Ex-Air Force Major Hopes Stage Career Flies

Thomas J. Reilly is pursuing a professional acting career, which is an admirable goal considering he has retired three times from other jobs and is 70 years old.

“Acting keeps me going, keeps me alive,” said the veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and father of nine children. “I’m really alive when I’m on the stage.”

So far, Reilly has yet to cash a paycheck as a professional actor, having done all of his acting on a community theater level.

“There is no such thing as an overnight success,” reasons the San Juan Capistrano resident, who toils as the technical director for the Cabrillo Playhouse in San Clemente. “I haven’t hit it yet, but my time will come.”


The former Air Force major believes that “perseverance is the name of the game. If you keep pursuing it, it will happen. I have the talent and all I need is the right person to see me work.”

Reilly said his age isn’t a factor.

“I’m 25 in my head and heart,” said the 70-year-old, who has a youthful demeanor.

He just finished playing the role of a 44-year-old man. “I just darkened my hair and put a little makeup on,” he said.


The acting bug bit Reilly as a teen-ager.

“I did some community theater work and thought I wanted to continue, but World War II started and that cut everything off, not only for me but for a lot of others,” Reilly said.

He joined the Air Force and stayed for 21 years before retiring and taking a job as an insurance salesman. That lasted 10 years.

At age 51 he again retired, this time to attend college at Mt. San Jacinto, where he later worked 10 years as technical director in the college’s theater program.

After his retirement there he attended UC Riverside, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in history and theater and a master’s degree in theater.

During those student years he worked as a bartender, dishwasher, gas station owner, electrician, carpenter and taxi driver until 1987, when he decided to become a full-time actor.

Reilly has no illusions about becoming a star.

“I would like to become a good character actor and work in many, many things,” said Reilly, who has been married for 41 years to Kathryn Reilly, 65, an executive secretary. “I don’t have enough time left to become a star.”


Reilly believes his age is an advantage to his acting career.

“I feel I’m able to better portray what people write because I understand about people’s problems,” he said. “I’ve seen most of it in real life.”

Reilly, who has a year’s contract with the playhouse, said he continues to act on the community theater level to keep himself sharp.

“I don’t have the financial resources yet to be able to just look for acting jobs,” said Reilly, who also teaches acting classes at the playhouse.

In his off time, he haunts television producers and commercial makers to land a part, hopefully a recurring TV role.

“In this business you have to keep going and you can’t allow yourself to be defeated by rejection,” he said. “You just can’t take rejection personally.

“You just have to keep on going.”