Gay History: Paul Lynde 1926–1982

American comedian, character actor, and Hollywood center square. He began his career doing stand-up before moving into theater, where he got his biggest break playing the father in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. He reprised the role in the film adaptation to great success. From there, he was sought after to make appearances on television and variety shows including The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, and most notably in the role of Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. In 1966, Lynde made his first appearance on the new gameshow Hollywood Squares. His snarky one-liners were so popular, he became the regular center square for most of the show’s run. Throughout his career, Lynde’s humor was built on camp and a flamboyant persona; during Hollywood Squares, his jokes were often thinly veiled references to his own homosexuality. But although he made subversive gay humor palatable for American homes, he never actually came out, except to close friends. He sometimes blamed his sexuality for keeping him from better roles, but it also may have been his reputation as a mean and occasionally violent alcoholic. He managed to quit drinking at the age of 53, but died of a heart attack two years later.

Real People: The “Openly Closeted” Paul Lynde

Despite the entertainment industry being hindered for years in portraying explicitly homosexual characters, those “in the know” were well aware of how this restriction was subverted by the very presence of certain actors and celebrities whose outrageous, decidedly “unmanly” personas could be interpreted as covertly gay. The movies had such jittery, effete ninnies like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, while television offered the likes of glittery, flamboyantly attired Liberace, who rocked the boat in the staid ‘50s by pushing his camp mannerisms to the limit; the mincingly nervous Charles Nelson Riley; and perhaps the most hilariously “sissified” of the bunch, the exasperated, acid-tongued Paul Lynde. 

Despite his initial efforts to be taken seriously as an actor, Lynde realized early on that his exaggerated vocal inflections and stinging way of delivering a line got him easy laughs, so he accepted comedy as his future. He first gained attention on the Broadway stage as one of the comedic highlights of the revue New Faces of 1952, doing a version of his “African Hunter” monologue that had gained him a New York nightclub following. From this more specialized universe he leaped into the big time with his performance as the uptight dad in the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie (introducing the hit song “Kids”), a role he was asked to repeat on the big screen in 1963. Lynde was soon being hired both for film and television to deliver his patented acerbic remarks, often done with a shake of the head, a nasally snarl, and a drip of prissy sarcasm, certain words emphasized with campy relish for added impact. Fellow gays cherished Lynde for honing to perfection what could only be described as “the bitchy queen,” lobbing a withering retort at straight-laced America, who laughed as well at what they perceived to be nothing more than a “quirky” comedian, since there was no thought of casting Lynde in roles that were deliberately gay.

While fans fondly remembered him for playing prankster warlock Uncle Arthur on Bewitched or as the host of one of the kitschiest of all ‘70s variety offerings, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, it was being added to the cast of the daytime game show The Hollywood Squares that brought him his greatest fame. Positioned in the “center square,” he became the go-to favorite among the celebrity guests, being fed questions that ensured a tart, often surprisingly risqué reply, some of his answers clearly suggesting a coded, campy gay sensibility: i.e., the question “Why do Hells Angels wear leather?” received the reply, “Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.” During his eleven-year run as a series regular (1968–79), Lynde became revered as one of show business’s great “put down” comics. To most of America he was just a “smart ass” who talked kind of funny, but to the gay community his unapologetic, scalding manner was something to which they responded, perhaps interpreting the Lynde wit as a defense mechanism against an intolerant world.



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