Published on July 4, 2016
Paul Edward Lynde (/lɪnd/; June 13, 1926 – January 11, 1982) was an American actor, voice artist, comedian and TV personality.
A noted character actor with a distinctively campy and snarky persona that often poked fun at his barely in-the-closet homosexuality, Lynde was well known for his roles as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched and the befuddled father Harry MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. He was also the regular “center square” panelist on the game show Hollywood Squares from 1968 to 1981, and he voiced two Hanna-Barbera productions; he was Templeton the gluttonous rat in Charlotte’s Web and The Hooded Claw in The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.
Paul Lynde was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the son of Hoy Coradon and Sylvia Bell (Doup) Lynde. He graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1944, and then studied drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where his fellow students included Cloris Leachman, Charlotte Rae, Patricia Neal, Jeffrey Hunter and Claude Akins. At Northwestern, he joined the Upsilon chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma and is listed among the more famous members of the fraternity. He graduated in 1948 and moved to New York City, where he initially worked as a stand-up comic.
Lynde made his Broadway debut in the hit revue New Faces of 1952 in which he co-starred with fellow newcomers Eartha Kitt, Robert Clary, Alice Ghostley, and Carol Lawrence. In his monologue from that revue, the “Trip of the Month Club,” Lynde portrayed a man on crutches recounting his misadventures on the African safari he took with his late wife.The show was filmed and released as New Faces in 1954.
Lynde as Uncle Arthur with Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1968 Bewitched episode, “The No Harm Charm”
After the revue’s run, Lynde co-starred in the short-lived 1956 sitcom Stanley opposite Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett, both of whom were also starting their careers in show business. That year, he guest starred on NBC’s The Martha Raye Show.
Lynde returned to Broadway in 1960 when he was cast as Harry MacAfee, the father in Bye Bye Birdie. He also played the role in the 1963 film adaptation. That year, he recorded a live album, Recently Released, issued as an LP record. All six tracks were written by him. Once he could afford writers, he rarely used his own material until his tenure on Hollywood Squares years later.
Lynde was in great demand in the 1960s. During the 1961-62 television season he was a regular on NBC’s The Perry Como Show as part of the Kraft Music Hall players with Don Adams, Kaye Ballard and Sandy Stewart. He was a familiar face on many sitcoms, including The Phil Silvers Show, The Munsters, The Flying Nun, Gidget, I Dream of Jeannie, F Troop, and variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show. Lynde’s best known sitcom role was on Bewitched, where he made his debut appearance in the first season episode “Driving Is the Only Way to Fly.” His role as Samantha Stephens’s nervous driving instructor Harold Harold was well received by viewers, as well as series star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband, director/producer William Asher, with both of whom Lynde became good friends. Asher then created the recurring role of Endora’s practical-joking brother Uncle Arthur. Lynde made 10 appearances on Bewitched as the beloved character, and was regularly seen with Montgomery and Asher off the set as well.
Lynde also did extensive voice work on animated cartoons, particularly those of Hanna-Barbera Productions. His most notable roles included The Hooded Claw in The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Mildew Wolf from It’s the Wolf (a segment of Cattanooga Cats), and Pertwee from Where’s Huddles?. He also voiced gluttonous rat Templeton in the animated feature Charlotte’s Web. Lynde’s sardonic inflections added a dimension to such lines as the sly, drawn-out whine, “What’s in it for meeee?” His distinctive voice remains popular among impressionists. Although it is sometimes assumed that actress Alice Ghostley based her speech patterns and mannerisms on Lynde’s, according to actress Kaye Ballard “it was Paul who was influenced by Alice”.
In 1966, Lynde debuted on the fledgling game show Hollywood Squares and quickly became its iconic guest star. Eventually he assumed a permanent spot as the “center square,” a move which ensured that he would be called upon by contestants at least once in almost every round. Despite an urban legend to the contrary, Lynde remained in the center at the producers’ discretion. Many NBC tour guides have claimed that Lynde was afraid of earthquakes and the center square proved to be the safest square of the show’s set. An anecdote related during the A&E Biography on Lynde described an earthquake that occurred during the Hollywood Squares taping that frightened and alarmed many of the guests. Lynde remained in his seat, tapping his fingers, asking if they were going to finish the show.
