A Full Nelson
Charles Nelson Reilly exists in several universes simultaneously -- almost all of them in show biz. He was recently nominated for an Emmy for his guest appearance as Mr. Hathaway on The Drew Carey Show, and he played UFO expert José Chung on a popular episode of The XFiles two years ago.
Theater buffs, however, know that the actor/director/game show fixture fused his fortunes with Broadway decades ago, appearing in the original casts of Bye, Bye Birdie; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and Hello, Dolly! After winning a Tony in How to Succeed, the actor went on to direct such acclaimed shows as The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris, and the popular 1997 revival of The Gin Game with Harris and Charles Durning, which landed here earlier this year.
It's as a theater luminary, rather than as a permanent panelist on The Match Game, that the entertainer will return to South Florida. Having directed one-person shows about personalities as disparate as Zelda Fitzgerald and Paul Robeson, Reilly will finally appear in his own show, aptly titled The Life of Reilly, when it opens August 16 at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton.
"I always did everyone else's one-person show," says Reilly, who's about to direct the New York debut of Staying on Alone, a one-woman show about Alice B. Toklas starring Julie Harris. "I have a trilogy in repertory right now: Ruby Dee's play [My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee] opens this month at the Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, I'm working on a one-man show about P.T. Barnum with Charles Durning and another one about [influential] black architect Paul Revere Williams, starring Ossie Davis." Besides, Reilly says, "We're running out of people, and I wanted to do my own show while I'm still perpendicular. I don't know how much time I have left. If I do this and it works, I can do it the rest of my life."
Reilly well remembers running into Hal Holbrook in an acting class 50 years ago when the actor was just starting his career-sustaining Mark Twain monologue, and Reilly says The Life of Reilly may move on to New York if it does well in Boca Raton. The show spans most of Reilly's 68 years, featuring such highlights as his first trip to the movies, other "memories of my Bronx childhood, and stories about the woman [the mother of a friend] who first told me I should be an actor," when he was nine years old. Life also features anecdotes about other students in Reilly's acting classes who went on to fame of their own, among them Liza Minnelli, Teri Garr, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler.
Partly ridiculous and partly bizarre, Reilly's memories include a story about the day his father, head of the art department at Paramount Pictures in New York City, was offered a job by a Hollywood studio executive. The family stayed put, though, because Reilly's mother didn't want to leave, and his father, gravely disappointed, had a nervous breakdown. Who was this studio honcho? "I know you've heard of him," Reilly says. "His name was Walt Disney."
Reilly admits that his own career is not without its pitfalls. For example, he says, appearing on game shows is a good way to get ridiculed. "It's like putting a scarlet letter on your chest," he says, recalling a visit to a talk show during which the jaws of the other guests dropped when he recited a soliloquy from Hamlet. "It doesn't matter what I do on Broadway or that I'm the only American director in three years to get a Tony nomination [for The Gin Game]; they go 'Yeah, but he was on Celebrity Bowling.'"
Nonetheless, since the guy does turn up in interesting corners of TV land, might he know some secrets he could share? For example, does he know what really happened to Mulder's sister on The XFiles? "I don't know. I don't care. I don't believe in that stuff," he says. "If there were someone else up there trying to get here in a spaceship, you'd think an old gas tank would have fallen off. Or a hubcap."
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