Now remembered largely for his outsize spectacles and campy routines on the TV game show The Match Game, Charles Nelson Reilly was a Tony®-winning Broadway performer, a familiar presence on several television programs, a stage director, and an acting teacher. Born in the South Bronx in 1931, he grew up in Connecticut, where at age thirteen he narrowly escaped being engulfed in a raging fire at a circus and was thereafter reluctant to be in an enclosed theater – an ironic twist in the life of a stage performer.
Reilly studied acting at the studio of Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen, eking out a living while waiting for his big break. He landed a bit part in the 1957 film Face in the Crowd and took parts in off-Broadway shows. In 1960, however, he gained a foothold in the Broadway circuit as a member of the original cast of Bye Bye Birdie, which won the Tony® for Best Musical. Playing alongside leading male Dick Van Dyke (for whom Reilly was also the standby), Chita Rivera, and Paul Lynde, Reilly was on his way to stardom.
The following year, in fact, put Reilly front and center as one of the leads in the office-politics musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in which Reilly played opposite Rudy Vallee and Robert Morse. The hit show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tonys®, including Best Musical; Reilly won the Tony® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Going from one success to another, Reilly next appeared in the original cast of the smash hit Hello, Dolly! (1964), which ran for a whopping 2,844 performances and scooped up multiple Tonys®, including Best Musical. Carol Channing, in what would become her signature role as Dolly, won the Tony® for Best Actress in a Musical, and Reilly earned a nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The cast album, in the first week of its release, reportedly sold a staggering 80,000-plus copies.
Playing alongside Julie Harris and Peter Marshall, Reilly had a leading role in Skyscraper (1965), a musical about an antiques dealer who tries to prevent her brownstone from being razed to make way for yet another colossus. In Neil Simon’s play God’s Favorite (1974), Reilly played Sidney Lipton, the messenger of God in a modern adaptation of the story of Job.
Julie Harris and Reilly collaborated again in her one-woman show The Belle of Amherst (1976), a Tony®-winning performance on the life of Emily Dickinson. Reilly directed, and he would turn his energies increasingly to directing in his later theatrical career. In 1978, Reilly oversaw the staging of another tour de force, Paul Robeson, a two-person play starring James Earl Jones as the great African-American singer and actor.
With his old acting teacher Uta Hagen, Reilly starred in Peter Hacks’s two-person play Charlotte (1980), about Goethe’s close friend Charlotte von Stein. It had fared well in the German original, but the English version on Broadway foundered after a few performances. In 2001, Reilly gave a one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, an autobiographical work that covered his long career and dealt frankly with his flamboyant homosexuality; a film of the last performances came out with the shortened title The Life of Reilly (2006).
He died in Beverly Hills in 2007.