On Hollywood Squares Lynde was best able to showcase his comedic talents with short, salty one-liners, spoken in his signature sniggering delivery Many gags were thinly veiled allusions to his homosexuality. Asked, “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” Lynde replied, “Humble.” Asked how many men are on a hockey team, Lynde said, “Oh, about half.” Asked whether it was against the law in Texas to call a Marine a “sissy,” Lynde quipped, “I guess I’ll have to take the law into my own hands.”
Other jokes relied on double entendre, an alleged fondness for deviant behaviors, or dealt with touchy subject matter for 1970s television. Examples include:
Q: “What unusual thing do you do if you have something called ‘the gift of tongues’?”
Lynde: “I wouldn’t tell the grand jury. Why should I tell you?”
Q: “The great writer George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘It’s such a wonderful thing, what a crime to waste it on children.’ What is it?”
Lynde: “A whipping.”
Q: “Paul, any good boat enthusiast should know that when a man falls out of your boat and into the water, you should yell ‘Man overboard!’ Now what should you yell if a woman falls overboard?”
Lynde: “Full speed ahead!”
Lynde garnered considerable fame and wealth from the series, appearing a total of 707 times. He bought Errol Flynn’s old Hollywood mansion and spent an enormous amount of money on renovations and decorations.
The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising
In 1972, Lynde starred in a short-lived ABC sitcom, The Paul Lynde Show, playing an uptight attorney and father at odds with his liberal-minded son-in-law. The series was a contractual fulfillment to ABC in place of an aborted ninth season of Bewitched.
Lynde starred as Paul Simms, the father of a family that consisted of wife Martha (Elizabeth Allen) and daughters Barbara (Jane Actman) and Sally (Pamelyn Ferdin). It also starred John Calvin as Barbara’s husband, Howie, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as Howie’s parents. Critics perceived the show as a derivative of All in the Family, then television’s most-popular primetime program, although many admitted the writing was top notch and the sexual connotations gave it an extra bit of spice. Lynde was nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe for the show. Scheduled opposite the first half of the Top 30 hit The Carol Burnett Show on CBS and the Top 20 hit Adam-12 on NBC, the series garnered low ratings and was canceled after a single season.
Media reports at the time about ABC programs indicated that research showed viewers liked another ABC show, Temperatures Rising, but disliked star James Whitmore, whereas viewers liked Lynde but not The Paul Lynde Show. Therefore, the network and producer William Asher decided to dismiss Whitmore and combine the positive elements of both series. Lynde was “transferred” to Temperatures Rising for the 1973–74 season. The trick did not work and the ratings for The New Temperatures Rising were poor within weeks of the premiere. ABC cancelled the show mid-season, its time slot taken by mid-season replacement Happy Days. ABC resuscitated it, with additional changes in cast (most notably, Alice Ghostley replaced Sudie Bond in the role of Lynde’s sister Edwina) and premise, in the summer of 1974, when it ran for two months. Neither actor’s presence in the cast helped the show’s flagging ratings and this series, too, was not renewed and was replaced permanently by Happy Days.
Despite Lynde’s popularity, his presence and humor worked better as comic relief in smaller doses. In addition to the unsuccessful The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, Lynde starred in four failed television pilots in the 1960s:
Howie (1962, CBS)
Two’s Company (1965, ABC)
Sedgewick Hawk-Styles: Prince of Danger (1966, ABC)
Manley and the Mob (1967, ABC)
Of the four shows, only the Victorian detective spoof Sedgewick Hawk-Styles: Prince of Danger was initially picked up by ABC, only to be cancelled at the last minute. William Asher commented in the A&E Biography entry on Lynde that the network had reservations about Lynde, most notably his offscreen behavior and the persistent rumors of his homosexuality.
