We were leaving Las Vegas behind in the dust early this afternoon when we heard the sad news that Charles Nelson Reilly has died. Kendall and Charles were very close; Charles always jokingly called her his fiancée. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone. Charles was every bit as funny in real life as he was in his endless game show appearances. And such a kind, caring man, whether he was bantering with Johnny Carson or schmoozing with a nurse’s aide. God, it was so much fun to be around him.
Kendall could almost be considered a “Match Game” Love Child, not just because she watched the show growing up, but because she was so closely connected to the participants. Charles’ sparring partner, Brett Somers, is Kendall’s godmother, and as far as I’m concerned, Kendall’s biggest claim to fame was when Brett wrote “Happy Birthday Kendall” on one of her “Match Game” cards and held it up to the camera, prompting a discussion of Kendall’s birthday with host Gene Rayburn. We recently saw this episode on the Game Show Network. In my opinion, some of the best comedy in television resulted from the impromptu antics of Charles and Brett on that show. They got away with a ribald repartee that would never be allowed on network television today.
Charles was Kendall’s constant companion when she was in her 20s and there’s a great photo of the two of them dressed up as if they are going to a high school prom—Kendall in some ghastly taffeta that Charles borrowed from the costume department while he wore a bad toupee and a frilly-shirted tux. Kendall used it as her Christmas card that year, confusing her Texas grandparents who wondered why her “boyfriend” seemed so much older.
Charles was renowned as an acting teacher, in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. He spent years teaching at the HB Studio, the acting school created by Herbert Berghof and his wife Uta Hagen. Many of his students went on to have fantastic careers and win Oscars and other awards, including our just-seen Liza Minnelli who worked with Charles when she was young. Kendall was directed by Charles in two plays and she loved working with him.
My first childhood memory of Charles was as the character Claymore Gregg on the TV series “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” with Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare. The show ran from 1968 to 1970 and was one of my favorites. I believe Charles remained friendly with Lange until her death several years ago. I also remember Charles from the freaky Sid and Marty Krofft series “Lidsville” that ran for two years in the early 70s. This show was later accused of using frequent drug references, including in the very title, and indeed, it’s probably best viewed while high. Charles played a villainous magician, Horatio J. HooDoo, who tormented protagonist Mark (played by Butch Patrick, the former Eddie Munster). Don’t tell me that the person who came up with the idea of a show takes place in a land of living hats wasn’t smoking something!
Of course Charles also guest-starred in a million other popular sitcoms in the 60s and 70s, from “Car 54, Where Are You?” to “Here’s Lucy” to “The Doris Day Show,” and he was always the highlight of the episode. Funny that I was just writing about Don Rickles, because Charles appeared on many of the same talk shows and celebrity roasts. His “Match Game” reign began in 1973 and continued for years and years. Charles once said in an interview that “when I die, it’s going to read, ‘Game Show Fixture Passes Away.’ Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn't bother me.” I haven’t seen any obituaries yet but I know he’ll be remembered by many for the full breadth of his amazing career.
Do you remember that Charles was in the original Broadway cast of “Bye, Bye Birdie” and was nominated for a Tony for playing Cornelius in “Hello, Dolly?” He won the Tony Award for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and later became an acclaimed director, most notably when he directed his close friend Julie Harris in “The Belle of Amherst” and “The Gin Game.” I wish I had seen the 1965 musical both starred in on Broadway called “Skyscraper.”
I have many fun memories of Charles Nelson Reilly and his wonderful longtime partner Patrick including watching Charles hold court in our backyard during our wedding reception three years ago this week. I remember once when my brother-in-law was in town mixing a Wilco CD, I think it was “Summerteeth,” Jeff was a big fan of Charles’ and asked us to bring him to a session. Charles walked into the recording studio and the hipsters hanging out there immediately were held sway by his endless anecdotes. Someone had a CD called Full Nelson Reilly by a band called the Didjits and Charles signed it for Jeff, “From one rock star to another.” On another evening we organized a dinner at Orso’s and it was a Charles Nelson Reilly-Jeff Tweedy lovefest throughout. I remember that the actress Sylvia Sidney was there that night and we stopped by her table as well. Oy, what a crazy world. She died a few weeks later.
Kendall just told me one of her favorite Charles stories. He was staying at the Wyndham Hotel in New York and found himself riding in the elevator alone with Sir Laurence Olivier. He said nothing to Olivier on the way up but as the elevator door opened, Charles turned to the renowned actor and deadpanned, “If I’d known this was a theatrical establishment, I would have booked elsewhere.”
Charles had a great sense of humor about all things, including himself. Has there ever been anyone more parodied than he was? Remember Alec Baldwin's killer impersonation on “Saturday Night Live?” Charles didn’t stop working until he got sick, and he was known to more recent audiences as Jose Chung on “The X Files” and “Millennium” and the voice of the Dirty Bubble on “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
We loved seeing Charles perform his moving autobiographical show, “Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly,” which, thank God, has been turned into a documentary by Barry Poltermann that debuted last year at the SXSW Festival and is winning awards at film festivals all over the country. Here’s the trailer and a poignant glimpse at the genius that is Charles Nelson Reilly:
Charles, we will miss you so much, and just so you know, Kendall will always consider you her true fiancé!