He was the toast of game shows and late night talk shows alike – a pipe-smoking, ascot-wearing, eyeglass-adjusting fruit loop with the unmistakable voice: Charles Nelson Reilly.
This opera-loving boy from Connecticut had the harrowing experience of escaping the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 in which 167 people died and more than 700 were injured. Because of this terrible incident, Charles never sat in a large audience again.
A performer who broke into the entertainment business with an uncredited role in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face In The Crowd, Charles Nelson Reilly got his big break (along with fellow comic genius, Paul Lynde) in the 1961 production of Bye Bye, Birdie. In 1964, he was in the original cast of “Hello Dolly,” alongside Carol Channing.
But the Charles Nelson Reilly we know and love was from the game show, “Match Game” from 1973-1982.
Like his fellow game show star, Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly was a barely closeted gay man, whose witty retorts often consisted of racy double-entendres, word-play involving terms like “queen,” “fairy,” “butch” or other such monikers.
He was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he would launch into breathless monologues, interrupted only to say hello to fellow guests or comment on Johnny’s looks and his health.
Charles Nelson Reilly was also a regular on the Dean Martin Comedy Variety Show. In this clip, he plays a singing stunt double with Dean Martin and football great Jim Brown. Not particularly funny, this clip sums up a lot of Seventies TV humor.
Toward the end of his life, he toured the country with a critically acclaimed one-man play chronicling his life called “Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly,” which was later filmed for the poignant documentary film, “The Life of Reilly.”
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.