That Funny, That Nasty, That Charming Man

Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski

I feel sorry for anyone born after, oh, about 1972. One of the many reasons is that anyone born after that time never got to experience the phenomenon who was Paul Lynde.

Lynde was an actor who was nasty. And we loved him for it. He made us laugh. He made us remember him. He made us all tune in to Hollywood Squares — just to see him.

Unfortunately for Lynde, all this cost him a horrible price.

Lynde was homosexual in a time (pre-Gay Lib) and a place (pre-Gay Lib America) where such a thing was not even remotely acceptable to the public at large.

As a kid watching Lynde, I had no idea — or ideas — about his sexuality. He was just funny. And nasty.

Even in his personal life he was funny and nasty.

In elementary school:

[…] When Paul’s teacher told the “silly goose” [Paul] that she would throw herself out the window if he didn’t behave, Paul ran to the window and hurled it open. [pg. 4]

During a Bewitched press junket:

On a Screen Gems press junket to Mexico in the spring of 1968, Sandra Gould–the second actress to portray Gladys Kravitz–watched as Paul grew agitated by an unsupervised horror of a little girl making a racket in the aisles. Decks awash on the airline’s poison, Paul got up, grabbed the girl by the arm, dragged her over to her mother and said, “You keep this little girl quiet, or I’m gonna fuck her!” [pg. 89]

Now that is nasty! God bless him!

And yet his persona — at least in his speaking style — was not entirely original to him:

[Alice] Ghostley bore such an uncanny resemblance to Paul–mostly in the way she talked–that a [play producer] reportedly mistook the two of them for siblings. Ghostley has been dismissed as a female Paul Lynde for decades, but a few people who know both performers insist Paul committed the identity theft. “He was doing Alice Ghostley all the time,” Paul’s friend Allison McKay says. “In fact, he told her, ‘I’ve become famous doing you!’ I really think that she was there first, but he loved the way she did things.” Charles Nelson Reilly’s recent admission of guilt regarding his own swipe from the Lynde/Ghostley repertoire suggests McKay may be right. When asked how he came up with his trademark “huh-hull” noise, Reilly said, “I stole it from Paul Lynde, who stole it from Alice Ghostley.” [pgs. 30-31]

Be that as it may, all three performers — Ghostley, Lynde, Reilly — had something today’s “talent” does not: distinct and memorable personalities. Ghostley, Lynde, and Reilly were on our TVs for decades.

In his personal life, although Lynde claimed to have no problem accepting his homosexuality, he was a drunk. And a very, very mean one too:

“Drunk, [Paul] was ten times more bitchy, cutting, and unforgivably rude,” musician Jack Holmes once said. “Bartenders, waiters, pianists, customers would all gently move right, left, go upstairs, into the kitchen, the bathroom–anywhere to avoid him. Every word out of his mouth was venomous, with a sting that really hurt, into every unexpected vulnerability a human being might have. He could rouse a sane, normal person to instant fury.” [pg. 66]

Friends, acquaintances, business associates speculate this was due to self-loathing; having to keep his homosexuality generally secret. As it was, Lynde was someone who sometimes invited trouble into his life by frequenting male prostitutes of the kind termed rough trade.

Even in the entertainment industry, which seems to tolerate anything, Lynde’s homosexuality might have cost him the kind of fame and stature he longed to have. In 1965, he did a comedy series pilot called Sedgewick Hawk-Styles: Prince of Danger,

[…] an egotistical, bumbling criminologist in Victorian England. “If you didn’t get Sherlock Holmes, you got me,” Paul explained.

Originally done for ABC, when it wasn’t picked up after its pilot by that network, CBS acquired it. But then also dropped it:

[…] Assuming he had a season’s worth of shows to produce, [William] Asher [the producer] started working on new scripts. Then a bigwig at the network called. “We’ve decided not to go with it,” said the executive.

“Why? Any reason?”

“Well, we’ve decided it’s not for us.”

“No, don’t give me that shit! It’s because of the homosexuality.”

“Well, that too.” [pgs. 99-100]

Consider for a moment the huge success of something like Austin Powers and it’s fairly easy to think Lynde was indeed cheated out of a role that would have put him at the top.

[…] “I cannot tell you how much I loved that show,” Paul once said. “People have prints of the pilot in their private collections. They’ll say, ‘I ran it last night, and everybody just died laughing.’ Well, of course, tears come to my eyes and I say, ‘I don’t want to hear about it….’ It’s my fondest hope that someday somebody will blow off the dust and get it on the air. I like to think Sedgewick is not dead.” [pg. 100]

For God’s sake, someone YouTube it!

Despite Lynde’s talent, the book’s authors still felt compelled to wonder:

[…] [I]t still remains a mystery why America was taken with a cupcake firing lavender salvos at them every day for years. [pg. 117]

It’s very simple: He was funny. He was nasty. And he was gay without being militant about it. Whereas today some people are eager, at any chance given to them, to sneeringly scream, “I’m here! I’m queer! Get used to it!” — which is akin to the authors unfortunately categorizing the American living room as “that bastion of intolerance” (a foul note in an otherwise good book) — Lynde had style and basically came at us smiling, arms raised, greeting us with, “Oh, aren’t I just fabulous? And aren’t you just gonna love me for it?”

And we did!

Paul Lynde video clips

[Excerpts Copyright © 2005 Joe Florenski and Steve Wilson. Excerpts used without explicit permission under the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law. CopyNazis can go fuck themselves.]

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