Lynde was regularly admired by his peers during his lifetime. Mel Brooks once described Lynde as being capable of getting laughs by reading “a phone book, tornado alert, or seed catalogue.” In 1976 Lynde received an Entertainer of the Year Emmy award for being voted the funniest man of the year, which he immediately turned over to host Jackie Gleason (who never won an Emmy award during his lifetime), citing him as “the funniest man ever.” This gesture was totally unexpected and shocked Jackie Gleason.
Summer stock theatre
Lynde was a fixture on the Kenley Players summer stock theatre circuit, appearing in Don’t Drink the Water (1970, 1979), The Impossible Years (1969, 1978), Mother is Engaged (1974), My Daughter is Rated X (1973), Plaza Suite (1971), and Stop, Thief, Stop! (1975). In all he appeared in nine Kenley Players productions, more than any other headliner.
Alcoholism, arrests, and final years
The failure of his two series exacerbated Lynde’s alcoholism, leading to numerous run-ins with the law and frequent arrests for public intoxication. Marshall and Kaye Ballard confirmed that Lynde, when inebriated, would sometimes ridicule his friends.
Despite his personal problems, Lynde’s continuing popularity led to his being signed by ABC to host a series of specials from 1975 to 1979, including:
The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour (November 6, 1975) with Jack Albertson, Nancy Walker and the Osmond Brothers;
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (October 29, 1976) featuring the first prime-time network appearance of KISS, along with Margaret Hamilton recreating her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton and Billie Hayes (as H.R. Pufnstuf’s Witchiepoo) teamed up in a skit where they ask Lynde to help them improve their (witches) image. Other guests included Betty White, Donny and Marie Osmond, Tim Conway, and Roz Kelly;
The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour (April 23, 1977) with Cloris Leachman and Tony Randall;
T’was the Night Before Christmas (December 7, 1977) with Alice Ghostley, Martha Raye, George Gobel and Foster Brooks;
The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour (May 20, 1978) with Juliet Prowse, Brenda Vaccaro and Harry Morgan;
Paul Lynde at the Movies (March 24, 1979) with Betty White, Vicki Lawrence, Robert Urich and Gary Coleman;
Paul Lynde Goes M-A-A-A-AD (May 20, 1979) with Marie Osmond, Charo and Vicki Lawrence.
Lynde was involved in an incident at his alma mater, Northwestern University, in October 1977. He was the Grand Marshal for homecoming. At a fast food restaurant after the homecoming parade, he made racist remarks and gestures to an African-American man, who was a professor at the university. Lynde blamed his behavior on fatigue and alcohol.
Lynde was a regular guest on the 1976–79 variety show Donny & Marie until 1978. On January 4, he was arrested outside of a gay bar in Salt Lake City at approximately 1:30 a.m. for interfering with a police officer. The officer, who was investigating a car burglary, claimed Lynde kept insisting that the officer “attend to Lynde’s complaint that his briefcase with $1,000 in cash and valuables inside had been stolen.” The complaint was later dropped, but he lost his guest-starring role on Donny & Marie as a result.
Lynde suffered from weight control problems and was honored in 1977 by Weight Watchers. That year, Lynde’s beloved dog, Harry MacAfee, died. Lynde could not stay in the house without him and later bought a new home. He spent heavily to renovate the house.
As work began to dry up, he took any opportunities that were offered. He appeared as a guest weatherman for WSPD-TV in Toledo, Ohio in 1978. He appeared as Indian chief Nervous Elk alongside former Bye Bye Birdie co-star Ann-Margret in the 1979 comedy The Villain, (released as “Cactus Jack” in the UK) which was to be his final film role. Lynde had become disenchanted with being what he called “boxed into” Hollywood Squares and departed the series that same year. Acting jobs continued to be sparse, although it is unclear if this was due to homophobia or Lynde’s known substance abuse and alcohol problems, which made it difficult to work with him.
Lynde became sober and drug-free in early 1980. At this time, Hollywood Squares was experiencing a downward trend in ratings. Lynde did not want to return but changed his mind when he received co-star billing with host Peter Marshall. He returned to the series in the spring of that year and remained with the show until its cancellation in February 1981.
