Charles Nelson Reilly was recounting his five decades in show business when a fan interrupted.
"You're a crazy man," she said, "but I've enjoyed you forever."
Reilly smiled, and the woman walked away.
"See? This is what I've had to put up with," he said.
Crazy man. The words stalk him, chiseled in an identity he can't erase. He's the wacky panelist from the TV game shows "Hollywood Squares," and "Match Game," the regular Carson guest who dutifully plays the role of zany comic. He's the funny kid in the back of class, expected to crack one-liners on cue.
But there is another side to the life of Reilly. He's a highly regarded stage director and acting instructor. He taught Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler. He studied with Hal Holbrook and Steve McQueen. He has won Tonys and been nominated for Emmys.
"When I go to a rehearsal, the young people say, 'What are you doing here? You're a game show host,' " said Reilly, 60. "They don't know I taught famous people."
Today, Reilly teaches acting classes at the Chandler Studio in North Hollywood at a school he founded--The Faculty--passing on theories and techniques he discovered 40 years ago while studying under Uta Hagen at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York. The next session begins June 3.
He takes his craft seriously, but reminds students to "have a good time" before they perform scenes in class.
"It's all got to be fun," Reilly said, "even if it's 'Death of a Salesman.' "
For Reilly, it became fun by accident. Opera was his first infatuation. He fell for its drama and emotion at an early age and vowed to make it his life. He took small parts in any production he could find.
There was one minor obstacle.
"I couldn't sing an aria," he said.
Instead, he went for the laughs. He sang in a fake baritone voice that amused his teachers.
"Whatever God made me do, humorous won out," Reilly said.
A comic was born. But, as Reilly sees it, he had to become funny. His family life in the lower-class Bronx was in constant chaos:
His father suffered a nervous breakdown. His aunt had a lobotomy. His uncle used to put a suit on and visit funeral homes to sit by the bodies of total strangers.
And his mother viewed life only as a series of emergencies, convinced the Reillys would never amount to anything.
"You can either choose to be funny or you can die," Reilly said. "Eugene O'Neill couldn't have touched our family with a pencil."
His choice, especially when he gained success on stage and television, didn't necessarily satisfy his mother.
"I became something, which violated the dogma of the family," he said. "I dared to do something that was never done in my family--make a buck."
Decades later, when Reilly made regular appearances on NBC-TV's "Laugh In," his mother still couldn't adjust to his fame.
"She said she couldn't see me," he said, "because there was snow on the roof. Snow on the roof."
Even today, when he visits New York on business, Reilly can't forget the chilliness of his childhood. "The minute it gets cold in New York," he said, "it brings back the first 20 years of my life."
Once his opportunity for a career as an opera singer faded, Reilly turned to acting. Under Hagen, he began to accept the written word as the cornerstone to every play. That lesson guides his teaching today. In class, he isolates one or two words in each production to demonstrate their dramatic essence. "One word can tell you how to do the whole scene," he said. "It can make the difference between 'Hamlet' and 'Tru.' "
He didn't fail in acting. In 1960, he made his Broadway debut in "Bye Bye, Birdie," and won a Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Other stage credits include "Hello, Dolly," "God's Favorite," "Charlotte" and "Skyscraper." He also directed operas for companies including those in Chicago, San Diego and Dallas.
Acting brought him famous friends. He's very close with Burt Reynolds and Julie Harris. He has also taught Lily Tomlin and Teri Garr.
But the stage has never brought him total respect. In the early 1970s, when he conceived and directed "The Belle of Amherst," which starred Harris in the story of poet Emily Dickinson, he learned again about his status in American theater. New York Times critic Walter Kerr raved about the play, calling it "the event of the season." But the review never mentioned Reilly.
"If I were Mike Nichols or Elia Kazan, my name would be there," Reilly said, "but I'm a Hollywood Square."
