THE LIFE OF REILLYNR
“Save it for the stage!” was what the late Charles Nelson Reilly’s mother kept telling him, according to The Life of Reilly, a film record of his one-man show. I was lucky enough to see him do this live in New York in 2001, and can affirm that it was one of the greatest solo performances I have ever seen. Billy Crystal and Martin Short have had their own auto- and semi-autobiographical productions in recent years, but Reilly’s far more modest, bare-bones conception managed to be vastly superior, infinitely richer—and far less self-serving.
Helmers Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann had the bright idea to preserve Reilly’s show on film, and—apart from a lot of unnecessary camera movement intended to convey “immediacy,” one supposes—it is indeed an invaluable record. Reilly’s mother is a recurring character here, a mean old woman who’d yell racist and ethnic insults out their Bronx window; she was not only someone he had to survive but also, incredibly, a source of the humor which gave him his long, varied career. Reilly was much more than a wacky game-show contestant, which is how generations of television audiences knew him. A trained actor, he schooled at the Herbert Berghof-Uta Hagen studio in Manhattan in a class which boasted the legendary likes of Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon, Stiller & Meara and Steve McQueen, and went on to Broadway success in back-to-back hits Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Hello, Dolly!.
Reilly amusingly casts his own life, spouting out the names of various actors to his audience, like “The part of my mother will be played by Shirley Booth!” as well as Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis as a pair of homophobic neighborhood thugs, Hume Cronyn as his father and Claire Trevor as his aunt. He recalls family dinners with strange Swedish fish entrees, the bones of which would be tossed across his family’s tiny apartment unerringly into a trashcan. “There we were, my crazy mother, my alcoholic father, my lobotomized aunt and an uncle who went to strangers’ funerals—and I was considered the weird one!” he shrieks in his patently hilarious, hysterical comic voice.
This label of weirdness mostly stemmed from his early love of theatre and his homosexuality. The latter threatened to become an obstacle when the head of NBC told him there was no place for pansies on TV, something Reilly recalls with a certain earned pride when he notes it would come to pass that he could pick up a TV Guide and see himself listed as appearing in various game shows and series every day of the week.
Reilly’s immense intelligence and heart gleam through every moment of the film and it is small wonder that, by the end of his bountiful life, he had retained an astonishing circle of devoted, famous fellow thespians. Typical of his whimsical yet bracingly down-to-earth approach to life, he recalls Burt Reynolds giving him the lavish Florida home he once shared with Sally Field. “Burt told me he didn’t want to go inside,” Reilly remembers. “He said it was too full of memories of Sally for him. ‘Gimme the keys!’ I said. ‘I barely knew her!’”