Charles Nelson Reilly Was Always Game

Tony-winner Charles Nelson Reilly has passed away at the age of 76. His acting and directing successes were overshadowed for many by his regular appearances as an outsized personality on TV game shows.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Theater actor and self-described game show fixture Charles Nelson Reilly has died. His partner said Reilly died of pneumonia. He was 76 years old.

Charles Nelson Reilly began his career in New York theater. He won a Tony Award in 1962 for his role in the original Broadway production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." In the '70s, Reilly moved into TV, playing the evil magician Hoodoo on Sid and Marty Krofft's psychedelic children's show "Lidsville." He made regular appearances on shows like "The Love Boat," "Laugh-In" and "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He became famous, though, sitting in the upper-right hand corner on "Match Game." The game show starred B-list celebrities trying to match the contestants' answers with usually suggestive questions. Reilly camped it up; he wore huge glasses, a swirly toupee and ascot.

(Soundbite of TV show "Match Game")

Unidentified Woman: Well, you know, I live in Beverly Hills.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES NELSON REILLY (Actor): Boy, if she lives in Beverly Hills, the you bet you're on Olympic (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Charles Nelson Reilly once said about his role on game shows, you can't do anything else; once you do game shows, you have no career. In the '80s and '90s, Reilly continued playing guest roles on various TV shows. And for the last few years he starred in a one-man show about his life called "Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly." Last year, it was made into a feature film.

(Soundbite of "Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly")

Mr. REILLY: A voice in my head tells me that I'm at the twilight of an extraordinary life. I say extraordinary because of the people who have loved me. I say twilight because of what people say to me in the supermarket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REILLY: No, it's true. I'll be pushing my wagon, minding my own business, and a woman will see me and go - oh, oh, oh, I thought you were dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Paul Linke directed the stage version. He says most people didn't realize that Reilly was an accomplished theater actor and teacher.

Mr. PAUL LINKE (Writer): One of the most important things to realize about Charles is what an important teacher he was. And when you look at the list of his students, it's pretty overwhelming, I mean he taught Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Peter Boyle, Liza Minnelli, and many, many, many, many, many others the craft of acting.

BRAND: Charles Nelson Reilly never tried to hide his homosexuality, frequently cracking double entendres about being gay. Paul Linke says even in the swinging '70s, being openly gay was risky for an actor's career. Before that, it was deadly.

Mr. LINKE: In the '50s, he went to some big network to have an audition for a television show and the man said to him, we don't put queers on TV. And Charles would say that it didn't bother him. We talked about how later, because of his many appearances on game shows and on "The Tonight Show," which he did either 96 or 99 times - I'm not sure what the real answer is - you know, he said he'd look at the TV guide and see his name in it like 25 times in a week. You know, he'd remember that guy who said what he said, and he realized that it wasn't true.

BRAND: Charles Nelson Reilly died Friday of pneumonia here in Los Angeles. He was 76.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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