Having caught the theatrical bug early in life, Charles Nelson Reilly studied for his craft at the Herbert Berghof-Uta Hagen studio. While scrounging for acting jobs in the 1950s, Reilly supported himself as an usher, mail clerk and hospital orderly. In 1960 he was cast in a minor role in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, understudying stars Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde. The following year, he played nasty "corporate nephew" Bud Frump in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a characterization that won him a Tony Award. In 1964, he received the New York Critic's Circle award for his work as juvenile lead Cornelius Hackel in Hello, Dolly. During this period, Reilly showed up in such Manhattan-based TV programs as The Steve Lawrence Show, and also performed a cabaret act with his friend Eileen Brennan. In 1968, he was cast as Cleymore Gregg in the network sitcom The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a role that typed him ever after in fussy, snippy, sarcastic roles. He went on to appear in the comedy ensemble of the 1970s variety series Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers; he starred in the Saturday morning kiddie shows Lidsville (1971-74) and Uncle Croc's Block (1975-76); and, along with Richard Dawson and Brett Sommers, he served as a semi-permanent panelist on the long-running quiz show The Match Game and as a staple on the game show The Hollywood Squares, where his flamboyant personality (he typically appeared wearing oversized glasses and a colorful ascot) became an audience favorite. Game shows, however, reportedly downgraded Reilly in the eyes of producers, and made it next to impossible for him to find a healthy amount of work. During the '80s and '90s, Reilly became active in the field of cartoon voiceovers, performing in such animated feature films as All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989), Rock-a-Doodle (1992) and The Troll in Central Park (1993), and in TV cartoons like Smurfs and Spacecats; he also appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a record 95 times. On the theatrical scene, Reilly directed the one-person plays Belle of Amherst and Paul Robeson, and staged several operas throughout the U.S. Charles Nelson Reilly was the founder of The Faculty, a Los Angeles-based drama school.
In the mid-2000s, Reilly headlined a one-man performance film, The Life of Reilly (2000). As co-directed by Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson, the picture found the actor-comic sitting before an audience and expostulating at length on his long career in showbusiness, his open homosexuality, and - occasionally - how the two intersected in the early years by making it difficult for him to find work. The picture opened to critical raves but received extremely limited distribution in the U.S. Tragically, it marked Reilly's last major effort, and not one year later, the actor died from complications of pneumonia. He was 76.