Instead, his name pops up on NBC-TV's sitcom "The Golden Girls." In a segment rebroadcast recently about which celebrities to expect at a Hollywood party, the women became excited about the names mentioned. When Reilly's name was brought up, they offered no response. He said his reputation as the funny man makes others think he has no feelings.
"The attitude is, 'It's only Charles, tolerant Charles,' " he said, "and therefore it's OK to do that to him."
Well, is it?
Reilly claims he's become immune to jokes at his expense. He said growing up in a family that didn't expect any achievements prepared him for his lack of recognition today. He's very convincing.
But the armor protecting his emotions cracks easily. He was hurt when the executives of the new CBS-TV sitcom "Evening Shade" didn't hire him as director even after Reynolds, the star, recommended him. He isn't proud of the fact that, despite his extensive stage and opera experience, he's never been asked to direct a play in Los Angeles. After a long, leisurely dinner, he tells a few truths.
"It's very exhausting," said Reilly about the endless effort to prove himself as a serious artist to industry power brokers. "I'm the best director of opera in this country, and it doesn't matter to these people."
Roberta Peters, the well-known soprano, attests to Reilly's opera credentials.
"He has wonderful ideas that bring opera up to date, and knows where each person should be on stage. I think the Met should use him," said Peters, whom Reilly directed in "La Boheme" in the mid-1970s.
Other famous friends also rave about him.
"We have a thing in this town," Reynolds said, "that if you are enormously witty and gregarious, you can't be very deep. There's something wrong with a society that says, 'You're the wit,' but 'You're not the teacher.' People just haven't seen him in this arena."
His pupils have, and they don't run out of praise. Unlike other acting instructors, they claim, Reilly gives them the freedom to make mistakes. When a scene ends, Reilly makes certain to commend the actors before offering advice on what they can do better. "Wasn't that great? They were so good," he repeats to his class.
In that supportive atmosphere, the actors say, they become more receptive to his criticism.
"Unlike other acting teachers, he doesn't put himself on a pedestal," said Christy Noonan, 33, who joined the class in February. "And so you don't feel the need to be on a pedestal."
Reilly is not enamored of the state of American theater and the actors hoping to make it today. Most plays are just recycled sitcoms, Reilly said, and most actors are more interested in attaining immediate success than polishing their art.
"I'm worried about the young people I teach," Reilly said. "There's no place to go. They all want to meet Aaron Spelling and be a star."
Still, his skepticism doesn't affect his approach in class.
Reilly frequently tells stories and jokes to his students. His act practically borders on stand-up.
"I do that only when it's involved with what's happening on stage," he said. "We're finding each other, and it will make them play better."
Noonan remembers acting out a scene at Northwestern University in 1978 when a visiting instructor gave her pointers she never forgot. It was Reilly.
"My goal was to study under someone like that," Noonan said, "and never did I think it would be him. But 12 years later, I ran into him at a picnic and he remembered the play I had done. He always remembers things like that. People say he's a comedian, what does he know? He knows a lot."
Reilly started The Faculty in 1975, and closed it in 1979 when he moved to Florida to teach classes at the Burt Reynolds Institute. He reopened the school--it has two other teachers--this spring, taking on three sessions a week. It costs $250 for 10 weeks, and includes many actors who get regular work on television, screen and the stage.
Students perform scenes from famous plays or new works.
"It's a place for them to practice their acting and their writing," Reilly said.
For Reilly, the benefits are enormous. He gets a chance to teach his craft without the normal show-biz pressures. He considers himself in retirement, from Hollywood.
"I don't have to worry about the ratings," he said. "I won't be canceled. The teaching will go on forever."
And so, apparently, will his "Match Game" appearances. When the show came back on air last year after a seven-year hiatus, Reilly quickly volunteered to return as a panelist. Every other weekend, a limousine takes him to ABC Studios. He can do the show almost on automatic pilot, his wit is so ingrained in his character.
"I love the shows," Reilly said.
And, after all, that's the part he's supposed to play.