For most people, Paul Lynde is immediately identifiable with his risque, campy answers on the long-running TV game show “Hollywood Squares.” Indeed, the new book on Lynde’s life takes its title from his seat on that program’s tic-tac-toe board set: “Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story.” Film Threat readers know of Lynde’s bizarre TV work, which has been featured in several of the Bootleg Files columns (including “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” and his unlikely appearance in the “Star Wars” spoof on “The Donny & Marie Show”).
But there was more to Lynde than small-screen shenanigans. Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski, the authors of “Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story,” have detailed a compelling study of the zany funnyman’s strange career and often tragic private life. The new biography, published by Advocate Books, tracks down Lynde’s extensive and frequently forgotten work in theater, television, and films.
Lynde’s film work was spotty and focused on supporting roles. But many of these roles were truly memorable: as the survivor of a disastrous safari in “New Faces,” as the harried father in “Bye Bye Birdie,” as the excessively happy cemetery director in “Send Me No Flowers,” as the cross-dressing security guard in “The Glass Bottom Boat,” and as the voice of Templeton the Rat in the animated classic “Charlotte’s Web.”
Film Threat caught up with Wilson and Florenski on their book tour to talk about the movie world of Paul Lynde.
What inspired you to do a biography of Paul Lynde? And how is that no one has done a Paul Lynde biography prior to this?
JOE FLORENSKI: I was inspired by all the research I started collecting, which, in the beginning, was done purely as a time-waster. I was surprised to learn how substantial Paul’s career was, certainly more than just endless game show appearances. I’m not sure why no one else has considered writing a biography before us. Oddly enough, I’ve heard from a dozen or so people who want to write plays based on Paul’s life. He’s a muse, I guess.
STEVE WILSON: Though lots of people knew of him when he was alive and thought he was funny, he wasn’t doing those big movies and other projects that get a lot of attention from the media. I think that sort of mentality about Paul lingered after he died – though all these great stories kept going around about him, no one took him seriously enough to really examine his life. They just preferred him as a punchline.
Paul Lynde was hilarious in film debut in the 1954 version of “New Faces,” which also featured breakthrough performances by Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley and Robert Clary. Yet nearly a decade passed before he worked in films again. Why was there this gap in his film work?
SW: The film version of “New Faces” was less a movie than a shoddily-made addendum to the hit Broadway show. If anything it just reinforced the notion that these people were Broadway stars, not film stars. Eartha Kitt went on to bigger things immediately after “New Faces,” but her career had already taken off even before filming began.
JF: Much to Paul’s displeasure, it should be added. He, being the unfortunate sort of person given to racist ranting, said Eartha “should go back to picking cotton.” Until 1963, Paul lived and worked mostly in New York. Despite some initial success, as director of the comedy sketches for “New Faces of 1956,” for instance, his career was in a free-fall for much of that time. It wasn’t until he was cast in “Bye Bye Birdie,” which led to a regular gig on Perry Como’s TV show and then a chance to reprise his Broadway role in the film version of “Birdie,” that he started getting movie offers.
Most people remember and cherish Lynde’s film work in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Yet Lynde hated the film. What was the story behind that?
JF: Paul resented how the film was tweaked to draw attention to Ann-Margret, who played his daughter. He thought it was particularly unfair to Janet Leigh and Dick Van D**e, who were top billed. He said later that there wasn’t a line in the film that he’d said on Broadway, and even his signature tune “Kids” was rewritten so that he shared the scene with Van D**e and Maureen Stapleton.
SW: And Paul was there at the wrap dinner with the director when Maureen Stapleton got drunk and shouted: “I’m the only one on this picture who didn’t try to f**k Ann-Margret!” Less famously, he got really drunk that night, too, and after taking a few bites of the dinner, he shouted in hearing range of the hostess, “What is this s**t?”
During the 1970s, Lynde’s most famous film work was his voice performance as the wacky rat Templeton in the animated feature “Charlotte’s Web.” Lynde did a lot of cartoon voice performances as well, most memorably as the Hooded Claw on the TV show “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.” What did Lynde think of his work as a voice actor in animated productions?
JF: Although I have never heard anything to suggest he liked or disliked working as a voice actor, it does seem that Paul chose roles less for artistic reasons than financial ones. I suspect that doing cartoons was just a job to him, although his voice is definitely a great cartoon voice.
SW: And just like with “Squares,” even if he didn’t especially like it, he was brilliant at it. His rendition of Templeton sunk into my mind as a child and lodged there long before I knew who Lynde was. One thing we never managed to find out but that I’m really curious about is what Paul thought of his voice role as the effete, cat-loving single neighbor to the macho football-playing lead character on Hanna Barbara’s “Where’s Huddles?”
JF: I bet Paul loved it since the company honored him by drawing the character to look exactly like him, right down to the queer foulard, a fashion statement definitely deserving of a comeback.
One goal which eluded Lynde during his career was being able to have a starring role in a movie. Why didn’t this happen for him?
JF: Again, I think Paul’s unwillingness to say no to any job offer affected his standing in Hollywood. He made himself too available. He said at the time he’d like to do Tony Randall roles, but even Randall was landing fewer film roles by the end of the ‘60s.
SW: Plus he was typecast as a character actor. Even TV, which loved him, only loved him to a point. He made a great living off his guest spots on sitcoms and variety shows, but his two efforts at carrying his own sitcoms failed. Too much of Paul apparently didn’t sit well with audiences.
JF: Viewer fatigue even affected Paul’s standing as a summer stock headliner. In the beginning, he played to SRO audiences and critical acclaim in plays by Neil Simon and Woody Allen, but he kept on giving the same “Paul Lynde” performance year after year and critics stopped being amused, especially the ones who’d watched him again and again. He had a great fan base, but didn’t seem too interested in expanding it by developing his talents.
Had Lynde not died in 1982, where do you think his career would have gone?
SW: He likely would have gotten by on commercials and summer stock as well for much of the ‘80s. But with the increasingly positive advances in gay awareness in the ‘90s, I’d like to think he might have been embraced as the gay icon he deserves to be, and invited on “Will and Grace” and other shows he helped pave the way for. To speculate even more, his career would settle back down again eventually, but he’d probably easily snag some job as host of a game show or reality show, like “Trading Drunken Barbs with Paul Lynde.”
JF: Or maybe he would have just returned to Broadway.
Looking back over his career, what were Lynde’s best film performances?
JF: So much of Paul’s film work was inconsequential, but I think he’s great in “The Glass Bottom Boat,” especially when he dons a dress to spy on Doris Day. Even though he hated the film, he’s brilliant in “Bye Bye Birdie,” especially when he becomes unhinged at the thought of his daughter being corrupted by Birdie. You don’t ask, but I think his best work overall is a TV pilot he did called “Sedgewick Hawk-Styles, Prince of Danger.” He played a second-rate Sherlock Holmes who mistakenly thinks Queen Victoria is a man in disguise.
SW: Yes, and even after he realizes the Queen is really a she after all, he sees her off with “Farewell, my king,” uttered under his breath with bitchy brilliance. Film-wise though, I like him in “Beach Blanket Bingo”: he obviously doesn’t give a rat’s a*s (did it mostly as a favor for William Asher, the “Bewitched” producer) and is just there to have some fun.
JF: There’s actually a “lost” Paul Lynde film. In 1967, he filmed “Silent Treatment,” an actual silent film with dozens of cameos by comic greats like Phyllis Diller and Jerry Lewis. Paul was a lead character, but, for some odd reason, the film was never released. I often wonder if it would have made a difference to his career, although, truth be told, Paul didn’t know how to pick the right vehicles, so it probably would have done little.