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Originally published Friday, December 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Charles Nelson Reilly, in his own words

Actor/director/teacher Charles Nelson Reilly died on May 25 of this year, at the age of 76. As he predicted, his obituary in The New York...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Life of Reilly," with Charles Nelson Reilly. Directed by Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson, from a screenplay by Paul Linke and Reilly. 84 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity, through Thursday.

Actor/director/teacher Charles Nelson Reilly died on May 25 of this year, at the age of 76. As he predicted, his obituary in The New York Times said, in its opening sentence, that he had worked on Broadway but was best known "for his campy television appearances on talk shows and 'Match Game.' "

"The Life of Reilly," a filmed version of a stage monologue that Reilly performed nearly 400 times during what he called "the twilight of an extraordinary life," gives us many reasons to remember him for something other than game-show wisecracks. At once wickedly funny, warmhearted and wise, it's a look back at his troubled Bronx and Connecticut childhood ("I spent my adolescence in an Ingmar Bergman movie!" he says, and he's not kidding); his years as a New York actor in the '50s, '60s and '70s; and his wildly successful television career, which began shortly after a network executive told him, "They don't let queers on television."

Working from a script with Paul Linke, "The Life of Reilly" is full of rich detail about the people who touched Reilly's life: his beautiful Aunt Lily, who before her lobotomy always smelled of "honeysuckle and Lucky Strikes cigarettes"; his adored grade-school teacher Miss DiBenedetti, who first encouraged him to act ("When she spoke, I swear you could hear music"); his alcoholic father who turned down a career with Walt Disney; his bitter, racist mother who carried a baseball bat everywhere and yet had a sense of humor that her son somehow inherited. His childhood, with seven people crammed into a 2 ½-room apartment, sounds like a theatrical nightmare, but Reilly makes it into black comedy, told with tolerance and love. "If you laughed tonight," he tells his audience, "you have to thank my mother." (And you will laugh, often — especially at Reilly's sidesplitting imitation of Meryl Streep.)

There's a genuine wonderment and breathless joy in Reilly's delivery that hints at what a fine stage actor he must have been, particularly when he describes going to a movie for the first time, or his thrill at first getting the lead in the school play ("Columbus the Man"). And a profound sense of gratitude and kindness is evident throughout the piece, as he pays tribute to his many teachers, colleagues and students. (In a quiet moment, he fingers the small red ribbon on his shirt and mentions 40 students lost to AIDS.) "Just get a bag and drop a dream in it," he gently tells would-be actors everywhere, "and you'll be surprised what happens."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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