Charles Nelson Reilly. Match Game, right?
That’s what most people think when they hear his name. Or maybe Hollywood Squares or To Tell the Truth . Or his 97 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show -second only to Bob Hope and Orson Bean. Mr. Reilly ruled kitsch TV in the 1970′s, sharing the glory with Paul Lynde, Richard Dawson, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Paul Williams, Artie Johnson, Rip Taylor, Gene Rayburn, Phyllis Diller, Charo ….
Even in that illustrious crowd, Mr. Reilly stood out, with his explosive, high-pitched nasal voice, his big glasses, his ascot. But by the 1980′s, old ladies in Long Island and Scottsdale, Ariz., started writing to the local newspaper asking, Whatever happened to Charles Nelson Reilly? Was he still alive? Yes he was, the newspaper would report back; next month he’s starring in New Moon at the outdoor Starlight Theatre in Kansas City. Mr. Reilly knows they wrote in, because he has some of the clippings.
Two years ago, he launched his one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly , which he’s performed over 150 times in California, Florida and-until it closes on Oct. 28-at the Irish Repertory Theater on West 22nd Street in Manhattan.
“No one cares about me, do you know what I’m saying?” he said on a recent day off. “I’m not taking this town by storm. It’s barely a wind; it’s not even a drip. But that’s how it’s always been. But the main thing is the audience-it always sells out, it truly does. Word of mouth.”
The self-described “medium-dazzle” star was sprawled on a flowery couch in his suite at the Wyndham Hotel on West 58th Street, where he has stayed for decades. There’s no room service, so Mr. Reilly orders out from the deli across the street. He was wearing a baseball cap, a caftan by Noel Taylora and dark socks. Seventy years old, bald, craggy, and rickety thanks to hip-replacement surgery after a nasty fall in 1986, he lit his pipe and said, “I’m facing the fact that I’m an old man.” He lives in Los Angeles with his companion of 20 years, a set designer. His best friend is Burt Reynolds.
“The favorite thing I like to do is nothing,” he said. “I’m such an expert at doing nothing. I have a boat. I make training films for the Coast Guard. I listen to a great deal of opera.”
In his show, he talks about the perception many Americans seem to have that he is no longer among the living. “They call the box office here at the Irish Repertory Theater,” Mr. Reilly says onstage. “We have a lovely treasurer named Jeffrey, and they say, ‘Who’s playing the part of Reilly in The Life of Reilly ?’ And he says, ‘Charles Nelson Reilly.’ And they say, ‘He’s dead! The tall one with the wig and the big glasses is dead.’ So Jeffrey says, ‘Yes, madam, he is dead. But he still manages to come in every night at 8.’”
Those fans who do know Mr. Reilly is alive may not know that, despite Celebrity Bowling and Cannonball Run 2 , he knows the taste of respectable success. In 1962, he won a Tony Award for his role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying . He directed Julie Harris in a memorable one-woman play about Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst, in 1977. Among his several other Tony nominations was one in 1997 for directing The Gin Game on Broadway. In 1999, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his guest role on ABC’s The Drew Carey Show. And his fame was goosed by a Saturday Night Live skit in which Alec Baldwin played Mr. Reilly in a riotous send-up of James Lipton’s Actors’ Studio interviews.
“I didn’t see it,” said Mr. Reilly of the SNL skit. “On the other hand, on Barbara Walters I saw someone who I think is extremely talented, he’s great, Jim Carrey-he goes on Barbara Walters, and he said I inspired him as a young man to do what he does.”
Charles Nelson Reilly was born in the Bronx, the only child of a Swedish-Lutheran mother and an Irish-Catholic father who designed outdoor advertising for Paramount Pictures. A sickly, nearsighted boy, Charles would get into his mom’s sewing basket and create puppet shows. His father made him go outside and play stickball. “I hated to get up to bat because there were two men in the windows,” Mr. Reilly said. “They would yell, ‘Mary’s up!’”
Once Walt Disney himself offered Charles’ father a job out west, but he turned it down. His father started drinking heavily and was eventually taken away in a straightjacket.
