Charles Nelson Reilly, RIP

How you remember Charles Nelson Reilly probably depends on how old you are. If you’re a kid, he was the voice of the Dirty Bubble on SpongeBob SquarePants. Or maybe you’re just old enough to remember him as novelist Jose Chung on a classic 1996 episode of The X-Files. Older still, and you remember him from the decade he spent (1972-82) dropping quips on Match Game. Or from his 95 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In any case, he was a TV fixture for four decades, and while the actor/director, who died at 76 on Friday, would probably rather have been remembered for his Tony-winning stage career, we shouldn’t short-shrift the impact of his TV work, even though the bulk of it was on talk shows and game shows.

Like Paul Lynde (who also flourished on game shows), Reilly was one of the few openly gay performers on TV 35 years ago. Well, not openly, but hardly secretive either. For many viewers, Reilly may have been their first introduction to camp. (It’s hard to imagine there’s ever been a campier villain on kids’ TV than Horatio J. Hoodoo, the green-skinned magician Reilly played on Lidsville, a truly bizarre show from psychedelic Saturday morning auteurs Sid and Marty Krofft.) His TV ubiquity served as a lifelong rebuke to the TV exec who had told him, "They don’t let queers on television," and may have provided an inspiration to some of today’s casually gay stars.

In fact, Reilly may have written his own epitaph with the off-color quip that ends this trailer for The Life of Reilly, an autobiographical documentary he made last year, based on his one-man stage show. In the words of Hoodoo, how’s that for a topper?

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  • Ep Sato

    I remember Mr. Reily from the British series Judge Dredd. All famous celebs had Citiblocks named after them, and the Charles Nelson Reily block played a key role in one of the stories.

  • Ron Mexico

    How sad! This guy was everywhere when I was a kid. Gay or not, he was an icon of the 70’s. And yet this post has gone without comment for almost an hour-and-a-half. So, out of respect and tribute to one funny dude, I post first. Hopefully I’m not the last.

  • Ron Mexico

    Leave it to Ep to beat me in first while I am in the middle of posting. Oh well. At least you were here, too, Ep. I swear, we must have no lives.

  • whimsey

    I,too, remember Mr. Reilly from my childhood, and now, into adulthood. I don’t once recall thinking of him as a “gay” performer – just a great performer. Mr. Reilly, it was a pleasure to experience your artisitc brilliance.

  • sananto

    I remember watching Match Game every afternoon as a kid with my grandmother. I remember thinking he looked “unusual” & fun (i must have been about 6 years old. It must have taken alot of guts to be openly gay back then.RIP

  • Chris

    The greatest game show personality, period. His being on Match Game was the main reason I watched (and continue watching on GSN). There was not a single episode in which he didn’t say something that made me laugh hysterically. And how can you not like a character named “The Dirty Bubble”! RIP Mr. Reilly, you are already missed.

  • step

    He will always be Jose Chung to me.

  • Ron Mexico

    Like whimsey, I didn’t think of him as gay. Of course, I was too young to really know what gay meant. So I missed the boat on CNR, Elton John, The Village People, Liberace, Paul Lynde, etc.
    I just thought CNR was really, really outgoing – and freaking hilarious!

  • Ep Sato

    Ron, I will admit to having little to no life (outside of riding A Vespa around DC with a stereo blaring, which, wait a minute, is tantamount to no life), but my reason for frequently posting’s an unending workday…and my lack of a life…

  • NineDaves

    ten years ago, i saw a production of d.l. coburn’s “the gin game” at the lyceum theatre. in manhattan. the show starred the great charles durning and the amazing julie harris. and two rows behind me, i heard a laugh that sounded so familiar. and it was charles nelson reilly. he directed the show, and what a great show it was. he was truly talented on so many levels. and let me tell you – he was hysterical! after the show he put on his own little show in the back of the theatre. boy will he be missed!

  • Ron Mexico

    Brothers in a struggle – chained to our desks, surviving only by waxing nostalgic on childhood, pontificating on pop culture, and ruffling the occasional popwatch poster’s feather. Not too horrible, I suppose.

  • jim

    I watch the reruns of Match Game from time to time and am amazed at what Chaales got away with. Like Sananto, I didn’t know what gay the first time i saw the show. CNR was funny and as about as out as you could be on a late 70’s game show. Charles was my favorite ______.

  • sam

    I am of the Match Game generation and Mr. Reilly was always witty and funny in everything that he did. He and Brett Sommers (remember her?) were a riot together. He will be missed.

  • Earl

    I’m sorry to hear about his death. Although I didn’t really know much about how when I was a kid (I live in New Zealand), I caught him on the excellent X-Files episode ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ and thought he was great. And then a couple of years later, he reprised the character on Millennium in ‘Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense’, and bagged an Emmy nomination for Guest Actor In A Drama.
    That episode, and Charles Nelson Reilly’s performance, was absolutely brilliant…savagely funny, both broadly silly and astoundingly clever. One of the finest hours of TV drama ever.
    Bravo to Reilly for his hilarious guest work (Emmy nominated again) on The Drew Carey Show as well.
    I often toss his X-Files and Millennium episodes back in the DVD player and marvel at what the actor was really capable of.

  • lj

    was he on hollywood squares? i feel like i remember him from that, but my memory is a bit hazy…

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