Charles Nelson Reilly

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Charles Nelson Reilly
Reilly in 2000
Charles Nelson Reilly II

(1931-01-13)January 13, 1931
DiedMay 25, 2007(2007-05-25) (aged 76)
Resting placecremated
EducationHartt School of Music
OccupationActor, director, comedian, drama teacher, opera director
Years active1957–2004
Height6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)
Partner(s)Patrick Hughes (1980–2007)
AwardsTony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical
1962 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Charles Nelson Reilly II (January 13, 1931 – May 25, 2007) was an American actor, comedian, director, and drama teacher known for his comedic roles on stage and in films, television shows, and cartoons. He was in the original Broadway casts of Bye Bye Birdie; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and Hello, Dolly!. He is best known for his television work on the television sitcom series The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and the game show Match Game. One of his last works was an autobiographical one-man play Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly that was also filmed and released as an independent movie.

Early life[edit]

Reilly was born in The Bronx, the son of Charles Joseph Reilly, an Irish Catholic commercial artist, and Signe Elvera Nelson, a Swedish Lutheran.[1] When young, he would amuse himself by creating puppet theater, and his mother often told him to "save it for the stage".[2]

At age thirteen, he survived the 1944 Hartford circus fire[3] which killed 167 people in Connecticut, and he never sat in an audience again after that. Because of the event's trauma, he rarely attended theater, stating that the large crowds reminded him of what happened that day.[4] As he often stated on the Johnny Carson show and other such venues, that even as the director of a play or stage production he preferred to sit at the back of the house or the back of a balcony near the exits to preview his work including one time where his leading lady’s costume caught fire (but on recounting this episode to Johnny, Reilly assured him “but you know, these things always work out ok”).

Reilly developed a love of opera and wanted to become an opera singer. He entered the Hartt School of Music as a voice major, but 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. He was good friends with opera singers Renée Fleming, Rod Gilfry, Roberta Peters, and Eileen Farrell.[5]



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 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 Dick Van Dyke's understudy/replacement for the leading role.[6]

In 1961, Reilly was in the original cast of another Broadway show, 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.[7]

In 1964, Reilly was in the original cast of Hello, Dolly!, another successful Broadway show. 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.[7]


Charles Nelson Reilly as "Randy Robinson" on the CBS television series Arnie (1971)

Reilly kept active in Broadway shows but he became better known for his TV work, appearing regularly on television in the 1960s. He appeared as a Mystery Guest and was a panelist on the What's My Line? quiz show. In 1965 he appeared several times on The Steve Lawrence Show, which aired for a single season. Television commercials that he made throughout the 1960s and 1970s included Excedrin and Bic Banana Ink Crayons.

From 1968 to 1970, he appeared as the bumbler Claymore Gregg on the television series The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also appeared as a regular on The Dean Martin Show and had guest appearances on various television series, including McMillan & Wife, The Patty Duke Show, Here's Lucy, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Love Boat, and Love, American Style. In 1971, he appeared as the evil magician Hoodoo in Lidsville, a children's program on ABC.

Reilly was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than 100 times. He was a lively and reliable talk-show guest and lived within blocks of the Burbank studios where The Tonight Show was taped, so he was often asked to be a last-minute replacement for scheduled guests who did not make it to the studio in time.[citation needed]

Reilly was a fixture on game shows, primarily due to his appearances as a regular panelist on Match Game. He 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). He typically offered sardonic commentary and peppered his answers with homosexuality-themed double entendres which pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.[8]

During the taping of Match Game '74, Reilly left for a short time to film Hamburgers (1974). From 1975 to 1976, he starred in another live-action children's program titled Uncle Croc's Block, with Jonathan Harris. He was often a guest celebrity on the 1984 game show Body Language, including one week with Lucille Ball and another week with Audrey Landers.[9]

Later career[edit]

From 1976, 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, by William Luce. 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. Within days, Reilly appeared on The Tonight Show, joking and speaking at length about the show's failure, saying, "So [a play] can open and last six years, eight years... or two hours and five minutes." Reilly earned a 1997 Tony Award nomination as Best Director of a Play for the revival of The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris.[7]

In 1990, he directed episodes of Evening Shade. Reilly also made guest appearances in the 1990s on The Drew Carey Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Family Matters, Second Noah, and as eccentric writer Jose Chung in the television series The X-Files ("Jose Chung's From Outer Space"), Millennium ("Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"), and occasionally as the voice of the Dirty Bubble in the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants before he was replaced by Tom Kenny. Reilly was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1998 and 1999 for his performances in The Drew Carey Show and Millennium, respectively.[10]

Reilly was a longtime teacher of acting at HB Studio, the acting studio founded by Herbert Berghof and made famous by Berghof and his wife, the renowned stage actress Uta Hagen. His acting students included Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, and Gary Burghoff.[11]

Reilly had a voice role in three films by Don Bluth: All Dogs Go to Heaven as Killer in 1989, Rock-a-Doodle as Hunch in 1991, and A Troll in Central Park as King Llort in 1994. In each one, he played the villain's dim-witted sidekick.

Personal life[edit]

Magazine and newspaper profiles of Reilly throughout the 1970s and 1980s did not mention his personal life or sexuality. 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.[12]

Much like fellow actor and 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 jokes about Chuck and that he never purposely hid being gay from anyone. Patrick Hughes, 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.[13]

Reilly did appear on several episodes of the game show Tattletales with actress Elizabeth Allen as a couple, though their 'relationship' was never discussed on the air.

