Charles Nelson Reilly (January 13, 1931-May 25, 2007) was an American Actor, Comedian, Director, and drama teacher. He was known for his comedic roles in stages, films, children's television and cartoons but more known to game show audiences as one of the three regular panelists on CBS' Match Game.
Born in The Bronx, New York City, the son of Charles Joseph Reilly, an Irish Catholic commercial artist, and Signe Elvera Nelson, a Swedish Lutheran. At a very young age, Charles would often create his own puppet theater to amuse himself. His mother, foreshadowing his future as an entertainer, often would tell him to "save it for the stage". At the age of 13, he survived the infamous 1944 Hartford Circus Fire which took the lives of 169 people in Connecticut and as a result of this, he never sat in an audience again through the remainder of his life. Because of the event's trauma, he rarely attended theater, stating that the large crowds reminded him of what happened that day. As a boy, Reilly developed a love for opera and desired to become an opera singer. He entered the Hartt School of Music as a voice major but eventually abandoned this pursuit when he came to the realization that he lacked the natural vocal talent to have a major career. However, opera remained a lifelong passion and he was a frequent guest on opera-themed radio programs, including the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. He also directed opera productions for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dallas Opera, Portland Opera, San Diego Opera and Santa Fe Opera among others.
Charles got his first break in 1957, making his film debut as an extra in A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan, though most of his early career was spent on the stage. He became a regular and popular performer in comic roles for several summer seasons in the 1950s at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. Reilly appeared in many Off Broadway productions. But it wasn't until 1960 when he got his big break with the enormously successful original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie. In the groundbreaking musical, Reilly had a small onstage part, and was the standby for Dick Van Dyke in the leading role of Albert Peterson.
In 1961, Reilly was in the original cast of another big Broadway hit, the Pulitzer prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For his memorable origination of the role of Bud Frump, Reilly earned a 1962 Tony Award for featured actor in a musical. In 1964, Charles was featured in the original cast of yet another giant Broadway success, Hello, Dolly!. For originating the role of Cornelius Hackl, Reilly received a second nomination for a Tony Award for performance by an actor in a featured role in a musical.
While he kept active in Broadway shows, Charles would soon become better known for his TV work, appearing regularly on television in the 1960s. One of his first TV credits was appearing as first a mystery guest, then as a panelist on CBS' What's My Line? In 1965, he made regular appearances on the short-lived The Steve Lawrence Show, Charles also landed gigs in various television throughout the 1960s and 1970s included Excedrin and Bic Banana Ink Crayons, in which he wore a banana costume.
Reilly also became a regular on The Dean Martin Show, and had multiple guest appearances on television series including McMillan & Wife, The Patty Duke Show, Here's Lucy, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Love Boat, and Love, American Style.
In 1971, Charles appeared as the evil magician Hoodoo in Lidsville, a psychedelically flavored live-action children's program produced by Sid and Marty Krofft that aired on Saturday mornings on ABC. The show was about a boy who falls into a magician's hat and enters a magical world of hat-humans. It is through these roles, as well as his playing the titular role in Uncle Croc's Block and appearing once on Walt Disney's The Mouse Factory, that Reilly's voice and mannerisms became familiar to a generation of young fans.
He was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than one hundred times. Because Reilly was such a lively and reliable talk-show guest and lived within blocks of the Burbank studios where The Tonight Show was taped, he was often asked to be a last-minute replacement for scheduled guests who did not make it to the studio in time.
Charles is perhaps more well known as a fixture of game shows, primarily due to his appearances as a regular panelist on the television game show Match Game. Reilly was one of three regular panelists on the program and often engaged in petty, hilarious arguments with fellow regular Brett Somers (the two generally sat next to each other on the show, Somers in the upper middle seat and Reilly in the upper right-hand seat). Charles typically offered sardonic commentary and peppered his answers with homosexually themed double entendres that pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.
During the taping of Match Game 74, he took a leave of absence from the show to film the 1974 made-for-TV movie Hamburgers, co-starring with Sid Caesar and Charlie Callas. From 1975 to 1976, Reilly starred in another live-action children's program called Uncle Croc's Block with Jonathan Harris.
In 1988, Reilly hosted his own game show called Sweethearts. It lasted for only one season.
Charles often appeared as a celebrity panelist on other game shows including Body Language, Super Password, as well as returning to his famous spot on the early 90s revival of Match Game. In December 2002, Charles reunited with his former Match Game sidekick Brett Somers as they appeared as part of "Game Show Week" on the syndicated game show Hollywood Squares, hosted by Tom Bergeron.
In later years, Reilly was primarily active teaching acting and directing for television and theater including directing Julie Harris portraying Emily Dickinson in her one-woman Broadway play The Belle of Amherst by William Luce. In 1979, he directed Ira Levin's play Break a Leg on Broadway. Despite the previous year's success of Levin's Deathtrap, Break a Leg closed after one performance. In 1997, Charles earned a Tony Award nomination as Best Director of a Play for the revival of The Gin Game starring Julie Harris, with whom he had acted in Skyscraper in 1965-66.
In 1990, he sat in the director's chair directing episodes of the popular CBS sitcom Evening Shade starring Burt Reynolds. He also made a string guest appearances on shows like The Drew Carey Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and as eccentric writer Jose Chung in the television series The X-Files ("Jose Chung's From Outer Space"), Millennium ("Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense") and as the original voice of "The Dirty Bubble" in the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants before he was replaced by Tom Kenny. Reilly was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1998 and 1999 for his performances in The Drew Carey Show and Millennium, respectively.
Reilly was a longtime teacher of acting at HB Studio, the acting studio founded by Herbert Berghof and made famous by Berghof and his wife, the renowned stage actress Uta Hagen. His acting students included Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, and M*A*S*H star & semi-regular Match Game panelist Gary Burghoff.
Reilly had a voice role in three films by Don Bluth; All Dogs go to Heaven as Killer in 1989, Rock-a-Doodle as Hunch in 1991 and A Troll in Central Park as King Llort in 1994. In each one, his role is as the villain's dim-witted sidekick.
Charles didn't publicly affirm his homosexuality until his one-man show, Save It for the Stage. However, much like fellow game-show regular Paul Lynde of the same era, Reilly played up a campy on-screen persona. In many episodes of Match Game, he would lampoon himself by briefly affecting a deep voice and the nickname "Chuck," and self-consciously describing how "butch" he was. He mentioned in a 2002 interview with Entertainment Tonight that he felt no need to note this and that he never purposely hid being gay from anyone. Patrick Hughes III, a set decorator and dresser, was Reilly's domestic partner; the two met backstage while Reilly appeared on the game show Battlestars and lived together in Beverly Hills.
In 2004, his final performance of the play was filmed as the basis for an autobiographical independent film titled The Life of Reilly. Charles became ill with respiratory problems while filming and retired from directing and performing immediately after the final day of shooting. The show premiered in March 2006 at the South by Southwest film festival and Reilly's performance in the film received great acclaim. Reilly canceled his personal appearance at South by Southwest due to illness and by the time the film premiered he had been hospitalized.
On May 25, 2007, Charles passed away of pneumonia at his home and his body was cremated. That weekend, the Game Show Network honored Reilly with a special tribute of airing his funniest episode and most memorable moments of Match Game.