With equal measures of prickly wit, gleeful pride and bemused gratitude, Charles Nelson Reilly looks back at his life, and invites his audience to share the view, in this thoroughly engaging filmization of his one-man stage show. “The Life of Reilly” could score limited theatrical play in major markets, but probably will receive an even warmer reception as homevid fare to be savored by the millions who fondly recall him as a campy TV staple of the ’70s and ’80s.
Helmers Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann wisely refrain from efforts to “open up” the stage production. Instead, they simply train their cameras on the casually-attired star as he offers a free-wheeling series of autobiographical anecdotes about his misadventures as talkshow gadfly, sitcom co-star, quiz show regular and, not incidentally, Tony Award-winning Broadway vet.
For auds who know him only from television, pic’s biggest surprises may be Reilly’s stories about studying acting under Uta Hagen — with Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook as classmates — and his own experiences as a thesping coach. (He nabbed a Tony nomination for directing Julie Harris in a 1997 revival of “The Gin Game.”)
When he describes how he silenced a snooty talkshow guest by powerfully rendering a “Hamlet” soliloquy, Reilly gets a big laugh. At the same time, though, aud can’t help wondering if maybe the irrepressibly comical Reilly always possessed under-valued (and seldom utilized) dramatic chops as an actor.
Except for some fleetingly serious scenes — recollections of a troubled childhood, and miraculous escape from a 1944 circus fire — the tone is light, bright and shamelessly dishy. There’s a suggestion of still-simmering anger when he recalls a brutal brush-off by an NBC talent scout in the early 1950s: “They don’t let queers on television.” Ultimately, however, “Life of Reilly” is vivid proof that living well, and laughing heartily, can be the best revenge.