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Reilly, Charles Nelson

Reilly, Charles Nelson

Born January 13, 1931, in New York, NY; died of pneumonia, May 25, 2007, in Beverly Hills, CA. Actor, director, and game show panelist. While most people knew actor Charles Nelson Reilly as a game show panelist on Hollywood Squares and Match Game, he preferred to be known for his stage direction and acting. His guest spots on game shows and appearances on talk and variety shows overshadowed his roles on the stage and television. Reilly appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson more than 90 times.

Reilly was born in 1931 in the New York City borough the Bronx. His father, Charles Joseph Reilly, designed outdoor advertising for Paramount Pictures. Reilly’s life took a turn for the worse when his mother, Signe Elvera Nelson, forced his father to turn down a job with Walt Disney. His father had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Reilly and his mother moved to live with relatives in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the lead in a school play at nine and at 18, moved to New York and studied with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. Other famous classmates included Jack Lemmon, Charles Grodin, and Hal Holbrook.

Reilly landed roles in stage productions, including a spot in the original production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal. He later joined the cast of Hello, Dolly! and began directing with The Belle of Amherst, of which he was very proud.

Reilly moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to star in the television program The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He made guest appearances on a wide variety of programs, and was a regular on the variety show, Laugh-In. Reilly appeared on more talk and variety shows, co-starring with Dean Martin or chatting with Johnny Carson. He also began his career on game shows. He was a panelist on Hollywood Squares, but his most successful run was on Match Game. There he wore oversized glasses, a captain’s hat, and an ascot as he exchanged witty banter and thinly veiled double entendres with co-panelists Brett Somers, Richard Dawson, and host Gene Rayburn.

Reilly’s acting career continued with guest roles on The Patty Duke Show, Nanny and the Professor, and Family Matters. He appeared in films, but his fame centered on his game show appearances. Friend Burt Reynolds, with whom he starred in Cannonball Run II, and on Reynold’s television show, Evening Shade, told Time in 1991 (as quoted by the Los Angeles Times), “We have a thing in this town that if you are enormously witty and gregarious, you can’t be very deep . People just haven’t seen him in this arena.”

Reilly also taught acting and ran a school in North Hollywood. He later moved to Florida to teach at the Burt Reynolds Institute. His students included Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Christine Lahti, and Bette Midler. Reilly continued to direct plays including a revival of The Gin Game, which starred Julie Harris and Charles Durning. His final work was his autobiographical one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. The play was made into a television movie in 2006.

Reilly, who had been in failing health, died of complications from pneumonia on May 25, 2007. He was 76. Reilly, who was openly gay throughout his career, was once told he would never make it in television because of his sexual orientation. While Reilly may have wished for a career known for more than game show appearances, it was those game show spots that proved his naysayer wrong. Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 28, 2007, sec. 3, p. 8; E! Online, (December 11, 2007); Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2007, p. B9; New York Times, May 28, 2007, p. A17; Washington Post, May 29, 2007, p. B6.

—Ashyia N. Henderson

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