Life of Reilly: House, Boat, Memories
Charles Nelson Reilly calls two places home: a house in Beverly Hills and a 34-foot cabin cruiser in Marina del Rey.
They’re not far apart, and Reilly likes it that way.
“Capricorns like to stay in one place,” said the comic actor, who turned 71 in January. “I have to go to work in places like New York, but basically, I don’t want to go anywhere.
“One time I got a trip around the world for doing something on television, and the travel agent was so excited, I gave her the tickets.”
It sounds like a joke, but such is the life of Reilly, which is also part of the name of his one-man play. “Save It for the Stage ... The Life of Reilly” opens Thursday, with a preview Tuesday, at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.
The show, which Reilly has performed in half a dozen places from New York to San Francisco since 1999, is a mix of pathos and humor about people Reilly has known.
His homes, on land and in the marina, are filled with memorabilia about them and others. Photos, signs and miscellaneous mementos cover the walls in both places, revealing a wide variety of acquaintances--few, however, as multifaceted as Reilly.
Known broadly as a panelist on such TV game shows as “The Match Game” (1973-79), he appeared 98 times, second only to Bob Hope, on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” But Reilly also was a Tony-winning actor for his role in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1962), he has been a director of such stage plays as “The Belle of Amherst” (1976) with Julie Harris, and he is an acting teacher who has worked with such stars as Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin and Christine Lahti. A TV actor who created the part of author Jose Chung in “The X Files” (1996), Reilly is also an opera coach and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The many faces of Reilly show up periodically among the hundreds of framed photos in his house, where he has lived since the late 1960s. He bought the house “for $50,000 or something like that,” he said.
He was first aware of having his picture taken when he went to his prom in 1946 at Weaver High School in Hartford, Conn. “Totie Fields and Norman Lear were classmates, but I went to the prom with Elsie Terafino, and every time we danced, we went in front of a cameraman, who took our picture,” he said.
Terafino’s photo from that prom is on a wall near a picture of the queen of England, whom Reilly met at the White House in 1976.
Drawing on the Yiddish he recalls from his boyhood days in the Bronx, where he was born, Reilly calls his house and his boat “ongepotchket,” meaning cluttered or in disorder. He describes his one-story house as “elegant bohemian or organized chaos.”
Besides the photos in his house, there are numerous signs such as “Please do not bring food into the theater” and “Sardi’s--Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, Coffee, Brunch, Dinner.” Reilly collects signs that mean something to him, like the one on the inside of his front door that says: “Do not use this door between 3 and 5:30 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.” It was a sign that was used during the PBS taping of “The Belle of Amherst.”
Another reminder to him of his work with actress Harris is a poster in his living room for the 1997 Broadway revival of the play “The Gin Game,” co-starring Harris and Charles Durning. Reilly was the director.
“Vincent Price gave me this,” Reilly said, taking a small painting off another wall. “It’s probably worth a couple hundred [thousand dollars], because he would come in and say, ‘There is absolutely nothing of value here.’”
The late actor and art collector would have been wrong, though, because there are gems among the clutter. One is a sample of artwork created by Reilly’s father, Charles Joseph Reilly, a graphic artist.
“Walt Disney begged him to come to Hollywood,” the actor said, “but if my father had come, I would be sitting in a much bigger house today.”
Reilly’s house has three bedrooms--one is being used as a den--and two baths in 1,874 square feet. Built in 1956, the house is on half an acre in what is known as the Beverly Hills Post Office area.
Rose bushes and birds of paradise decorate the front yard, covered with ivy. A massive lemon tree that Reilly bought in 1969 when it was a seedling in a tomato can is in back.
Patrick Hughes, a set decorator-dresser and Reilly’s companion of nearly 21 years, takes care of the 800 plants in the yard, but he’s going away when Reilly’s play opens, and so the actor will need to water the plants. “Because I was an only child, I don’t like many people around, and that’s why I don’t have any servants.”
That also might explain why he was drawn to the house when he bought it. “It was all by itself,” he said. “There are no neighbors, and I have sugar, so I don’t have to borrow any.”
Oliver and Cornelius--mixed-breed boxers/pit bulls he affectionately calls “the kids"--guard the house, which also has a pool, although Reilly says he hasn’t been in it since the 1980s.
“The fence went down, the chimney moved, and the pool cracked during an earthquake,” he said.
The house has a fireplace, which he said he hasn’t used in nine years.
When Reilly was 13, he was in the audience of a circus in Hartford where a fire broke out that killed 168. Although he isn’t afraid of fire, he still can’t stand being in an audience. He is now on a board campaigning for a memorial to those who died at the circus in 1944.
“If I had a fire, there is one thing I would save,” he said: a sign from comedian Chris Scott, one of his New York acting students in 1979, that says, “I went to school for a long time, and you are the first teacher I’ve had.”
There’s only one sign he might cherish almost as much. It says: “Gone Boating.”
These days his work schedule keeps him from boating as much as he’d like, but he has gone often since he bought the cabin cruiser 25 years ago for about the same price as he paid for his house. The boat, which costs $460 a month to moor, sleeps four and has a dining salon and two cabins. As a surprise gift, Reilly’s friend actor Burt Reynolds had the dining salon redecorated.
Reilly had Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s writing partner, and Taupin’s grandmother on the boat the first time he was going to take it out of the marina, but the engine wouldn’t start. “So I called the Coast Guard,” Reilly said.
For a while, it became routine for him to call the Coast Guard. “Whenever I’d go out, the pin holding the prop to the motor would break when I shifted gears,” he recalled, “so I’d float over to a fancy hotel and call the Coast Guard. They’d say, ‘Are you lost at sea?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton or someplace like that.’
“I told my boating disaster tales on ‘Johnny Carson,’ and that led to a film we made for the Coast Guard called ‘Don’t Let This Happen to You.’” It’s still shown as part of the Coast Guard’s free safe boating course, he said.
Reilly has many certificates of appreciation from the Coast Guard in his boat, which also has pictures of friends and himself on the walls alongside a photo of the Staten Island Ferry, which he once piloted, and such signs as: “Eat, Sleep, Sail.”
The boat, which flies the Italian flag, is called La Boheme because it was the first opera Reilly saw, in 1947; it was the first opera he was in, as a tenor in the chorus; and it was the first of several operas he directed.
Five sopranos have been on the boat, he said, proudly listing them, starting with Roberta Peters. Two of the five have sung the part of Mimi in “La Boheme.”
Painted on the boat’s stern under the name La Boheme is Milano. Reilly smiled.
“Milano is landlocked,” he said of the Italian city, “but that’s where [the great opera house] La Scala is.”