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Laughing with Charles Nelson Reilly


I was lucky enough to know Charles Nelson Reilly, one of the funniest people on the planet. Reilly died this weekend after a very long illness, and today is being mourned by his showbiz colleagues, the public at large, and his legions of former acting students. Charles' oft-stated concern that when he died the headlines would read "Game Show Fixture Passes Away" has come true in part (I saw that exact headline on several news sites) but plenty of people also remember his Tony Award-winning performances in the theatre and his amazing work as a director of plays and opera.

My wife Kendall Hailey was a close friend of Charles and his partner Patrick. He jokingly called her his fiancée during much of their friendship and somewhere there is a fake prom photo that Charles staged in the 1980s with Kendall in a ghastly taffeta dress and Charles wearing a frilly tuxedo and a purposely bad toupee. Kendall used it as her Christmas card that year and her conservative Texas grandparents were concerned about her "boyfriend" who seemed so much older.

Kendall could almost be considered a Love Child of "The Match Game." Charles' sparring partner, Brett Somers, is Kendall's godmother, and as far as I'm concerned, her biggest claim to fame was when Brett wrote "Happy Birthday Kendall" on one of her "Match Game" cards when Kendall was a kid and held it up to the camera, prompting a discussion about her birthday with host Gene Rayburn. I still love watching the old "Match Game" episodes on the Game Show Network. In my opinion some of the best comedy ever seen on television came from the impromptu antics of Charles and Brett on that show. They got away with a ribald, wicked repartee that would never be allowed on network television today--at least not without massive FCC fines.

As anyone who met him knows, from his celebrity friends to the fans on the street to his nurses in the hospital, being in Charles' presence was like being a willing victim of a high energy tsunami. Hearing him tell anecdotes about his crazy life was irresistible and you never wanted him to stop, he was so much fun to be around. He seemed to know everyone in showbiz, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he spoke reverentially of many of his talented friends, including Uta Hagen and Julie Harris. He directed Miss Harris in "The Belle of Amherst" and an acclaimed revival of "The Gin Game," after starring with her decades earlier in the musical "Skyscraper."

As a child I was most familiar with Charles as Claymore Gregg in the TV series, "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," as well as the villainous magician Horatio J. HooDoo in the freaky Sid and Marty Krofft series "Lidsville" from the early 70s. The writers of this show may not have consciously been making drug references in the scripts but it's hard to believe that the person who created this land of living hats wasn't smoking something!

Reading some of the accolades today, I am struck by the diversity of the people from all walks of life who loved him. Charles was one of the first openly gay men on television, and probably did more to promote gay rights than many activists marching in the street.

My brother-in-law, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, was a huge Charles fan. A few years ago, when Jeff was in town mixing the Wilco CD "Summerteeth," we brought Charles to the recording studio for a visit. Charles immediately had the entire rock crowd under his spell. They all wanted to pose for pictures with him and they seemed more excited to see Charles than if a member of the Rolling Stones had wandered in. Someone handed him a CD by a band called the Didjits called "Full Nelson Reilly" and Charles signed it to Jeff, "From one rock star to another."

Kendall's favorite Charles story takes place when he was appearing in New York and staying at the Wyndham Hotel. Charles 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."

I wish I could have seen Charles in his early plays which included "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Hello, Dolly," and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." But 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: