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The name Charles Nelson Reilly may inspire eye-rolling over memories of the poncy, pipe-smoking '70s game-show guest--but he may well be one of pop culture's most misunderstood figures. After all, Reilly is considered by many--including his close friends Julie Harris and Roberta Peters--to be one of his generation's best theater directors. He won a Tony award in 1962 for originating the role of Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His students have included Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, and, currently, opera sensation Rodney Gilfry. And, one might argue, his television ubiquity as a flamboyantly gay man in the supermacho '70s counts as a quiet form of revolution.
"Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are activists; they're the first ones to march down the street," says Reilly in the dining room of the plant- and memorabilia-filled Beverly Hills home he shares with his partner, Patrick Hughes. "But I'm more like Marian Anderson, who was a great singer and never said a word about the fact that she was black--but [being] a black woman in a gorgeous gown and very good jewelry, accompanied by a man on a Steinway in Carnegie Hall, was her way of doing it."
Reilly's way of doing it brings him to his latest work, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, which opens off-Broadway at New York's Irish Repertory Theatre on October 7 following several successful regional runs, with an eye toward Broadway. It's an interesting journey back for the 70-year-old actor-director, a staple of such musicals as Bye Bye Birdie (he understudied for Gene Rayburn, who would later play straight man as Reilly unleashed his comic barbs on Match Game), Skyscraper, Hello, Dolly! and How to Succeed. Reilly says he left musical theater "because the plays were directed by Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, and Michael Bennett, and they were very wonderful, but they all were boy dancers who went to being choreographers who went to being directors. So you say one line like 'There she goes,' and then [there are] 12 minutes of a big number. I had a big speech by Thornton Wilder in Dolly, and we were in dress rehearsals and I start the speech, and I got two or three lines out and, 'OK, that's all! Stop!' Miss [Carol] Channing could make the costume change in three lines, so they didn't need the rest. I got tired of being a Rockette; I went to Hollywood."
In Hollywood, Reilly made a name for himself as the devious Claymore Gregg on the TV version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir--the character had been scripted only for the pilot, but Reilly was such a hit that he became a regular--and as part of the comic relief on Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers. Gen Xers remember him camping it up on Saturday mornings on Sid and Marty Krofft's surrealistic pillow Lidsville and on the short-lived, ahead-of-its-time Uncle Croc's Block (a show so barely remembered that even Reilly gives me an odd look when I bring it up). But the appearances that seared him into the public consciousness came on game shows, particularly Match Game '73, '74, '75, et al. His banter with perpetual co-panelist Brett Somers gave the show a last-call-at-the-Algonquin feel, and Rayburn could always get Reilly to lower his voice to a butch register by calling him "Chuck." That part of his career, according to Reilly, has been something of a hindrance in television. "You can't do anything else once you do game shows," he notes. "You have no career."
Of course, Reilly has had the "no career" that most actors would kill for: Playing novelist Jose Chung on Chris Carter's The X-Files and Millennium, he racked up an Emmy nomination in 1998 for the latter show (although the actor is still miffed that the character got killed off) and another for a 1999 appearance on The Drew Carey Show. And his volume of work as a theater director is nothing short of astounding--in fact, it almost appears that Reilly is doing a one-man show of his own life simply because he's already done everyone else's. "I've done Emily Dickinson [The Belle of Amherst] and Oscar Levant and Paul Robeson.... I did one with Richard Basehart as Patton," says Reilly. "And Ruby Dee said the words that made me want to do it: 'While you're still perpendicular.' "
Save It for the Stage goes back to the actor's childhood in the '30s, when he was being raised by a difficult--to say the very least--mother and already exhibiting the qualities by which he would become known later in life. "Here comes Mary," Reilly recalls the neighborhood kids yelling when it was his turn at bat in stickball. The show follows his lifelong love of show business, the close friends he's made along the way ("Miss Harris" and Burt Reynolds are probably mentioned the most), and amazing stories, like that of the NBC president who told a young Reilly that there could be "no queers on television," only to be found dead years later, murdered by a male prostitute.
"I never made my sexual orientation a part of my life," says Reilly. "It didn't matter. I think so many people make it overly important, and I think that's when they get in trouble. That wonderful Toni Morrison, who I think is so brilliant, she helps me every time she talks on television. They used to call her 'nigger' and spit on her, and she felt sorry for them. She said they have no morality. When that man told me they don't allow queers on television, I felt sorry for him. I don't know how I knew that."
Today, he seems very happy with Hughes, his partner of 20 years. "He's my life," says Reilly. "And we courted for 20 minutes. He worked for a game show called Battlestars, and he was the producer's associate, so he would help the celebrities to their dressing room. The smile was the thing--his laugh. I love Patrick, and Patrick and I are completely different. We have never had a fight or raised voices. We should not be together, because we have nothing in common. Absolutely nothing, but...I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for him. He is extraordinary. He has 800 plants, hanging here, hanging there. And he does it 10 minutes a week; it's kind of strange. But that's Patrick."
And while his home life is stable, Reilly finds that Save It for the Stage (which he developed with Time Flies When You're Alive creator Paul Linke) is always changing. "It's strange--nightclub slash legitimate theater slash platform piece," he says. "I don't know what it is. It's sort of telling us what it is." But for the natural-born storyteller, performing the play isn't that far removed from his daily life. "I tell the stories all the time," he says. "I go out to dinner, and I'm always with six people, and nobody speaks. So I'll start with a story. Actually, doing the play for two hours is easier than being out, because I'll be talking anyway. At least I get paid for it."