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My life with Reilly
Charles Nelson Reilly is focus of touching, funny film at the JEA Dec. 18

My mom likes the Game Show Network. She can sit for hours in front of the TV with 1970s episodes of The Match Game, watching Bert Convy and Zsa Zsa Gabor trade quips with Bret Sommers and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Reilly has always been her favorite. Campy and acerbic, on those ancient shows he’s the go-to guy for laughs.

I always smile when I see him appear on the screen.

In March, 2004, Reilly came to Stuart, Florida, where I lived, with his one-man show Save it For the Stage: The Life of Reilly.

It wasn’t about The Match Game, and it wasn’t about Lidsville, the old live-action kids’ comedy on which he’d played a lisping, limp-wristed “wizard” chasing after a bunch of talking hats.

The Life of Reilly was about years spent in New York, studying the craft of stage acting, about winning a Tony Award, and four Emmy nominations. It was about teaching all he knew about stage-work to generations of eager young students. And directing 10,000 plays in 10,000 cities.

It was also about the pain of growing up gay in the Bronx, about broken dreams and a dysfunctional family, about alcoholism, suicide and lobotomies, about being in the audience at the Hartford, Conn., circus fire in 1944 when 200 people died in a matter of seconds.

I spent quite a bit of time with Reilly over the three days he was in Stuart. As the local newspaper’s entertainment editor, it was my job to talk with him as much as he’d have me.

And even at 73, he never seemed to tire of talking.

“When I die - what time is it now? – it’s going to be ‘Game Show Fixture Passes Away,’” he said to me. “Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn’t bother me.”

What did bother him, he explained, was being part of an audience. Ever since the circus disaster – he was 13 at time – he hadn’t been able to bring himself to sit in a theater seat.

He loved to talk about his old pal Burt Reynolds, who’d started a dinner theater in 1978 in Jupiter, about 30 miles from Stuart.

Reilly had taught acting for many years at the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training.

“Reynolds has always been the same person as I knew in the ‘50s,” he said. “He became so famous, and he was always the same guy.”

One of the funniest bits in The Life of Reilly involved Reynolds’ father — a no-nonsense good old boy — telling his son “OK, you can build a theater, but if you bring one of those sissies around here, I’ll shoot him dead right in front of your mother!”

Reilly, of course, moved right in and became a de facto member of the Reynolds family. He and Burt Sr. would drink and laugh and talk the night away.


Here's the official theatrical trailer for the film:


After the opening night performance of The Life of Reilly, I was invited to dinner with the star and members of the theater staff.

Reilly insisted on being seated next to me, and solicited my opinion on virtually everything he’d included in his stage monologues. We talked through much of the dinner.

I remember telling him that his show, although it was peppered with hilarious bits – his celebrity impersonations were priceless – was more serious than I’d expected.

“People think it’s going to be silly,” he said. “But I think it’s rather a thick play.”

After the meal, as we were all standing up and saying our goodbyes, he leaned in close and kissed me on the cheek.

I’ve never forgotten that.

Nor have I forgotten the afternoon I went into theater while he was doing a soundcheck. He motioned me up onto the Life of Reilly set and invited me to sit down. We chatted quietly for a few minutes.

On the spur of the moment, I produced my cell phone, flipped it open and dialed my mother. She answered on the first ring, and I told her somebody wanted to talk with her.

Reilly seemed to understand. Handing him the phone, I whispered “This is my mom, Jeanette.”

“Hello, Jeannette!” he said in that trombone-blast voice he used on TV. “It’s Charles!”

They talked for 15 minutes. About game shows, mostly. cs

Psychotronic Film: The Life of Reilly

A 2007 film adaptation of Charles Nelson Reilly's stage show, presented by the Psychotronic Film Society, Jewish Education Alliance and Connect Savannah.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. Dec. 18.

Where: JEA Auditorium, 5111 Abercorn St.

Cost: $7 at the Sentient Bean, Wright Square Café and at the door.