Despite sporting what appeared to be a full head of hair for most of the prime of his television career, Reilly was in fact bald, wearing a toupée throughout most of his appearances in the 1970s and 1980s.[citation needed] During the taping of Match Game '74, his toupée became a joke when Reilly had to go to New York City to have his toupée adjusted. During the taping of several episodes, Reilly was seen wearing different hats because his toupée was back in New York waiting for him to be fitted. This was the start of the long-running jokes on Match Game about his hair. He abandoned the toupée in the late 1990s and appeared bald in public for the rest of his life. He dramatized the experience in his stage show The Life of Reilly.[citation needed] In one episode of Match Game '78, he took off his toupee and gave it to a bald contestant by putting it on his head. One can briefly see Reilly's bald head before he covers it up with a hat.[14]

Final years and death[edit]

Reilly spent his later life primarily touring the U.S. 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, titled Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. In 2004, his final two performances of his play in North Hollywood, California were recorded as the basis of an autobiographical independent film titled The Life of Reilly.[15]

Reilly was stricken with respiratory problems while filming The Life of Reilly, and retired from directing and performing immediately after the final day of shooting in 2004. The movie premiered in March 2006 at the South by Southwest film festival, and Reilly's film performance was acclaimed. Reilly canceled his personal appearance at South by Southwest due to illness, and by the time the film premiered, he had been hospitalized. Reilly died of complications from pneumonia at the UCLA Medical Center on 25 May 2007, and his body was cremated.[16] That weekend, the Game Show Network dedicated its programming to Reilly, airing some of his funniest episodes of Match Game.[citation needed]

Select filmography[edit]




Video Games[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

For Big Lizard in My Backyard, their 1985 debut album, Philadelphia punk band The Dead Milkmen recorded a song titled "Serrated Edge" that features numerous absurd references to Reilly as a Jesus figure and orgy centerpiece.[17]

In 2001, Reilly was the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live, spoofing Inside the Actors Studio, and was portrayed by Alec Baldwin. A later Baldwin character, the Generalissimo from 30 Rock, mentions both Julie Harris and The Belle of Amherst, which Reilly had directed. A 2008 parody of Match Game on Saturday Night Live included Fred Armisen playing a Reilly-like character. In the sketch, the host is found murdered moments before the show's taping; the subsequent on-air police investigation reveals that he had been having a clandestine homosexual affair with the Reilly character. Baldwin briefly reprised his portrayal of Reilly in the 30 Rock episode "Live from Studio 6H" (West Coast airing), appearing on the "joke wall" in a parody of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.[citation needed]

"Weird Al" Yankovic wrote and recorded a tribute song titled "CNR", jokingly caricaturing Reilly with parodies of the internet phenomenon Chuck Norris Facts, with absurdities like winning the Tour de France "with two flat tires and a missing chain", or how "every day he'd make the host of Match Game give him a two-hour piggyback ride". This was part of Yankovic's digital Internet Leaks EP, and was included on the 2011 CD release Alpocalypse. The music video was released by JibJab on August 4, 2009.[18]

In season two, episode one of The Life and Times of Tim, one character observes another acting a line from their play and says, "I saw Charles Nelson Reilly do that, and you did it better."[19]


  1. ^ Richard Connema. "Charles Nelson Reilly Is a One-Man Show". Talkin' Broadway. Retrieved 1 July 2007.
  2. ^ Charles Nelson Reilly (2006). The Life of Reilly (Motion picture). Los Angeles, California: Civilian Pictures/L'Orange Films. Event occurs at 0:08:59.
  3. ^ Steven Oxman (14 July 2000). "Save It for the Stage!: The Life of Reilly". Variety. Retrieved 1 July 2007.
  4. ^ Dinner for Five, episode #3.9 (June 4, 2004).
  5. ^ "Charles Nelson Reilly, 76, Actor, Director & Friend of Opera, Has Died". Opera News. August 2007.
  6. ^ "Opening Night Cast/Bye Bye Birdie". 1960. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  7. ^ a b c "Charles Nelson Reilly, 76, Actor, Director & Friend of Opera, Has Died". 30 May 2007. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  8. ^ Eakin, Marah; Teti, John; Adams, Erik (June 16, 2014). "Bonus round stars: 9 celebrities who found their greatest fame on game shows". The A.V. Club. Retrieved June 20, 2014.
  9. ^ "Body Language (1984-1986): Full Cast and Crew". Retrieved 8 December 2020. Charles Nelson Reilly: 15 episodes (1984-1985)
  10. ^ "Charles Nelson Reilly". Television Academy. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  11. ^ Gary Burghoff states it on Match Game 77 (Episode 1023)
  12. ^ Spencer, David. "Save It for the Stage: The Life Of Reilly". Aisle Say (NY). Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  13. ^ Tina Gianoulis (2006). "Reilly, Charles Nelson (b. 1931)". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Archived from the original on 12 February 2007. Retrieved 7 April 2007.
  14. ^ "YouTube link".
  15. ^ "Life of ReillySynopsis". CNR. Archived from the original on 7 April 2007. Retrieved 22 July 2016.
  16. ^ "Charles Nelson Reilly, 76; Tony-winning actor, TV game show regular". Los Angeles Times. 29 May 2007. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  17. ^ ""Serrated Edge" Lyrics".
  18. ^ Official Channel for on YouTube
  19. ^ "S02E01: Tim's Beard/Unjustly Neglected Drama".

External links[edit]