At one point in The Life of Reilly, a film of the late Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man stage show, the garrulous actor, teacher and game-show celebrity admits that during his TV heyday in the 1970s, he'd go through the TV Guide every week to count how many times he'd be on television. One week he was on 56 times -- and this was back in the era before hundreds of cable channels permitted the likes of Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart to beam into living rooms 24/7.
Although mostly a reminiscence of his dysfunctional family and adventures breaking into show business, The Life of Reilly offers a showcase for a unique kind of talent. Reilly's probably best remembered for filling in the blanks with queeny double entendres on "Match Game," but he studied under legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen and was a Broadway fixture in the 1960s. It's hard to think of modern-day equivalents to Reilly – Howie Mandel? "The Kids in the Hall's" Scott Thompson? – much less find one with the same classical training or larger-than-life personality.
Recorded from his final stage appearance before his death in May of this year, the film occasionally uses stock footage as Reilly describes beloved teachers and quirky family members as he grew up in the Bronx and Connecticut. His mother emerges as an abrasive bigot who speaks loudly and carries a baseball bat. "You're sick and weak and on beef broth!" she declares when Reilly lands a role in a fourth-grade play. Although something of a squawking, shambling figure, Reilly shows a firm command of dramatic timing, able to switch on a dime from a poignant story about his aunt's lobotomy to, say, a snarky diss of classmate Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain one-man shows.
Despite its heavy moments, The Life of Reilly never shoots for the thematic unity of the late Spalding Gray's monologues, but feels more like an evening with an irresistible gay raconteur like John Waters or Leslie Jordan. Though he recounts childhood misery, he gives away surprisingly little of his private life and only reveals his homosexuality via the slurs of ignorant others. Perhaps the most memorable moment finds a young Reilly processing an NBC executive's declaration, "They don't let queers on television." Reilly concluded that it was inaccurate, and then spent the rest of his life proving it wrong.