Mr. Center Square: Paul Lynde's Strange Celebrity Story
Television in the 1960s and ‘70s wouldn’t be the same without Paul Lynde, the beloved, sassy comic actor who was best known for his work as the center square on Hollywood Squares and Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. But what exactly did Paul Lynde do? Aside from being a the leading sarcastic voice of the airwaves, Lynde carved out a space for himself as the least-convincingly closeted gay man in television. Lynde wasn’t a great actor, but he was so funny that he created his own source of gravity, figuratively speaking. He was a camp icon and someone who knew how to make everyone laugh whether they were in on the joke or not.
Lynda grew up in Ohio but had his sights set on New York
It’s hard to imagine that someone as camp as Paul Lynda came from Mount Vernon, Ohio, or maybe that’s exactly the kind of place that breeds over the top characters. Lynde was the fifth of six children born to a family who ran a meat market, and throughout high school he had problems with his weight, something that followed him the rest of his life.
After both of his parents passed away when he was only 19 years old he was on his own and free to follow whatever life he wanted. Lynde set his sights on the theater.
He studied drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, before moving to New York City in 1948 after graduating from college. Upon arriving in the big apple he worked wherever he could while moonlighting as a stand up comic at Number One Fifth Avenue, a supper club. He didn’t like the audience that he had to perform for so he gave up club work after that.
He quickly found his way to Broadway
It wasn’t long before Lynde traded in the supper club audiences in for the crowds of Broadway. In 1952 he was cast in the appropriately named New Faces of 1952, which was turned into a film in 1954. Off of this role Lynde was hired to co-star in the 1956 sitcom Stanley alongside Carol Burnett. The show was canceled after a single season but that didn’t stop Lynde, he went back to Broadway and was cast as Harry MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. In 1963, he reprised the role onscreen and it was this performance that finally broke him through to the mainstream.
Paul Lynde was the king of bit parts in the ‘60s
Chances are, if you turned on the TV in the 1960s you were going to catch Paul Lynde in one of his appearances on everything from The Munsters, to The Flying Nun, and I Dream of Jeannie, but he was most well known at this time for his role on Bewitched as Uncle Arthur, Endora’s brother. He won this role with what was supposed to be a one time appearance as Samantha’s driving instructor. Elizabeth Montgomery was so impressed with him that she made sure he came back. Bewitched director Richard Michaels explained why everyone loved working with him:
His personality was the same off camera as it was on camera. There was nobody really like him; he saw everything as a joke, and it made him a natural.
At the same time Lynde was dealing with several personal setbacks. He starred in four different failed television pilots from 1962 to 1967 and at the same time he was struggling heavily with alcohol. In 1965, he and his friend, James Davidson, were drinking for hours in San Francisco's Sir Francis Drake Hotel when Davidson fell eight stories and died. Lynde’s run-ins with alcohol didn’t put the brakes on his career. In fact, his biggest success was yet to come.
'Hollywood Squares' is Lynde’s greatest legacy
When Hollywood Squares premiered in 1966 there was a massive cast of stars who made their way through the show. Lynde was regularly placed in the center square and after two years he was brought on as a constant in the position. On the show Lynde tossed of jokes and made over references to his barely closeted homosexuality. Even though he was performing alongside comics and actors who were of a technically higher caliber he was the perfect person to have in that spot because as Harry Friedman, associate producer and writer for The Hollywood Squares, explained:
When he was on, he was on. He could sell a joke like nobody else, because there was an anticipation that what he was about to say was going to be funny. And so the audience was primed to laugh when he delivered the joke.
Hollywood Squares was Lynde’s lifeblood. He appeared on the show more than 700 times, and was nominated for three different Emmy awards for his work on the series between 1972 and 1974.
Lynde shined in his television specials
Aside from his work on Hollywood Squares, Lynde hosted seven comedy specials between 1975 and 1979. Each special is worth seeking out because they’re all extremely weird and funny - they are camp personified. A personal favorite is The Paul Lynde Halloween Special which aired on October 29, 1976, which featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, Betty White, and performances from KISS. The whole thing is absolutely crazy and it’s well worth your time.
Lynde also hosted a Christmas special, a film special, and a special for anything you can think of. He carried on hosting specials until 1979 when he got into a public argument with police officers while he was extremely intoxicated. Musician Jack Holmes spoke about Lynde’s behavior when he was drunk:
Every word out of his mouth was venomous, with a sting that really hurt, into every unexpected vulnerability a human might have.
Lynde passed away at the age of 55
In 1982, Lynde’s hilarious and sometimes tortured life came to quiet end at his home when he was only 55 years old. He was expected to be at a party on the night he passed so his friend Paul Barresi went over to the comic’s house to check in on him. Barresi found Lynde’s unresponsive body after breaking in through a side entrance of his home and went to find help.
The Los Angeles city coroner ruled that Lynde died of a heart attack, although there’s an urban legend stating that someone fled from his home on the night of his death - this is likely due to Barresi fleeing the scene. Lynde was cremated and his remains were interred next to his brother Johnny and sister Helen at the at Amity Cemetery, in Amity, Knox County, Ohio. Long after his death Lynde remains a uniquely comic voice from a time when unique voices weren’t appreciated.