At the start of The Life Of Reilly, right before Charles Nelson Reilly steps onstage to deliver a monologue about his dysfunctional upbringing and turbulent early years in showbiz, a man on the street is asked if he knows who Reilly is. The man says he thinks so, and then, referring to Reilly's '70s television heyday, he says: "In that time, it wasn't cool to be like he was."
There may be no better way to describe Reilly than "like he was." Like his fellow game-show icon Paul Lynde, Reilly was openly gay without being really open. He made the same diabolical bargain as Lynde, agreeing to mince it up on game shows, sitcoms, and Saturday-morning TV, in order to become just a little famous. But Reilly had a much more sweetly gregarious public persona than Lynde, and in some ways, he did a better job of slipping around TV's defenses. Every now and then on The Match Game, host Gene Rayburn would ask what the panelists were up to during the show's hiatus, and Reilly would talk about teaching a drama class or directing regional theater, indicating that he had a rich creative and social life outside of game-show double-entendres. Lynde made being gay look like torture, but Reilly always seemed to be having fun being "like he was."
The Life Of Reilly records the final performances of the late actor's one-man show, in which he runs through his life story, from growing up as a Bronx misfit to catching a break during the heyday of Off-Broadway, where he once appeared in 22 productions in a single year. The original Life Of Reilly show ran nearly three hours, but Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson's film cuts that in half, sacrificing a lot of what people might want to see in a Reilly bio. Reilly's sexuality only comes up when he repeats what an NBC executive once told him—that "they don't let queers on television"—and his years of palling around with celebrities on game shows is reduced to a couple of mentions of Burt Reynolds. But even abridged, The Life Of Reilly is spellbinding. Reilly has an innate sense of showmanship, be it explaining which famous actors should play his relatives in the movie of his life (dad = Hume Cronyn) or pausing during a particularly dramatic moment to remark on the stage set. "Well," Reilly sighs, "It's that kind of play."