Childhood & Early Life
Charles Nelson Reilly was born on January 13, 1931, in the South Bronx, New York, US. His father, Charles Joseph Reilly, a Catholic of Irish origin, was a commercial artist. His mother, Signe Elvera Nelson, was a Swedish Lutheran. He was the only child of his parents and often created his own puppet shows to entertain himself.
He spent his childhood at the Bronx. After his father suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be put under institutional care, Reilly and his mother moved to Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1944, a fire broke out at the ‘Hartford Circus.’ It killed 169 people and injured more than 700. Reilly, who was 13 years old then, was in the audience at that time, but survived the fire. However, after that incident, he could never sit amid a large audience.
Since childhood, he was interested in theater, especially opera, and wished to become an opera singer someday. He attended the ‘Hartt School of Music’ at the ‘University of Hartford.’ He soon realized that he was not gifted enough to be a professional opera singer. However, his interest in opera stayed with him throughout his life. At 18, Reilly went to New York City to join ‘HB Studio,’ the acting school of Herbert Berghof and his actor wife, Uta Hagen.
Although he mostly worked on the stage initially, his first break was an un-credited role in the film ‘A Face in the Crowd’ (1957), directed by Elia Kazan. During the 1950s, he regularly performed comic roles at the ‘Starlight Theatre,’ in Kansas City, Missouri. He also worked in a number of ‘Off-Broadway’ productions.
Reilly made his ‘Broadway’ debut with the 1960 musical ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ He had a small role in it and was the standby for the lead actor, Dick Van Dyke. His next ‘Broadway’ role was in the 1961 ‘Pulitzer Prize’-winning musical ‘How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.’ He won a ‘Tony Award’ for his portrayal of ‘Bud Frump,’ the laid-back nephew of the company president, in the musical. Reilly then earned a ‘Tony Award’ nomination for the successful 1964 ‘Broadway’ production ‘Hello, Dolly!’
Later, Reilly moved to California and soon became a regular on TV shows such as ‘What’s My Line?’ and ‘The Steve Lawrence Show’ (1965). He was also seen in TV commercials for ‘Excedrin’ and ‘Bic’ banana ink crayons (in a banana costume, for the latter). He portrayed ‘Claymore Gregg’ in the supernatural comedy TV series ‘The Ghost & Mrs. Muir’ (1968–1970).
He guest-starred in a number of TV series such as ‘Here’s Lucy,’ ‘The Patty Duke Show,’ ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,’ ‘McMillan & Wife,’ and ‘The Love Boat.’ He also appeared in a few children’s programs. He portrayed an “evil magician” in ‘Lidsville’ (1971) and played the title role in ‘Uncle Croc’s Block.’ He also worked in an episode of ‘Walt Disney’s ‘The Mouse Factory.’
Reilly made more than 95 appearances on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.’ With his lively and witty rejoinders, he was an entertaining talk-show guest. His skills as an actor and as a director were often over-shadowed by his witty, comic TV persona.
In 1973, he appeared on the game show ‘Match Game,’ also known as ‘Match Game PM’ and ‘The Match Game.’ He then became a regular panelist, known for his funny comments laden with double entendré. In 1974, he starred in the TV movie ‘Hamburgers,’ along with Sid Caesar and Charlie Callas. He often appeared as a guest on the show ‘Body Language’ (1984).
In 1976, Reilly directed a one-woman play, ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ starring Julie Harris, who won a ‘Tony Award’ for her role of ‘Emily Dickinson’ in the same play. He directed Ira Levin’s ‘Broadway’ play ‘Break a Leg’ in 1979. The play was not a commercial success. In 1980, Reilly starred in the play ‘Charlotte’ and directed Mark Hamill in the comedy ‘The Nerd.’
He directed a number of episodes of the TV show ‘Evening Shade’ in 1990. He guest-starred in many of the 1990’s popular TV shows, such as ‘The Drew Carey Show,’ ‘Family Matters,’ and ‘The Larry Sanders Show.’ He also appeared in a few episodes of the TV series ‘The X Files’ and ‘Millennium.’ In 1997, he was nominated for the ‘Tony Award’ for the ‘Best Director of a Play,’ for the Julie Harris-starrer ‘The Gin Game.’
Reilly worked as a voice actor for the animated series ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ (1999) and the films ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’ (1989), ‘Rock-a-Doodle’ (1991), and ‘A Troll in Central Park’ (1994).
In 1976, he began teaching drama at ‘HB Studio,’ Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen’s acting school. Gary Burghoff, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler were some of his students. In 1979, he went to Florida to teach acting at close friend Burt Reynolds’s institute.
In 2000, he staged his autobiographical one-man show, ‘Save It for The Stage: The Life of Reilly.’ The show was about his family life during his growing years in the Bronx and the first half of the title was the phrase his mother often repeated whenever he said something clever. He toured the country with this successful and critically acclaimed show. The final shows of the play were turned into a movie titled ‘The Life of Reilly’ (2006). The movie premiered at the ‘South by Southwest’ film festival and was immensely appreciated.