Game show quipster lived a life worth sharing

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 6, 2007 2:53pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

If you grew up watching “The Match Game” and other 1970s TV game shows, you might not think you’d need to know more about Charles Nelson Reilly, the goofy regular on countless such programs.

“The Life of Reilly” begs to differ. This film, a video version of Reilly’s autobiographical stage monologue, is insightful and warm-hearted. Also funny, as you might expect from the dithery persona Reilly developed over the years.

Striding around a simple stage set filled with homey props that conjure up his humble Bronx boyhood, Reilly delivers a talk that focuses mostly on his youth and his years in New York as a struggling actor.

It may surprise some to learn that Reilly was a serious student of acting, and later a Tony winner and a frequently employed stage director. In New York in the late 1940s, he was taking drama classes with the same actors who would become the most famous performers of their generation.

But it’s the family portrait that really comes to life, as Reilly describes his upbringing as something akin to an Ingmar Bergman movie, with marital angst and instability.

As a performer, he’s a crafty spellbinder. You don’t do this stuff for 50 years and not know how to grab an audience. His memory of being at the circus on an afternoon in Hartford, Conn., in 1944 suddenly blossoms into a first-hand account of one of the most famous fires in American history, in which more than 100 people died.

Somewhat surprisingly, Reilly doesn’t lean too hard on his homosexuality, even though his flamboyant screen personality had him out of the closet early on. He does tell a “gotcha” story about meeting a TV executive in the early 1950s and being told that the viewing public will never accept gay people on television.

Twenty years later, Reilly reports with relish, TV Guide was riddled with appearances — on game shows, “The Tonight Show,” sitcoms and movies — by Charles Nelson Reilly. Sometimes living long enough is its own revenge.

Reilly lived until May of this year, so “Life of Reilly” is a final bow. Directors Frank L. Anderson and Barry Poltermann shot Reilly’s last performances of the stage show. It doesn’t pretend to be a movie, really, but it’s an unexpected treat from a man who made a living out of being silly.

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