Uncle Croc Bites "It": Charles Nelson Reilly (1931-2007)

Charles Nelson Reilly apparently once said "When I die, it's going to read, "Game Show Fixture Passes Away". Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn't bother me." Was he truly prescient in his catty dismissal of "it" -- which I take to mean the headlines as they will appear across the vastness of the media ocean? Depending on where one looked, he certainly called "it."

On IMDB, who should have known better since that is where I gathered the above quote, they decided to laugh off his prediction, and announced on Monday morning, following Reilly's death confirmation by his partner on Friday, "GAME SHOW STAR REILLY DIES." CNN.com and MSNBC.com, however, since they apparently don't hire their own reporters, placed up on their respective websites the very direct and unadorned "CHARLES NELSON REILLY DEAD AT 76", running with the official Associated Press piece that seems to have popped up everywhere on the "Internets". The AP piece also doesn't mention his affiliation with Match Game, with The Tonight Show perhaps the most public platform for his zaniness, until several paragraphs into the article, concentrating on his Tony win and nominations instead. Even on Fox News, where one would think they would take the chance to slam an openly gay performer who lived with another man for almost 30 years, thereby serving as a social terrorist and taking the world one step closer to the apocalypse (which I purposely place in lower case letters), they took the safe road and merely ran with the AP story.

And thus it was that Reilly, at least by headline, avoided "it": that dread that he would only be remembered for game shows. He once said, "You can't do anything else once you do game shows. You have no career." And yet, what is so wrong with that? Isn't appearing on game shows a paying position? Isn't that another item on a resume? Is Pat Sajak worrying about his "career"? Judging from his talk show experience, he only has a career because of game shows. Reilly, though, was far more talented, even if a lot of his work was in the literal bargain bin of network television. But he was known quite well for his stage work, being nominated for three Tonys over four decades, twice for acting and once for directing, and winning in 1962 for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He was also nominated for three Emmys, once for playing Jose Chung in Chris Carter's Millennium, a role which he originated in an excellent episode of The X-Files a couple years earlier. He also made a zillion appearances with Johnny Carson on Tonight. And for those with IFC, catch the episode of Jon Favreau's Dinner for Five from three years ago, where Favreau and Reilly are joined by Reilly's buddies Dom DeLuise, Burt Reynolds and Charles Durning. To say that Reilly and DeLuise take over the show is an understatement. What can one say? The guy got around...

For myself, Reilly was a great reason to get home after school in the 70's. CBS ran Match Game and Tattletales back-to-back at 3 in the afternoon, and even though Richard Dawson always had the right answer and some very witty responses, Reilly was my favorite. Partially for his outrageous big-pocketed suits, ascots, ever-present pipe, humongous eyewear and captain's hats; partially for his laugh, his pithy asides to host Gene Rayburn, and his ever-running battle with blithely unaware neighbor Brett Sommers. Plus, the show was not-so-secretly dirty, which was the main reason I was watching it, waiting for them to write "boobs" on one of those ubiquitous blue cards. My brothers would get home in the middle of the show, wherein we would launch into the 4 o'clock monster movie that followed on the same station. Even today, I loves me some Match Game, and for many of the same reasons. My 6 a.m. routine involves getting up and turning on Match on The Game Show Network for some background while I get my tea ready and my computer started. (Lately, though, the episodes have been sans Charles, and my interest wanes when either he or Dawson are missing from the deck.)

But there are a couple of other reasons for which I remember Charles Nelson Reilly, ones not mentioned in the AP story at all, though it's not surprising. Early on, I recall watching him as the evil wizard Horatio J. Hoodoo on the psychedelic Sid and Marty Krofft fare Lidsville. (How they got away with some of that shit is prove that the network heads really were "heads" at the time, if not now.) His sneery laugh had already snickeringly wormed its way into my brain at a very tender age. Then, after I was already aware of Match Game, in the Saturday Morning TV season of 1975-76, Reilly was the star of a children's show parody called Uncle Croc's Block. Resplendent in crocodilian headgear, which remained open to show his giant-bespectacled grimace, Reilly as the titular Uncle Croc did battle with his director and crew on a kiddie show run amok. I really only remember the human characters on the show; the Reilly parts were interspersed with animated Filmation segments, none of which I recall at all, except for a fleeting memory of the Bone-Apart character (though this might be from when he appeared on The Groovie Ghoulies, from the same company).

I don't know how it will play today, but with Lidsville already available, and with Reilly's untimely demise, hopefully those who hold the Filmation rights (they've been putting out some of their other series), will give me at least a quick chance to catch up with Uncle Croc, if only on DVD. Loved it as a kid, and I would relish the opportunity as an adult to discover WHY. But with Reilly himself, there was no wondering. He was one for the ages: entertaining in any format.

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