On January 11, 1982, after Lynde had failed to attend a birthday celebration, his friend Paul Barresi became concerned. When he and another friend, actor Dean Ditman, could not get an answer on the phone or from knocking on his door, Barresi broke into the side entrance to Lynde’s home in Beverly Hills, California and found him dead in his bed. Stories suggesting Lynde had a visitor at the time of his death who fled the scene circulated but could not be proven, as the comedian regularly activated his house alarm before retiring for the evening. When Barresi broke in, the alarm blared, indicating Lynde was alone at the time of his death. The coroner ruled the death a heart attack. Lynde’s cremated remains are interred at Amity Cemetery, in Amity, Ohio, next to those of his brother Johnny and sister Helen. His father and mother are buried at the same cemetery.
Paul Lynde’s popularity and admiration of him have continued since his 1982 death. A biography was published in 2005, titled Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story. Authors Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski described Lynde as “Liberace without a piano” and that to most 1970s-era viewers, he was a frustrated bit player and “character actor on a daytime game show.” To the homosexual community, his reputation was less than stellar: “In some ways, he came to symbolize what’s perceived to be a self-loathing era for gay culture.”
Lynde’s distinctive vocal delivery has also been widely imitated:
Cartoon creator/voice actor Seth MacFarlane has acknowledged that the voice of Roger the Alien on American Dad! was modeled after Lynde.
The voice and humor of Queer Duck character Bi-Polar Bear, voiced by Billy West, is performed in the style of Lynde, as is supervillain The Scoutmaster in the Simpsons episode “Radioactive Man”.
Steve Carell reprised Lynde’s role as “Uncle Arthur” in the 2005 film Bewitched, very much in Lynde’s style.
The voice of Big Cheese on Samurai Pizza Cats is a Paul Lynde impression.
The voice and humor of William A. Mummy on the GSN game show Late Night Liars is performed in the vein of Lynde as well.
In the 1970s version of Match Game, regular panelist Richard Dawson often spoke in the voice and mannerisms of Lynde.
In 2010, Lynde’s likeness appeared in the center square in the Futurama episode “Lethal Inspection”.
Actor/comedian Michael Airington portrays Lynde in the show Oh My Goodness It’s Paul Lynde and An Evening with Paul Lynde, recreating Lynde’s 1976 live show, and Off Center: The Paul Lynde Show. Airington licenses the rights from the Paul Lynde Estate. Michael also sang the theme of Samurai Pizza Cats in an impersonated Paul Lynde voice.
Lynde’s sexual orientation was something of an open secret in Hollywood, although, in keeping with the social norms of the time, it was not acknowledged or discussed in public. In a 2013 radio interview, Dick Van Dyke recalled the wrap party for Bye Bye Birdie. A series of men gave short speeches, each one praising Ann-Margret and predicting success and stardom for the young actress. When it was Lynde’s turn to speak, he began, “Well, I guess I’m the only one here who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret.” On at least three episodes of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, host Gilbert Gottfried has recounted a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote of Lynde arriving at a run-down comedy club and being so appalled by its condition that he quipped “this place smells like cunt… I think.” (In an appearance on Gottfried’s podcast that premiered on May 9, 2016, Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall corrected the story, saying that he was witness to Lynde’s original comment, which regarded the backstage dressing room for The Golddiggers dance team, and that Lynde actually said, “This place smells like pussy… I think.”).
In 1965, Lynde was involved in an accident in which a young actor fell to his death from the window of their hotel room in San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The two had been drinking for hours before 24-year-old James “Bing” Davidson slipped and fell eight stories.
Despite his campy television persona, Lynde never publicly came out as gay and the press generally refrained from commenting about it. In 1976, a People magazine article on Lynde featured him and Stan Finesmith; the latter was dubbed Lynde’s “suite mate” and “chauffeur-bodyguard.” In the 1970s, this was as close as the press would come to hinting at his sexuality.