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Charles Nelson Reilly is pretty amazing. If you don’t agree — I would argue that you don’t know who he is. He’s perhaps most known for being hilarious on Match Game or perhaps as Hoodoo in Lidsville, but he was a renowned actor, director and teacher as well. And he just seemed like a really cool person, too — someone I always wanted to meet.
I almost got the chance, too — a couple years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival had the premiere of Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson’s documentary The Life of Reilly, and Charles Nelson Reilly was going to be in attendance. Unfortunately, Reilly bailed on appearing — the jerk had the audacity to die about two weeks before. It’s bad enough he had to die, but, jeez, did he have to pick THEN?
Luckily, the film of his stage show is likewise amazing. The show was around 3 hours long — the film is only 84 minutes, and if there is a fault with the film, it’s that it’s too short. I could spend hours watching Reilly; he’s just so smart and entertaining. And kind, too — the epilogue of the film is one of my favorite parts, but a part I won’t spoil.
The first half of the film is about his childhood — which, though very tragic, is peppered with punchlines that keep it lively. His mother was what scientists call “A Real Piece Of Work”; an overbearing presence who seemed hell-bent on keeping anyone from doing what they wanted to do; she kept his father from moving to California to be a Disney animator, and she was against Reilly being an actor, even from the beginning.
The second half starts with Reilly returning to New York, and studying acting with Uta Hagen. The scene where he goes over the roll of his Beginning Acting class is jaw-dropping — every one in the class went on to make a great name for themselves. Reilly’s self-deprecating sense of humor is a theme through both halves of the film, but there’s a real emotion; he lets his guard down a bit, and you can see some of the hurt before he gives the punchline. But as one of his themes is, laughter can cure most anything and it always helps.
The current edition of the film is only available as a free DVD screener sent when you order a shirt from the filmmakers. They can’t sell the screeners — hence the shirt — and a real DVD release was put on hold when their distributor, New Yorker Films, sadly went bankrupt in Feburary of this year. Luckily, the filmmakers own the rights, and so it’s a matter of finding a new DVD label for the film — and I’m sure they will. Being a screener, the DVD just has the film — no extras, but I remember at the SIFF screening, it was mentioned that the DVD would include lots of deleted scenes — potentially the whole three hour version of the show (which would be so incredibly awesome). I’m definitely going to pick that up when it comes out — and I recommend the screener to anyone and everyone in the meantime.
Charles Nelson Reilly is one of the great American actors, and a national treasure. It was such a shame when we lost him, but at least we have his huge body of work to learn from and, well, ENJOY.