January 12, – Charles Nelson Reilly:
“Just get a bag and drop a dream in it.”
Before he came to Los Angeles where he became the very best person to have on any type of television show, Charles Nelson Reilly worked regularly on Broadway. He won the Tony Award for playing Bud Frump in the original Broadway production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1962). He was the original Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly! (1964), and one of stars of a favorite Broadway musical flop, Skyscraper (1965).
Starting in the mid-1970s, Reilly taught acting and directing and he directed Julie Harris (his costar in Skyscraper in 1965–66), as Emily Dickinson in a solo Broadway play The Belle Of Amherst, by William Luce. Reilly received a Tony Award nomination in 1997 for Best Director of a Play for the revival of The Gin Game, with Harris. He directed opera productions at regional companies across our once great nation.
Reilly’s openness about being gay was decades ahead of its time, especially for someone on television. Initially, Reilly paid a price. He was dismissed early in his career by a network executive who told him:
“They don’t let queers on television.”
Reilly later had the last laugh when he would page through TV Guide and count how many times he was on the air that week. If that exec could only watch an hour of any network or cable programming nowadays, he would probably drop dead.
My first childhood memory of Reilly was as the character Claymore Gregg on the television series The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1968-1970) starring Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare. Reilly became close to Lange and they remained friends until her passing in 2003.
I also remember him from the nutty Sid and Marty Krofft series Lidsville (1971-73) that played on Saturday mornings. This show was accused of using frequent drug references, including the very title, and indeed, it was best viewed while being stoned. Reilly played a villainous magician, Horatio J. HooDoo, who tormented the protagonist played by Butch Patrick, the former Eddie Munster. The Kroffts managed to get ABC to air a children’s show that takes place in a land of living hats and then deny that it had anything to do with smoking pot.
He absolutely ruled The Match Game beginning in 1973. If you were one of the millions of housewives or home-sick-from-schoolers or on summer vacation, you probably caught this show; I know I did. I enjoyed a period in my youth when I was rather dedicated to the genre, with the campy rejoinders of Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares (1969-1977) and the daily barbed exchanges of Brett Somers and Reilly. For a decade, Somers and Reilly provided a delicious mid-afternoon snack that was bawdy and puerile, but somehow never cheap. Their repartee was not Mike Nichols and Elaine May, they basically tried to match contestants’ answers to questions that called for a lot of toilet and underwear jokes, but with Somers and Reilly what worked was not what was being said, but who was saying it. Fans ate it up.
Reilly once told an interviewer:
“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.”
Reilly was both strapping and doughy, the essence of the gay sissy stereotype, with his ascots, hairpieces, shirts opened to the third button and tidy penmanship, and also a send-up of the hyper-butch gay clone, especially when he lowered his voice and became his alter-ego “Chuck”. Reilly, like Lynde and other gay actors of their era, never named the love that dared not speak its name, but neither did he try to hide it.
Because they were real actors with Broadway experience, they weren’t just panelists on The Match Game, but characters. Somers was the middle-aged man-hungry broad, and Reilly was the fussy creampuff always disparaging her answers, her wardrobe, and her decorating skills. They were sort of forerunners of Will & Grace, the gay man and his gal pal with a bitchy, loving disregard for each other.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Reilly, with his ascots, oversize eyeglasses and over-the-top double-entendres, was a regular on television. Reilly was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than 100 times. Reilly was such a smart, funny and reliable guest and lived within blocks of the NBC Burbank studios and he was often asked to be a last-minute replacement for scheduled guests who cancelled or were no-shows.
But, Reilly still wanted to be taken seriously as an artist:
“You can’t do anything else once you do game shows. You have no career.”
Despite appearing with a full head of hair during his career, Reilly was in fact bald, wearing a toupée throughout most of his appearances in the 1970s and 1980s. During the taping of Match Game ’74 his toupee became the joke of the show when Reilly had to go to New York City to have his toupee adjusted and attached. In many episodes, Reilly is seen wearing different hats because his toupée is back in Manhattan waiting for him. This began a series of long-running jokes on The Match Game about his hair. He abandoned the toupée in 21st century and appeared bald in public for the rest of his life.
Patrick Hughes III, a film and television set decorator, was Reilly’s longtime partner. They met backstage in 1980 when Reilly appeared on the game show Battlestars. They lived a quietly open life together at Reilly’s funky Coldwater Canyon home. Reilly’s final credits rolled in spring of 2007, taken by pneumonia. He was 76-years-old. Somers was taken by cancer a few months later.