Monday, May 28, 2007

Tony Winner and Emmy Nominee Charles Nelson Reilly – 1931-2007

Charles Nelson Reilly used to say that "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." Well he's not getting that from me. Charles Nelson Reilly was nominated for three Emmy Awards: for Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role as Claymore Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1970); for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series as Jose Chung in the episode "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" from Millenium, and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series as Mister Hathaway in the "Drugco" episode of The Drew Carey Show. He won a Tony Award for Best Featured Performer in a Musical for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the role of Bud Frump (1962), and was nominated for Best Featured Performer in a Musical in 1964 for Hello Dolly as Cornelius Hackl, and as Best Director of a Play for the 1997 revival of The Gin Game. He was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his autobiographical one man show Save It For The Stage: The Life of Reilly (2002). He appeared in six Broadway shows and directed or staged five others. And yeah, he was also a fixture on the game show Match Game, which was hosted by his long time friend Gene Rayburn who Reilly had been an understudy for in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie, and was a frequent guest on Hollywood Squares.

Charles Nelson Reilly was born on January 13, 1931 in The Bronx, New York, but grew up in New Haven Connecticut. In 1944 he survived the Ringling Brothers Circus Tent fire which killed 168 people. Reportedly Reilly would never sit in the audience of any performance after that. Reilly's first television appearances were in two episodes of Car 54 Where Are You?, a series which shot in New York. He did a number of guest appearances in TV shows after that before landing the role of Claymore Gregg in the TV version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. That was the role that I first saw him in, playing the great nephew of the Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhare). Claymore – an eternal disappointment to his ancestor – is the scheming, but terrified of his ghostly uncle, owner of Gull Cottage. He was a delight to watch in the show's too short two season run.

After The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Reilly stayed in California and was a frequent guest star on network series as well as appearing frequently on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on which he made 95 appearances on the show. He played the evil magician Horatio J. Hoodoo on the short lived Sid and Marty Krofft series Lidville (another Krofft series that was never seen in my part of Canada). It was also during this period that he reunited with his friend Gene Rayburn to do the revival of Match Game where he frequently feuded with another series regular, Brett Somers. Also during this time Reilly developed a longstanding friendship with Burt Reynolds. Reilly frequently served an instructor and director at the dinner theatre that Reynolds owned in his hometown of Jupiter Florida. Reilly made a number of appearances with Reynolds in movies and TV shows and directed several episodes of Reynolds's series Evening Shade.

Reilly had some regrets about his work in game shows telling The Advocate in 2001 "You can't do anything else once you do game shows. You have no career." This was probably true; certainly most of his work on Broadway after Match Game was as a director. Still, one of his most memorable TV roles came long after his main period of fame on Match Game. He played writer Jose Chung twice – once in the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and again in the Millenium episode "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" a not so subtle tweaking of Scientology. Watching Reilly playing Jose Chung made me re-evaluate him as an actor. In both appearances Chung was significantly less flamboyant than his persona on Match Game or even as Claymore Gregg on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Charles Nelson Reilly didn't officially reveal his homosexuality until his one man show Save It For The Stage although it was hardly a secret. He told Entertainment Tonight in 2002 that "he felt no need to come out of the closet and that he never purposefully hid his homosexuality from anyone." Certainly his comedic persona in Match Game and probably as far back as Claymore Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs Muir was that of a rather flamboyant or even camp gay man, and his sexuality may have hurt his TV career as much as his game show appearances during the 1970s. According to Reilly a network executive once told him "they don't let queers on television."

In recent years Charles Nelson Reilly had focussed on his one man show. According to his partner Patrick Hughes (who he met while appearing on the game show Battlestars in the early 1980s Reilly had been ill for more than a year before succumbing to pneumonia on May 25th. And yeah, he was right virtually every newspaper obituary referred to him as "game show fixture Charles Nelson Reilly."

Here is the trailer for the film version of Reilly's one man show which is called The Life of Reilly and was released onto the festival circuit in 2006.

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