I LOVED Charles Nelson Reilly (as posts on 5/28/07, 4/9/07, 2/2/07, and 10/26/06 will demonstrate). Even as a child, I was drawn to him. A few months ago I actually thought of writing him a fan letter, but I decided against it. Now that he's died, I wish I had. One more fan letter at the end of life might have put a smile on his face. He certainly put many smiles on mine.
Charles Nelson Reilly studied acting at HB Studios and proved himself as a talented actor and director. He won a Tony award and was nominated for at least two others. He directed The Belle of Amherst and a revival of The Gin Game on Broadway. He was in the original cast of Hello Dolly and he won his first Tony for his role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Tring. He was also an understudy for Paul Lynde in Bye Bye Birdie.
In spite of success as a Broadway actor and director, Reilly was best known as a game show personality, talk show guest, and episodic television guest star. His greatest notoriety probably came from his status as a regular on the Match Game. He was the "Bic Banana" and he also starred in two television programs for children, the first being Lidsville, a show about a magical world of hat people terrorized by an evil wizard, Hoodoo (played by Reilly).
Cameo appearances and voiceovers in Burt Reynolds' films are also part of his long resume. Though thought of as a TV personality rather than an extremely gifted artist, the truth is he was apparently a very good director and acting coach. He taught classes and directed regional productions in Florida and he would be invited to offer master-classes at prestigious acting schools. His final project was Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reily, a one-man autobiographical show he toured before taking it to Off-Broadway where it ran for several months. An independent film version of the production was later released.
What I loved most about CNR was that he out was "out" long before it was considered fashionable or safe to be open about one's homosexuality. He found fame and fortune in Television, but he often lamented that TV celebrity killed his acting career. I'm sure he enjoyed the theatre and was proud of his accomplishments on the boards. But I for one am glad that he found his way to television. He demonstrated to a queer kid in Arkansas in the 70's that a flambouyant, funny, gay-boy could be himself and be rewarded for it. To most of the world he may have been just Mr. Game Show, but to me he will always be one of my early queer heroes who taught me that I could find and celebrate myself as the person I was born to be.
Charles Nelson Reilly died Friday, May 25th at the age of 76 from pneumonia. He is survived by his life-partner, and by at least one life-long gay fan who is sad to learn of his demise.