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L’Orange Films/Civilian Pictures
NEW YORK — Those who recall Charles Nelson Reilly merely as a kitschy comic television personality who frequented game shows, sitcoms and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” will be surprised by the emotional depths and warm humor of “The Life of Reilly.”
This filmed version of the one-person stage show performed by Reilly for several years before his death this year has an inevitably static quality, but it also offers a revelatory portrait of a multitalented entertainment figure.
Looking and sounding frail — the film was shot during his final stage performances, when he already was quite ill — Reilly offers a wonderfully entertaining account of his life and career. He concentrates less on his well-known stints on such television shows as “Match Game” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” — in which he exploited his quivering voice and fussy mannerisms to great comic effect — than on his childhood years and early success on Broadway.
He relates stories about his upbringing by his supportive if bigoted mother — “Save it for the stage” was her mantra that propelled him toward a life in show business — and embittered father, not to mention an aunt who ultimately was lobotomized. He proudly describes his first experience performing in a grade-school production of “Columbus the Man,” of which faded home movies are included here.
He goes on to amusingly describe his experiences studying under Uta Hagen in a class that seemingly included every acting luminary of the next few decades.
He touches little on his personal life and gayness, saved for a pointed anecdote about being told early in his career by a television executive that there was no place for homosexuals on television.
Despite his obvious infirmities, Reilly infuses his performance with a great deal of energy — frequently shouting his lines for emphasis — and, of course, perfect comic timing. It’s fortunate that we have this filmed record — directed by Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson — of a memorable solo performance by a true show business original.
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