How you remember Charles Nelson Reilly probably depends on how old you are. If you’re a kid, he was the voice of the Dirty Bubble on SpongeBob SquarePants. Or maybe you’re just old enough to remember him as novelist Jose Chung on a classic 1996 episode of The X-Files. Older still, and you remember him from the decade he spent (1972-82) dropping quips on Match Game. Or from his 95 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In any case, he was a TV fixture for four decades, and while the actor/director, who died at 76 on Friday, would probably rather have been remembered for his Tony-winning stage career, we shouldn’t short-shrift the impact of his TV work, even though the bulk of it was on talk shows and game shows.
Like Paul Lynde (who also flourished on game shows), Reilly was one of the few openly gay performers on TV 35 years ago. Well, not openly, but hardly secretive either. For many viewers, Reilly may have been their first introduction to camp. (It’s hard to imagine there’s ever been a campier villain on kids’ TV than Horatio J. Hoodoo, the green-skinned magician Reilly played on Lidsville, a truly bizarre show from psychedelic Saturday morning auteurs Sid and Marty Krofft.) His TV ubiquity served as a lifelong rebuke to the TV exec who had told him, “They don’t let queers on television,” and may have provided an inspiration to some of today’s casually gay stars.
In fact, Reilly may have written his own epitaph with the off-color quip that ends this trailer for The Life of Reilly, an autobiographical documentary he made last year, based on his one-man stage show. In the words of Hoodoo, how’s that for a topper?