One Man Show About Gay Icon Charles Nelson Riley

Photos of Paul Linke by Austin Highsmith

Really, Reilly? Charles Nelson Reilly – a fixture on stage and the little and big screens for about half a century, best known as a habitue of televised variety, talk and game shows plus sitcoms – attended one of America’s most renowned acting schools in Manhattan during the 1950s. But who knew that the comic performer – who appeared countless times in skits on The Dean Martin Show, as a panelist on What’s My Line?, Password and Match Game, as a guest 100-plus times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and as an actor in the sitcom The Ghost & Mrs. Muir – studied acting under the revered Uta Hagen at New York’s fabled HB Studio? That his classmates at Herbert Berghof’s famed Greenwich Village acting outpost included Hal Holbrook, Geraldine Page, Steve McQueen, Orson Bean and many other luminaries – some of whom Reilly would go on to teach at HB Studio himself?

I had no idea that Reilly had such an illustrious background – which also included many stints performing on Broadway, like as a Tony-nominated original cast member of Hello, Dolly!, plus as a director, helming Julie Harris’ one-woman show as poet Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst on the Great White Way, for which Harris one a Tony. And so on. 

This reviewer, who when growing up always enjoyed watching Reilly on the tube, was completely unaware of Reilly’s wide-ranging accomplishments – that is, until I attended the opening night of Paul Linke’s It’s Only a Show! which is essentially a master class in all things Charles Nelson Reilly. Linke, a collaborator with the late Reilly, movingly, lovingly pays tribute to the talent who’d mentored him.

In this essentially one-man show which Linke created, the thespian occasionally re-enacts Reilly, although much of the time he spins yards of yarns about the subject’s childhood, stage and screen career, teaching of the art of acting, as well as his private life. In particular, Linke pays homage to Reilly’s refusal to be a non-person and vanish because of his homosexuality, persisting in his profession and pushing the boundaries of televised taste during a time when gays were routinely referred to as “sissies,” “light in the loafers,” “swishy” and with more derogatory terms – that is, if they were even acknowledged at all.

In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet one of the interviewees stated that the presence of some extremely effeminate, flamboyant men in movies like Franklin Pangborn was preferable to no depiction at all, because it was recognition (albeit stereotypically and very imperfectly) that homosexuals at least existed. As Linke points out, by remaining true to himself, Reilly was one of TV’s gay icons – and man, could he hurl double entendre zingers that would just crack you up! Fifty years later, I still vividly remember Reilly’s portrayal of a florist being extremely rude to Dean Martin, who, tiring of the abuse snaps: “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” Without missing a beat Reilly quipped: “Where do you usually go, sir?”

I thoroughly enjoyed It’s Only a Show!, which is directed by Edward Edwards. Linke, who shares a co-writing credit with Reilly, is a gifted actor who has co-starred in movies such as 1989’s Parenthood and in plays like 1999’s Father Time at Pacific Resident Theatre, directed by Reilly. Linke went on to co-write with Reilly and direct him in an Off-Broadway biographical one-man show about “The Life of Reilly.”

However, there is one thing missing from It’s Only a Show! If one is unfamiliar with Reilly, who passed away in 2007, viewers – especially of younger generations – will be missing out on a vital frame of reference. A lot of the jokes and story may go right over their heads. At 65-ish minutes, Linke packs lots into his punchy solo show, but there’s time to include some of Reilly’s hilarious bits, in order to introduce some ticket buyers, as well as remind older ones, of Reilly’s unique wit. This could be done by incorporating some TV clips of Riley’s appearances or perhaps by Linke reenacting them.

Be that as it may, particularly for CNR fans, Paul Linke’s tour-de-force tribute is not only a highly entertaining, enjoyable one-man show about a comedy legend, but also a play about the art of acting. Who knew? 

It’s Only a Show! is being presented Saturdays on January 20, January 27 and February 2 at 5:00 p.m. at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. For reservations or call (310)397-3244.