In the early ‘80s, Stephen King was talking to an interviewer and got on the subject of people famous for being famous. He cited Charles Nelson Reilly as an example.Why is he on my TV? What did he do to get there? Most people only know Reilly from his many appearances on game shows in the ‘70s, particularly Match Game. Some might also know him from his character Jose Chung on The X-Files and Millennium. But Reilly, who died in 2007, had a much fuller life than that. He was on Broadway in the ‘60s. He studied acting in the same class as Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook and Steve McQueen. He taught acting for years; among his students was Burt Reynolds. And from 2000 to 2004, he toured the country with a one-man autobiographical show called Save It for the Stage.
The Life of Reilly captures the final performance of that show. Reilly appears onstage with a variety of props clearly marked to look like stage props; he also seems to have saved a fair amount of memorabilia related to his career, such as a beaten-up newspaper clipping from 1977 in which a reader wrote in asking if Reilly was still alive. Reilly had a wicked sense of humor about that sort of thing. He had to. Born in the Bronx to a shrewish mother and a despairing, disappointed father (who had an opportunity to work with Walt Disney but was denied by his wife), Reilly had an awful childhood filled with imaginative play (dolls, puppets) and a “voice” in his head that kept telling him he was going to make it. Eventually he did; at the peak of his ubiquity, he estimated he appeared on TV about a hundred times a week.
The movie records Reilly’s show and intersperses some very brief vintage clips of him (the rights issues are perhaps the reason that the DVD can’t legally be sold, but is given away with a purchase of a t-shirt on the official website, www.charlesnelsonreilly.com). Street interviews reveal random passersby who either haven’t heard of him (too young to remember Match Game) or vaguely remember him trading double entendres with Brett Somers. Why did Reilly stoop to game shows? Probably because he thought they were fun, and also because he worked too hard to get in the door to turn down anything. He also likely did it to spite the nameless network exec who told him, as Reilly recounts here, that “they don’t let queers on television.” If nothing else, Reilly put the lie to that.
The Life of Reilly gives us a sense of a full life of triumph and tragedy, an epic story told in 84 minutes by a master raconteur. The filmmakers, initially defeated when the film’s distributor New Yorker Films went bankrupt, have said that they hope to make an official DVD commercially available at some point. I hope so.The movie, and Reilly’s final performance, deserves to be seen by people aside from existing fans who don’t mind buying a t-shirt to see the film.