The Life of Reilly: Movie Review

By Jeff Walsh

The Life of Reilly is a new film based on, well, the life of Charles Nelson Reilly, who is largely known for his voluminous game show appearances in the 1970s although he did have prior success as Broadway performer and television actor.

I was fortunate enough to see Reilly perform this show, then called "Save It For The Stage," in San Francisco. It was one of those shows where it probably went more than two hours, but if it hit four you'd never even look at your watch. He was an engaging performer working off a rich life with a loose script and clearly in his element. The show was also the first time Reilly ever publicly discussed his not-so-secret-but-never-confirmed homosexuality.

The film actually captures Reilly last performance of "Save It For The Stage," and the last time he appeared onstage before his death this past May. The film is a bit uneven, though.

You get the sense that the people involved with the movie want to keep things interesting, so there are a lot of needless sequences. A man on the street camera where a lot of people don't seem to know who Reilly is, only know him from game shows, or think he's dead. If Reilly mentions the Bronx, we see footage of the Bronx. But, part of the magic of a one man show is the connection between the performer and audience, that his words create the mental scene for us, so I personally found that every time they cut away, I'd rather they zoom in closer. It's not like this is going to air on MTV anyway, keep the extraneous visuals to a minimum. It's more My Dinner With Andre than A Shot At Love with Tila Tequila.

Surprisingly, one thing they added to the mix I wasn't too offended by, but they stopped doing it halfway through the movie. Whenever Reilly mentions someone from his life, he casts someone in the role. For example, he says the role of his mother in this performance will be played by Shirley Booth, his father by Hume Cronyn. And, after he says each name, they show a few seconds of video of both actors. Even when I saw the show, I didn't know all of the references, so this seemed harmless. But when he casts people in the show later on, there is no video of those stars.

But, more than anything, the fun is just watching Reilly recall his life story. For instance, he escaped a circus fire than killed hundreds of people when he was 13. His mother, whenever he would act up or want to talk about things, would tell him to "save it for the stage," which he did. He originated roles in Hello Dolly! and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, for which he won a Tony nomination and award respectively.

Even Reilly jokes about how many people think he's dead, to the point where they are shocked to see him walking down a supermarket. Reilly has such a joy throughout the production, playing with the milestones in his life and the audience, hard to believe this was something he'd performed more than 400 times onstage before this filming it's so fresh.

There are no big revelations, dramatic twists and turns, or anything along those lines. It is just a case of an expert storyteller, taking an audience in a fun journey through his life. And, in this case, that's more than enough.


The Life of Reilly opens in Los Angeles this Friday, in New York and San Francisco starting next Friday, and throughout the country the rest of the year. For more information and showtimes, go to