"I've known Charles for 35 years. We've spoken for 10."
That's how Jim used to jokingly, but not altogether inaccurately, describe his relationship with Charles Nelson Reilly. When Charles loved you, you were the center of the universe. When he wasn't speaking to you, you just smiled quietly to yourself ("That's Charles for ya!") and waited for it to pass.
They met back when Charles was doing Dolly, and Jim was an oversized teenager in an undersized uniform selling the legendary orange drink at the back of the St. James Theatre. (We recently had lunch with Luke Yankee, Eileen Heckart's son. Luke used to have the same job.)
Withing five minutes of meeting Charles Nelson Reilly, I was brushing off the crumbs from his shirt and making terrible jokes to him and fussing over him like a long, lost uncle. I found him so hilarious. And smart. He was Lucy smart.
He would always ask me, "Now Steven..." (He always called me Steven, never Steve), "...how is your health?" And he would look really intently into my eyes to hear my answer. He would sometimes crack jokes and then look at me knowingly, as if the two of us were the only people in the room who would "get" that joke. I suspect he did this with everyone. But I also felt that it was sincere.
He never stopped telling me how much he loved The Last Session, our musical about a man with AIDS. He said to me one day, shortly after The Last Session transferred to the Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Blvd., "Steven, do you know that I don't sit in theatres? I don't sit in theatres because I was there at the Hartford Circus Fire. I saw people burned to death right in front of my eyes when I was a young boy. Do you want to know how much I love The Last Session? I sit in your theatre."
And he did. He sat in that theatre, in a midst of an audience, at least a dozen times. Maybe more.
And he always brought the very coolest celebrities. Not fake celebrities, like reality show celebrities. Real celebrities.
He brought Julie Harris. He brought Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
Charles made me feel like Sondheim. I blame him for my relentless ego.
He loved to cook Thanksgiving dinner. He would wear a long nightgown, like a night shirt, as if he were on the set of Peter Pan, and he would cook a magnificent feast, frittering about like an old maid, so happy to be surrounded by people he loved, whoever was in his current extended family.
We have video of us pulling into his driveway. Suddenly, you hear, in a high German accent, "Go Avay! Da people moofed. Go avay! Ve don't vant you."
And you see this tall, gangly figure -- and he was tall. He was over six feet tall. -- poke his head out the door and you'd see the top of his head over the shrubbery as he walked toward the garage to get to you, two spikes of hair sticking up.
One time, Jim and Charles and I were gossiping over speaker phone when we heard a beep.
Jim said, "Charles, wait. Can we just see who this is?" Charles said, "Sure."
We hear a breathy singsong voice, "Rip TAYlor."
"Rippy, can you hold for just a moment?"
He put Rip on hold and looked at me and said, "We got the two biggest queens in Hollywood on hold at the same time!"
And, weirdly, both Charles and Rip were born on the exact same day.
The last time we saw him was in "Garden Ralph's" grocery store. We hadn't spoken in a very long time, having been pushed away again over some business misunderstanding -- he blamed Jim for something that Jim hadn't done. He said to me, "Steven... how is your health?"
I said, "It's great, Charles."
When Jim said, a bit tearfully, that we would love to hear from him, he said, "Oh, don't be so sentimental."
And he brusquely pushed off.
I was angry about how he was being such a snob to Jim. To be so unforgiving. I could't understand how you just stop talking to a friend. So I wouldn't let Jim play Match Game on TV. (Which is kinda like me doing the same thing to Charles that Charles was doing to Jim. There's a life lesson for "Steven" in there somewhere.)
But he was a handful. He was so frustrated. He felt his game show career had poisoned his ability to have a bigger career as an actor. And he was a brilliant actor who studied with Uta Hagen (who he also never spoke to). He taught acting lessons to some of the best actors of our generation.
He directed opera, Broadway shows and he was, finally, a playwright.
His final work, "Save It For The Stage: The Life of Reilly" was a hypnotic night of theatre. He would drive the producers crazy because you couldn't get him off the stage. He loved telling those stories so very much that his show would get longer and longer every night, sometimes going on for three hours or more. When they protested, he would say, "But it's all gold!"
The show went to New York, and it should have gone to Broadway, but somehow it all fell apart. I heard stories about what had gone wrong, but who can know. Theatre is a tricky thing.
Oddly, the very thing that frustrated him, his brilliance as a game show participant, is the greatest gift of all. For years, this most obviously gay man won the hearts of every person who ever watched that show. The reason that show doesn't exist now is because it was so perfectly cast in the first place, his kind of wit and urbane showmanship, where one week he would look like a college professor and the next week, he'd be wearing a perfectly fashionable pink or orange cowboy outfit, complete with hat --God LOVE the 70s! -- simply doesn't exist anymore.
Most of all, he made us laugh. He was so comfortable being himself, sitting up on that perch smoking a cigar and drinking. He's as much a TV comic cultural icon as Lucy or Jackie Gleason or Carol Burnett. He was a genius.
You gave me the great gift of your admiration and Charles, as frustrating as you could be, I loved you so very much. In fact, I've decided to let Jim start playing Match Game again on our TV. I look forward to seeing you again and again.
My first show since my surgery. With Blake Zolfo.
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