How John C. Reilly’s Own Tramp Clown History Inspired His Chicago Performance

John C. Reilly performing at the 4th Annual S.T.A.G.E. Event in 2003.
John C. Reilly performing at the 4th Annual S.T.A.G.E. Event in 2003. / Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Of the many characters in the musical Chicago, Amos Hart is far and away the least dynamic, and that’s sort of the point. His devotion to his conniving, cuckolding—and ever so captivating—wife Roxie comes across more pathetic than noble. And his song, “Mister Cellophane,” spells out how he’s almost impossible to notice at all: a natural antithesis to Billy Flynn’s old “Razzle Dazzle.”

Amos embodies the same tragicomic simpleness as, say, an early 20th-century tramp clown. In the 2002 film adaptation of the musical, John C. Reilly plays him as exactly that, suiting up in some understated clown garb—complete with overlarge shoes and smudged makeup—for his rendition of “Mister Cellophane.”

Reilly’s brilliance in the role can partially be attributed to his personal history of clowning. As Reilly told Playbill in 2002, “I actually did a lot of clowning as a kid. It was another thing I did for cash, I had a tramp character.” He learned the trade through his church group, which organized performances at nursing homes and other local spots.

To portray Amos, he supplemented that experience by trying to emulate Emmett Kelly, Bert Lahr, Charlie Chaplin, Dick Van Dyke, and his other favorite clowns and clownish entertainers. He also researched Bert Williams, the iconic Black vaudevillian whom Chicago creators John Kander and Fred Ebb had used as inspiration for Amos. “Mister Cellophane” is a loose pastiche of Williams’s “Nobody.”

The choreography for Reilly’s rendition of “Mister Cellophane” resulted from a lot of clowning around, too. He would improvise moves, often jokingly, and director/choreographer Rob Marshall would cherry-pick what he liked.

“In the number, the part where I kinda sweep my feet side to side, I was just horsing around like that and he said, ‘That, you’re gonna do that in the number,” Reilly told Playbill. “And I was like, ‘Wow... Alright. I was kidding.”

Reilly’s affinity for clowns didn’t go dormant once he hung up Amos’s shabby bowler hat, either—and it wasn’t dormant before he donned it. He’s been collecting clown paintings—specifically amateur works from the 1950s and ’60s—since his wife gifted him one in the 1990s.

“I’m sure she rues the day she gave me that,” he told GQ. As of 2018, he’d amassed more than 100 paintings, which all live in his office.