the nickname "Chuck" and self-consciously describing how "butch" he was. Many years after his game show career ended, he mentioned in a 2002 interview with Entertainment Tonight that he felt no need to explain his joke about "Chuck," and that he never purposely hid being gay from anyone. Patrick Hughes III, a set decorator and dresser, was Reilly's domestic partner; the two met backstage while Reilly appeared on the game show Battlestars, although their partnership was not revealed publicly. They lived together in Beverly Hills.

Reilly spent his later life primarily touring the country directing theater and opera, and offering audiences a glimpse into his background and personal life with a critically acclaimed one-man play chronicling his life, called Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. In 2004, his final two performances of his play in North Hollywood, California were filmed as the basis of an autobiographical independent film titled The Life of Reilly.

Reilly was ill with respiratory problems while filming The Life of Reilly, and retired from directing and performing immediately after the final day of shooting. The show premiered in March 2006 at the South by Southwest film festival, and Reilly's performance in the film received great acclaim. Reilly cancelled his personal appearance at South by Southwest due to illness, and by the time the film premiered, he had been hospitalized. Reilly died of pneumonia at his home on May 25, 2007. That weekend, the Game Show Network dedicated its programming to Reilly, airing his funniest episodes of Match Game.

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