Review: Catching up with Charles Nelson Reilly

Though he was best known as a junk-TV personality with a toupee and a quip, Charles Nelson Reilly was also a lauded stage performer and a captivating raconteur.

The late actor affirms these merits in “The Life of Reilly,” a modestly presented but terrifically entertaining account of his vibrant path and rich career.

Directed by David Poltermann and Frank Anderson, the movie is a filmed version of “Save It for the Stage,” Reilly’s one-man play. In it, the serio-campy actor retravels the road that brought him to his “twilight of an extraordinary life” and, in the process, acquaints us — sometimes fondly and sometimes with searing bitterness — with the people who have shaped, inspired and scarred him.

Reilly first revisits 1940s New York and Hartford, where we meet his dysfunctional family and learn of a childhood so dramatic that, in a never-tiresome running bit, he casts actors — serious thespians such as Hume Cronyn, Shirley Booth, Claire Trevor, and Liv Ullmann — as key figures.

These include Reilly’s bigoted killjoy mother, Reilly’s disappointed alcoholic father and a lobotomized aunt.

Next comes his ascent to successful actorhood, which begins with a turn as Columbus in a school play and later includes unforgettable sessions with renowned acting teacher Uta Hagen. Steve McQueen, Geraldine Page, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook are among his glory-bound classmates.

When an NBC honcho rejects him because “they don’t let queers on television,” Reilly takes the stage route, eventually appearing in Broadway hits and winning a Tony. After Hollywood calls, he becomes a fixture on sitcoms and game shows. Later, he teaches acting.

This isn’t a knockout movie. The filmmakers can do only so much with a format consisting of one man talking onstage.

The inclusion of man-on-the-street interviews in which folks are asked if they’ve heard of Charles Nelson Reilly feels like padding inserted to push the film over the 80-minute mark.

Meanwhile, the common response — “Is he still alive?” — isn’t as funny as it used to be, since Reilly died in May.

But this is still a pleaser that boasts a good story and a superb storyteller. Like the monologues of Spalding Gray or Julia Sweeney’s “And God Said, Ha,” it absorbs you into a singular universe and hooks and delights you with the bizarreness therein.

Sharp, funny, genuinely tragicomic and affectingly thoughtful, “Life of Reilly” is, compared with the average movie comedy, an irresistible deal.

CREDITS

The Life of Reilly

***

Starring Charles Nelson Reilly

Written by Paul Linke, Charles Nelson Reilly

Directed by David Poltermann, Frank Anderson

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Note: Co-director Frank Anderson will appear at the 7:30 and 9:15 p.m. Nov. 16 screenings at Landmark's Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., San Francisco, (415) 267-4893; and at the 7:20 and 9:20 p.m. screenings Nov. 17 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 464-5980.

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