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The Life of Reilly Reviews

Thank goodness Frank L. Anderson and Barry Poltermann decided to document actor and TV personality Charles Nelson Reilly's autobiographical one-man show. Relegated to pop-culture memory as the second-most flamboyantly gay man on 1960s and '70s television (following, of course, the aggressively camp Paul Lynde), Reilly's recollections mix showbiz glitter with vivid glimpses of a baroquely bizarre childhood and reveal a generosity of spirit beneath the knowingly sardonic facade he cultivated on game and talk shows. Born in the Bronx in 1931, young Charles preferred staging puppet shows and taking refuge at the movies to playing sports. "Save it for the stage," his prickly, no-nonsense mother snapped whenever her only child posed awkward questions or inadvertently challenged her "don't ask, don't tell" attitude towards life's myriad injustices. She never imagined that he eventually would: By the time Reilly was cast as Christopher Columbus in his fourth-grade play, he knew he wanted to be an actor. Reilly's father was a commercial artist in the Paramount Pictures publicity department; he passed up an opportunity to relocate to California and work for Walt Disney at the insistence of his wife, the embittered spawn of an immigrant family who settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Drinking and despair drove him to a nervous breakdown, and Charles and his mother moved in with her family: his old-country grandparents; his Aunt Lily, once a successful nursing administrator, who was lobotomized to cure her persistent pain from a childhood accident; and handsome Uncle Benny, whose social life consisted of going to funerals. Reilly's drama-queen declaration that "I spent my adolescence in an Ingmar Bergman movie" hardly seems exaggerated. He eventually made his way to New York, established himself as a comic stage actor and later found his niche on television. Reilly is a terrific storyteller, whether recalling the NBC executive who assured him that "they don't let queers on television" — 20 years later Reilly was so ubiquitous he couldn't keep track of his own appearances — or his encounters with the soon-to-be rich and famous. Who knew that the young Hal Holbrook, Reilly's classmate at the fledgling HB Studio, was picking up pocket change playing Mark Twain in school classrooms long before his Tony Award-winning one-man show? Or who could have guessed that Reilly's fast friendship with college athlete Burt "Buddy" Reynolds, fresh from Florida and bound for Mr. Roberts on Broadway, would last more than 50 years? By the time Reilly's shaggy life story winds down, it's hard not to wish he'd been your friend, too.