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, cartoons, and as a game show panelist.
Reilly was born in The Bronx, New York City, New York, United States, North America, the son of Charles Joseph Reilly, an Irish Catholic commercial artist, and Signe Elvera Nelson, a Swedish Lutheran. 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. He was good friends with opera singers Renée Fleming, Rod Gilfry, Roberta Peters, and Eileen Farrell.
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 Sunday night CBS-TV program. In 1965, he made regular appearances on The Steve Lawrence Show, which aired for a single season. Television commercials he made throughout the 1960s and 1970s included Excedrin and Bic Banana Ink Crayons, in which he wore a banana costume.
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 and Edward Mulhare. 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. In one episode of the show, Reilly was reunited with his Hello, Dolly! original Broadway castmate Eileen Brennan.
Reilly also appeared as a regular on The Dean Martin Show, and had multiple guest appearances on 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, Reilly appeared as the evil magician Hoodoo in Lidsville, a psychedelically flavored live-action children's program produced by Sid and Marty Krofft that aired on Saturday mornings on ABC. The show was about a boy who falls into a magician's hat and enters a magical world of hat-humans. It was through these roles, as well as the title role in Uncle Croc's Block and one appearance on Walt Disney's The Mouse Factory, that Reilly's voice and mannerisms became familiar to a generation of young fans.
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.
During the taping of Match Game 74, Reilly left for a short time to film the made-for-TV movie Hamburgers (1974), also starring Sid Caesar and Charlie Callas. From 1975 to 1976, Reilly starred in another live-action children's program called Uncle Croc's Block, with Jonathan Harris. Reilly was often a guest celebrity on the 1984 game show Body Language, including one week with Lucille Ball and another week with Audrey Landers.
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, 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. Reilly earned a 1997 Tony Award nomination as Best Director of a Play for the revival of The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. During the taping of Match Game 74, his toupée became the joke of the filming 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. 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 as he rushed back to his seat and put on a hat to cover up.
In one of his several appearances on The Tonight Show, Reilly publicly discussed having to fix or adjust his toupee before going out for the evening. Among his revelations to Carson while a guest on the show were: that he had nothing to wear but a specific tuxedo; his stories as a director of a play; and how wonderful many of the other guests on that night's panel were when Reilly had worked with them, either in film or in the theater.
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 stricken 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 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 pneumonia at his home on May 25, 2007, and his body was cremated. That weekend, the Game Show Network dedicated its programming to Reilly, airing his funniest episodes of Match Game.
For Big Lizard in My Backyard, their 1985 debut album, Philadelphia punk band The Dead Milkmen recorded a song called "Serrated Edge" that features numerous absurd references to Reilly as a Jesus figure and orgy centerpiece.
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, directed by Reilly as noted above. 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.
"Weird Al" Yankovic wrote and recorded a tribute song entitled "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.