For a man traumatized at childhood to the point of never attending a theater performance as part of the audience, Charles Nelson Reilly sure did make the stage his own. Throughout a career spanning half a century, Reilly excelled as a stage performer, film actor, comedian, director, and drama teacher.
Reilly’s notable works include All Dogs Go to Heaven, Millennium, Hello, Dolly! and the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Charles made more than 95 appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and many other TV shows. Although it has been over a decade since he passed on, Reilly is still remembered for his contributions to the entertainment industry.
Reilly Initially Wanted to be an Opera Singer
He was named Charles Nelson Reilly II after he was born on the 13th of January 1931 to Signe Elvera Nelson and Charles Joseph Reilly. He was the son of an Irish commercial artist who was a Catholic. Charles was born and raised in the Bronx, America’s third most densely populated county.
He developed an interest in theater as a child and despite experiencing the unfortunate Hartford Circus Fire that killed 169 people while he was thirteen years old, he never gave up on theater, albeit his fears did express itself through a phobia for sitting in the audience.
Riley spent his childhood in the Bronx but later moved to Hartford, Connecticut in his early teens after his father suffered a nervous breakdown. As a young adult, he harbored dreams of becoming an opera singer and even enrolled at the Hartt School of Music but had to drop out when he realized he didn’t have the voice to pursue that career.
When he turned 18, he moved to New York City where he joined Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio. Here, he learned the rudiments of his craft.
An Overview of Charles Nelson Reilly’s Career Exploits
Reilly’s career cut across film, stage, and projects created for television. At the age of 26, Charles Nelson Reilly began his career as a performer and made an appearance in the film, A Face in the Crowd, in 1957. Although it was an uncredited role for him, it began a long series of appearances in movies and TV shows.
Reilly moved to California in the early ’60s and made appearances in TV shows such as What’s My Line? and The Steve Lawrence Show (1965). Also, he made guest appearances in TV series like Here’s Lucy, The Patty Duke Show, Rowan, and Martin’s Laugh-In, McMillan & Wife, and The Love Boat.
In 1971, he played the role of an evil magician in Lidsville and the title role in the animation Uncle Croc’s Block alongside Jonathan Harris. He also worked in an episode of Walt Disney’s The Mouse Factory.
From 1976, Reilly started teaching drama at HB Studio, Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen’s acting school. He made his directorial debut in the same year when he directed a one-woman play titled The Belle of Amherst. He also directed the comedy The Nerd.
Later in his career, he directed episodes of the sitcom Evening Shade. In the ’90s, he made a lot of guest appearances on The Drew Carey Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and Family Matters. He also appeared on the TV drama, Second Noah. Charles Nelson Reilly was occasionally the voice of the Dirty Bubble in the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.
His career culminated in a total of 68 credits in his filmography, which included onscreen roles like All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Addams Family, Arnie, and several others.
Off-screen, Charles Nelson Reilly performed on stage multiple times on Broadway and Off-Broadway, with some of his works receiving the much-coveted Tony Award. He won the award for the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and landed a nomination for Hello, Dolly!.
Other than acting roles, Charles was a known director who directed several shows and plays, some of which was on Broadway. Before and since his passing, his contributions to art particularly in Hollywood has made him the subject of recognition from other works of art like a sketch on Saturday Night Live and a tribute song by Weird Al Yankovic.
He Died of Respiratory Problems
Right into the year of his death, Charles Nelson Reilly continued to work in the entertainment industry, defying the limitations of his age. He toured the country, keeping up with his works as a director for various theatre plays and opera.
Unfortunately, he could only battle for so long and during the filming of one of his last projects, he developed respiratory problems that forced him into retirement.
Shortly after the premiere of his last film, The Life of Reilly, he died of pneumonia on the 25th of May 2007. Reilly died at the age of 76 and his body was cremated.
What Charles Nelson Reilly Is Most Remembered For
The entertainment landscape is different from when Reilly started, one of his lasting legacies would be his longevity. He managed to keep himself relevant even as times changed and things evolved.
He would also be remembered as one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood. In Save it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, the icon revealed that even though his sexual orientation was not a nationally known fact, he never intentionally kept it a secret. Reilly was in a long-term relationship with a fellow member of the industry, Patrick Hughes II, who was a dresser and a set director. The two of them co-habited in Charles’ home in Beverly Hills when he was alive.
Over fifty years in Hollywood and working in various roles as either an actor, director, or drama teacher, Charles Nelson Reilly was involved in a lot of commercially viable and critically acclaimed works.
Reilly was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1998 and 1999 for his performances in The Drew Carey Show and Millennium. In 1962, he won the Tony Award for his role in the hit Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.