30 May 2007

Charles Nelson Reilly, 76, Actor, Director & Friend of Opera, Has Died

CHARLES NELSON REILLY
January 13, 1931, Bronx, New York - May 25, 2007, Los Angeles

Although the actor and director was most widely known for his appearances on television (including a regular stint as a panelist on The Match Game and more than ninety appearances on The Tonight Show), Reilly's most substantial achievements took place in the theater. A student of Uta Hagen, he created the role of Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962), for which he received a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Also on Broadway, he originated the role of Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly! (1964) and supported Julie Harris in Skyscraper (1965). From the early 1990s, he toured in an autobiographical one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, and he made a film of it in 2006.

As a boy, Reilly had longed to become an opera singer and studied voice at the Hartt School of Music, but he realized early on that he lacked the requisite vocal talent. Opera became an enduring passion, however, and after he achieved celebrity, he was a frequent guest on opera-themed radio programs. His command of operatic facts was astonishing, and his tastes were sharply defined. He was always quick to name his favorite tenor - Bruno Landi - and delighted in recounting such long-forgotten performances as Winifred Heidt's Carmen at New York City Opera. He worked with young singers at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Santa Fe Opera, and directed productions at the opera companies of Dallas, Portland and San Diego, among others. At the Metropolitan Opera, in 1994, he wrote an extended scene for his friend Bea Arthur, cast in the guest-star role of The Duchess of Krakentorp in La Fille du Régiment. He maintained friendships with many opera singers, including Renée Fleming, Rod Gilfry, Roberta Peters and Eileen Farrell. His friends loved his outrageous humor, both on and offstage. One day, while he was with Farrell on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, he had an altercation with a female driver behind him. "HEY, LADY! CAN YOU SING THE LIEBESTOD FROM TRISTAN UND ISOLDE? YOU BET YOUR ASS YOU CAN'T!"

His enthusiasm for music never flagged. (The boat he owned in Los Angeles was named the La Bohème.) Shortly after he became successful on the New York stage, he answered a newspaper advertisement for a rental apartment. When Reilly showed up at the appointed hour, the door was opened by the landlady, who turned out to be the glamorous operetta star Marta Eggerth. Reilly took one look at her and shouted, "I'll take it!"

Perhaps the high point of his career was William Luce's 1976 monodrama, The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson and directed by Reilly. In 1997, he directed Harris in a revival of The Gin Game, which earned Tony nominations for both of them.

His extensive television credits include a recurring role on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Emmy nomination, 1970) and appearances on Here's Lucy, The Dean Martin Show, Love, American Style, Millennium, The X-Files and dozens of others.

Reilly died of complications from pneumonia.

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