In Memoriam--Charles Nelson ReillyThis morning when I woke up and turned on the TV I was saddened to learn that Charles Nelson Reilly had died over the weekend due to complications from pneumonia. To the television generation Reilly was mostly known as a fixture on game shows like Match Game, Tattletales and Hollywood Squares. I remember him from re-runs of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir with the beautiful Hope Lange in which he played the fussy, put-upon Claymore Gregg, the only living relative of the ghost, Captain Daniel Gregg, played by Edward Mulhare. He also starred in a couple of Saturday morning television series produced by Sid and Marty Krofft of H.R. Pufnstuff fame endearing him to a generation of children.
But Reilly was much more than a game show punchline. He got his start on Broadway having created such roles as Bud Frump in How to Suceed in Business... for which he won a Tony award and the love-sick Cornelius Hackl in Hello Dolly! for which he was nominated. He was an acting student of legendary teacher Uta Hagen and went on to become a renowned acting teacher at the famous H.B. Studios in New York. He also directed operas and plays and earned a Tony nomination for best director for a production of The Gin Game with his dear friend Julie Harris.
Late in his career Reilly starred in an autobiographical one-man show called Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. In it he told a story from early in his career in which he recounts a meeting with an NBC executive who told him "they don't put queers on TV." Reilly of course went on to become one of the most recognizable television faces of the 1970s. He carved out work for himself where he could, often playing the sissified fop, a movie staple left over from the '30s and '40s in the tradition of Edward Everett Horton. These roles were never openly gay, but certainly paved the way for audiences to accept the likes of Will and Grace's Jack McFarland into their living rooms decades later.
Reilly never hid his sexuality but never felt the need to come out publicly either, although he acknowledged his sexuality in his one-man show. I'm grateful he lived long enough so that his death will not be sensationalized with scandal in the tabloids like those of Liberace and Paul Lynde. Instead, his obituaries proudly read: "Charles Nelson Reilly was survived by his partner of 27 years, Patrick Hughs III." He was 76.