I’d guess that most people under 30 who know of Charles Nelson Reilly at all remember him as played by a leisure-suited, compulsively spectacle-tweaking Alec Baldwin on an SNL “Inside the Actors Studio” skit. The joke, as always, was that Will Ferrell‘s James Lipton was prostrating himself before a trashy, basically negligible career, one that, in this case, will largely be remembered on the strength of “Match Game” appearances, sharing Friars Club roast panels with Foster Brooks, and generally providing a reliable source of nudge-nudge feyness and snark when Paul Lynde was otherwise occupied (actual “Hollywood Squares” exchange–Peter Marshall: “Oh, Paul, what would we ever do without you?” Lynde: [acidly] “Replace me with Charles Nelson Reilly”).
That said, it’s one of the winning eccentricities of “The Life of Reilly,” a taped distillation of C.N.R.’s autobiographical one-man-show, that it–feigned modesty aside–takes for granted that its subject’s accomplishments are worthy of our attention and esteem. Accordingly, during the front half of his monologue, Reilly treats his Bronx boyhood, beset by domestic tragedy (a mother inclined toward torrential verbal abuse; an alcoholic, mentally fragile father), as the prologue to a “…and the rest, as they say, is history” legend that simply everyone knows. There’s even a friend’s mother who, in predicting the Artist as a Young Man’s eventual success, is presented as some kind of seer.
Reilly, for what it’s worth, is straightforward about his tendency toward self-mythologization–a professed movie junkie, he imagines the dream casting of his boyhood as he introduces each character (Shirley Booth will play his mother, Hume Cronyn his father). Seventy-something when “Life of Reilly” was shot, he’s still an energetic and eager ham, covering all sides of the stage with his stiff-legged wobble (that Reilly died in May of this year adds some kind of gravitas–especially as his opening monologue riffs on the fact that nobody seems to know he’s still alive). His primary comic tool is ambush, letting his voice settle into a modulated singsong lilt during melancholy or introspective moments, then lunging out in an exasperated wah-wah-wah shriek; for anyone wondering where Martin Short developed the particular cadences of Jiminy Glick’s patter, look no further.
The brass ring is grabbed for, as Reilly scores the lead in a P.S. 53 stage production, survives the tragic Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, pries his way onto Broadway (as–what else?–an understudy for Paul Lynde in “Bye Bye Birdie”), takes TV Guide by storm, and even pauses to warble off a Hamlet soliloquy along the way. The pathos, at times, is troweled on in big, unabashed Al Jolson dollops, and Reilly takes some liberties with truth for the sake of a story–Walt Disney‘s name would’ve been known to any veteran moviegoer by the mid-1930s, though Reilly casts him as an unknown upstart–but I found the whole indulgence engaging. If you’re the sort of person who can happily watch crappy YouTube television excerpts until you have a splitting headache, you’ll likely feel the same. Only one question remains: Now that Lynde has an “Advocate”-published biography and C.N.R. a one-man concert film, when will Rip Taylor finally get his due?
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and also writes for The Village Voice and Stop Smling.]