Charles Nelson Reilly was a Tony award winning actor and director of the stage. He had appeared in such Broadway shows as Bye, Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Despite this, he was perhaps best known as a regular on Match Game and a regular guest on The Tonight Show. He passed on May 25 from complications from pneumonia after a long illness. He was 76.
Nelson Reilly was born in the Bronx on January 13, 1931. His father was a commercial artist. While still young his family movie to Connecticut. At age 13 he was one of the survivors of the fire at a performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Harford, Connecticut that claimed the lived of around 170 people in 1944. The experience would make Reilly unable to sit in an audience for the rest of his life. He attended the University of Connecticut. He would later move to New York City where he would study acting alongside the likes of Steve McQueen and Hal Holbrook.
Nelson Reilly's acting career began with parts in off-Broadway shows and an uncredited role in the movie A Face in the Crowd. His big break would come in 1960 when he played Mr. Henkel on Broadway in Bye, Bye Birdie. He followed this role with a Tony award winning performance as Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1962. He would win another Tony for the role of Cornelius Hackl in 1964 in Hello, Dolly.
His success on Broadway would eventually result in television appearances. He appeared in the TV special The Broadway of Lerner and Loewe in 1962. In the Sixties he guest starred on such shows as Car 54, Where Are You, The Farmer's Daughter, and The Patty Duke Show. He was a regular on the TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, playing Claymore Gregg, the highstrung great nephew of Captain Daniel Gregg (the ghost of the title). He also appeared in the movies Two Tickets to Paris and The Tiger Makes Out. He continued his Broadway career in Skyscraper in 1965.
It would be the Seventies that would be the decade that would make Charles Nelson Reilly a household name. Starting in 1970 he made his first of many appearances on The Tonight Show. He appeared on such shows as Rowan and Martin's Laugh In and The Dean Martin Show. He would become best known, however, for being a regular panellist on the game show Match Game. There Nelson Reilly exchanged barbs with Bret Somers (an actress who would become best known, like Nelson Reilly, for her game show appearances) and throw out numerous double entendres. Nelson Reilly would also appear on other game shows, from Super Password to The $10,000 Pyramid. He was also a regular on the 1971 Saturday morning live action show Lidsville.
This is not to say that Nelson Reilly's career on stage ended. He appeared in the plays God's Favourite and The Belle of Amherst in the Seventies. That same decade he staged the play Paul Robeson and directed the play Break a Leg. In the Eighties he appeared in the play Charlotte and directed the play The Nerd. The Nineties saw Nelson Reilly directing the play The Gin Game (for which he won a Tony). From the late Nineties into the Naughts, Nelson Reilly appeared in his one man show, Save It For the Stage: The Life of Reilly (for which he also won a Tony).
Nelson Reilly also continued to guest star in TV shows from Evening Shade to Family Matters. Perhaps his best known guest appearances would be playing the same character in episodes of The X-Files and Millennium ("Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "Jose Chung's 'Doomsday Defence'"). Jose Chung was sarcastic, cynical, mercenary, and absolutely hilarious.
As a youngster I must confess that I watched Match Game regularly (okay, we grew up picking up only three TV stations). And much of the show was Nelson Reilly, a bigger than life character who was shamelessly camp. Granted, a lot of his innuendos went over my head, but I still thought he was funny. Of course, later I would learn that Nelson Reilly was a talented actor as well as a gifted game show panellist. I never got to see any of his performances on stage, but he displayed a good deal of craft in his guest appearances on television. Indeed, Jose Chung, whom Nelson Reilly played on both The X-Files and Millennium, was a role that took considerable talent. In a way it is sad that he will primarily be remembered for Match Game. He was so much more than a game show panellist.