SXSW Film

Interviews and reviews

SXSW Film

Perfect Match: 'The Life of Reilly'

If Neil Simon had been gay, he would've written The Life of Reilly. But this surprisingly funny and affecting one-man show was written and performed by Charles Nelson Reilly, still alive and flamboyantly recognizable at 74. Alternately funny, inspiring, and affecting, Reilly relates the story of his life from his childhood with his dysfunctional family in the Bronx through his halcyon days co-starring in such Broadway perennials as Hello, Dolly! and How to Succeed in Business ... through his "ubiquitous period" as a TV icon of the Seventies. (During one stretch, he appeared on the tube a record-setting 56 times in one week.) Under a sweltering early-spring sun, co-directors Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann sat down to talk about the film.

Austin Chronicle: What was the genesis for filming The Life of Reilly?

Barry Poltermann: It was six or seven years ago: He was doing the show in L.A., and we were looking for something to do for our company Christmas party, and a friend suggested seeing Charles Nelson Reilly. I was surprised he was still alive. I kept reading these reviews of the show saying, "This is not what you'd expect." Most people just knew him from The Match Game. I grew up watching him as a kid on Lidsville. When I saw his show, I didn't expect it to be quite as well acted as it was. He's a truly amazing actor.

Frank Anderson: We contacted him, and Charles wanted to meet with us. We went over to his house for lunch and he showed us eight hours of raw video footage of the show. Very rudimentary stuff, one camera. We tried to pre-edit the show down into a script, because it would run four hours sometimes, three hours sometimes ... it was all over the place. He never did anything in the same order. He never puts props back in the same place. He never says the line the same way twice. He never appears on The Tonight Show the same number of times ... he's like "104," "106," "110" ... for an editor, it's a nightmare.

BP: The night that we shot the movie, he did four hours; we finally got it down to about 90 minutes.

AC: It's not until about halfway through the film that there's an allusion to his being gay, which was always a subliminal subtext to his persona.

FA: I think he's so gay he got in under the radar. Charles never made a big deal about it, though. He just was who he was. A lot of people give him credit for being the first openly gay performer on the stage and on television.

AC: How does he feel about the film?

BP: I wouldn't say he likes everything about it. He wishes it was a lot longer. ... When we first told him we were intending it to be about 90 minutes, he just looked at us and said, "Don't ever say that to me again, darling." There's so much stuff that was hard to cut. He has these great showbiz stories, but we wanted to keep it on point, the story of his family and his growing up. There's a lot of outtakes that'll be in the DVD.

AC: Will he be doing the commentary on his own life on him doing commentary on his own life?

FA: I hope so, because it'll be acerbic and funny, and he'll nail us when he feels like it. I hope he has a Manhattan while he's watching it.

BP: Speaking from an artist's point, people who do any kind of the arts can relate to a lot of the experiences he went through. Charles had this very rich artistic life, but then he had this public persona that was very goofy. There's a regret there for him.

FA: He was one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century from 1955 on, associated with Uta Hagen. He's hugely respected in that area. He taught Lily Tomlin. He's an accomplished opera director. We can't bring up half of his accomplishments. Beneath this thin, goofy public veneer, there is an ocean.

6:30pm, Austin Convention Center

READ MORE
More by Steve Uhler
SXSW Film
Looming Issues: Bennie Klain on 'Weaving Worlds'
Daily reviews and interviews

March 16, 2007

State Fair
State Fair
Recognizing the stars but also the spirits

March 9, 2007

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)