His mother was no picnic. Every time he opened his mouth, she would tell him to “save it for the stage.” Once she yelled, “I should have thrown away the baby and kept the afterbirth!” Sometimes she’d holler racial slurs out the window. One day she took him to the movies at the Loews Paradise theater. “This is a place for you,” he thought to himself. At 9, he got the lead in the school play. The teacher told his mother that Charles was the only true actor she had ever known. By the time he was 18, he was studying with Uta Hagen. His classmates included Jack Lemmon, Anne Meara, Charles Grodin, Geraldine Page, Fritz Weaver, Gene Hackman, Shelley Berman and Jason Robards. He talks about the class in his show.
“They couldn’t act for shit!” he said. “They stunk! If we had to watch Hal Holbrook and Steve McQueen do the brothers scene from Death of a Salesman once more, we’d go out of our minds!’”
Mr. Reilly got a job as a night mail boy at the Waldorf-Astoria. He tried to land a role on NBC’s two-hour teleplays, but a producer told him that “they don’t allow queers on television.”
But between 1950 and 1960, he landed parts in 22 Off-Broadway shows, prompting Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr to write, “If I see Mr. Reilly’s young, energetic face in one more opening number, I’m going to be sick.”
He got the Tony for the Bud Frump part in How to Succeed in Business , which was followed by more Broadway success (a Tony nomination for Hello Dolly! ). Then he decided to try Hollywood.
In 1968, he landed a part in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir TV series . Somehow he ended up on every game show in town. He became more a personality than an actor. One night in the early 70′s, he counted and realized that he was going to be appearing on game shows 27 times that week. “I was told years ago that I would never be allowed on television,” he said. “Now I had to try to find out who you have to fuck to get off!”
And he made himself a fixture on The Tonight Show.
“I was on a lot because I replaced people who got caught in storms,” he said. “I was up the hill; I lived four minutes away. I was never in the TV Guide , like a guest.”
During one of his Tonight Show appearances, after a guest who’d been talking about Shakespeare dismissed Mr. Reilly’s attempt to join the conversation, he silenced her by delivering Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing” monologue straight, with depth and passion-but only after turning to bandleader Doc Severinsen first and saying, “Doc, chords, please?”
By the mid-1980′s, he wasn’t getting many TV offers-unless you count dressing up as a banana for Bic pens-so Burt Reynolds gave him a theater in Jupiter Island, Fla., where Mr. Reilly proceeded to direct 35 plays. Mr. Reynolds also gave him a nice house right next to “Mrs. Bush.”
“The mother of the then President in 1988,” said Mr. Reilly. “The grandmother of our present President! And the great-grandmother of those two little drunks!”
Mr. Reilly has been known to have some fun with his medium-dazzle status.
“I was on The Tonight Show once,” he said, “and Siskel and Ebert were on; they were in tuxedos, and they were there to push their new book, The Complete List of Movies . Because I was such a snot nose-I was on a hundred times, you gotta think of something to say-I took a Halliwell’s film guide, and I said to Mr. Carson, ‘Would you please look up my first two Columbia motion pictures? Let’s Rock and my second picture, Two Tickets to Paris. ‘ So he looked up in the Halliwell book, and they were there. Then I said, ‘Now look it up in this complete book’-and they weren’t there. So I said, ‘Look, this is not complete, because my two movies are not in it. I’m sorry to be such a rude person, but I’m not inaccurate.’
“Well, the audience was cheering. I said I was giving their book two thumbs down. They were fucking pissed; they got all dressed up and flew out 3,000 miles. They were mad as hell.”
Did he ever wish he’d played down the silliness?
“No, I have a very nice house and no one else called me,” he said. “I’m fine. I have a pool. I don’t live in Beverly Hills. And I come to New York, and I get half the food at Sardi’s for nothing and this hotel-I’m staying here as a guest of the owner, so I have like a scholarship to New York. So nobody has that.
“A man I just loved to drink a lot with, Peter Finch, he would say to me, ‘You know, you’re a personality. I’m only an actor. How do you become a personality?’ I said, ‘Look, take your millions of dollars for these big features and don’t be a personality, because it stinks-it’s no money.’”
I looked at my notes. What was it like being in Charlotte’s Web ?
“I was never in that,” he said. “That was Paul Lynde. That’s always in my biography. I never got anywhere near Charlotte’s Web , any more than I did Apocalypse Now !”
In his hotel suite at the Wyndham, there was a magazine put out by the Directors Guild of America. He picked it up and threw it across the floor. “I will never read it,” he said. “Because I will never work as a director. Because of my age .
“I come to New York, and I can’t get on Rosie O’Donnell or Regis Philbin,” he said. “I’ve been on those shows at other times, but now, it’s like I’m so yesterday. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m from yesterday. But it doesn’t bother me. You know, only the Asians respect the elderly.”
He stressed that he has no regrets.
“I used to go in a rowboat every couple of days with another actor who was in The Sound of Music ,” he said. “Forty-one years ago. And we’d go meet at the boathouse and go rowing in the Central Park. And that was Jon Voight. So I’ve been oared around Central Park by the Midnight Cowboy. I mean, who else can say that?
“I go out to dinner once in a while. We have a club-Rod Steiger, Charles Durning,” he said. “The other day, Rod Steiger said to Durning, ‘I haven’t had a drink in seven years. I’m so proud of myself.’ And Durning said, ‘I haven’t had a drink in 78.’ Now Mr. Durning looks like he’s soaked in Scotch, but he has never touched alcohol in his 78 years. Angie Dickinson, I go out with. Burt Reynolds. I like to do things with him. He goes sometimes for six hours to the dentist, because he was injured years ago on the set. A chair fell on his jaw . I’ll go and I’ll sit with him for six hours in the dentist’s office. Or I’ll know that he’s going to Europe, and I’ll go in the limousine to the airport. He’s just a wonderful friend-a real friend. And I don’t think of him as a celebrity, because I knew him when he was 19.
“And I loved Ella Fitzgerald,” he said. “She would see me on a plane and she would yell, ‘Charles, it’s Ella!’ And I’d say, ‘Ella who ? I know a lot of Ellas.’ She used to go shopping at the same little store I did. Near her home. And one Christmas Eve morning, she was with her granddaughter pushing the wagon around-no one was in the store-and the Christmas carols were playing, and I got on the microphone. And I said, ‘Is there a girl singer in the store that could scat “Away in the Manger”? Do we have anyone? Please come forward. Can you scat “Oh Holy Night”?’ And she would wet her pants, we would laugh. She loved to laugh. And Sammy Davis was adorable.
“Mae West, the last time I saw her, she was probably 88 or 89,” he said. “And I had known her for 30 years inland . Her apartment, not near the ocean. The restaurant we went to-Le Restaurant-the movies we went to, it was inland . And I saw her on the ocean, I was on my boat; she was in the market. I recognized her limo. And I put my head in and said, ‘Mae, it’s Charles.’ And she said, ‘Oh, what are doing so near the water?’ Now that’s a great moment. Because I knew her for 32 years inland ; this is the only time I met her at the ocean. And she became alarmed. She knows all our 32 years in her memory. And none of them included the beach. She cared about me.”
How did he break his hip?
“On Circus of the Stars, ” he said. “I broke my nose, my hip and my arm. One fell swoop from a small pony. I got all these flowers. My friends are very rich. Elizabeth Taylor sends flowers the size of the bathtub . I’m not kidding. And I’m in the hospital, the Sammy Davis suite. If you ever get injured or have an asthma attack, the last words you get out are, ‘ Sammy Davis suite, please .’ That’s like three rooms on the eighth floor of Cedars-Sinai. So I’m in the Sammy Davis suite and the floors are covered with flowers. From all my friends-it was on the news. And this woman comes in-played by Lillian Gish-head of hospital-patient relations, and she says, ‘Some of our patients have no flowers at all, and we can’t get in and out of the room any more- the doctors, the nurses-it’s becoming a terrible problem. The flowers are out in the hall; they’re everywhere . And some patients haven’t gotten any flowers at all.’ And I said, ‘Miss, that’s the saddest story I ever heard. But you’re not to touch one fuckin’ fern .’”
On a recent night during a performance of his one-man show, Mr. Reilly was wearing an untucked shirt, pants with cuffs rolled way up, dark socks and Top-Siders. Nearby was a bottle of bourbon, some vermouth and a bottle of champagne. Every seat was filled.
He started to tell a story about Burt Reynolds, then said, “I got a review today in The New York Times that says I do nothing but drop names in this play. That’s what they all say. Burt Reynolds and I have been very close friends, he has been my best friend for 46 years , and I think I can drop his name now.”
Mr. Reilly looked at a woman in the front row, who was studying the playbill. “If you’re waiting for another actor to come on the stage, this is it,” he told her.