Paul Lynde may well have been the first homosexual man who most Americans willingly welcomed into their homes during less-than liberal times. Certainly, other gay performers predated him - Liberace, Rock Hudson - but Lynde was rare among Hollywood entertainers in that he did little to hide or deny his sexuality, even as he kept his public and private lives separate. Born and raised in Ohio, an overweight Lynde grew up assuming the mantle of class clown to curry favor with his classmates, making him a popular high school performer. In New York City by 1948, Lynde tried his hand at stand-up comedy before heading out on the summer stock circuit. On Broadway by the early 1950s, Lynde began to appear on television toward the end of the decade and cut a comedy album in 1960, but began making an impact on film. A reliable hysteric in such movies as "Son of Flubber" (1963) and "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), Lynde crafted a particular comic persona for himself, composed of equal parts child-like wonder and bitchy cynicism that gave his performances a bracing edge, stamping a template for such latter day performers as Harvey Fierstein, Nathan Lane and Ricky Gervais. After memorable appearances as Uncle Arthur on "Bewitched" (1964-1972), and hilariously voicing the rat Templeton in the animated children's classic, "Charlotte's Web" (1973), Lynde attained the height of popularity as himself on the long-running TV game show, "Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1966-1980), but left the program under a cloud of controversy in 1979. Plagued by alcohol and drug dependency, Paul Lynde died at a relatively young age, but left a snide, hilarious legacy on both the big and small screen that few performers of his era could match.
Paul Edward Lynde was born on June 13, 1926, in Clinton Township, in Knox County, Ohio. He was the son of Hoy Lynde, a butcher who at one time served as the sheriff of their hometown of Mount Vernon, and the former Sylvia Bell Doup. On a family trip to New York City when he was five, Lynde's mother took him to see "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1925), a silent film that had been rereleased in 1931 with added sound; Lynde often credited that experience with sparking his interest in acting. An obese child due to year-long invalidism that increased his body weight by 100 pounds, he weighed 260 pounds by his teen years, and thwarted rejection from his peers by becoming the class clown. He and his five brothers and sisters attended Mount Vernon High School, from which he graduated in 1944. At the recommendation of his high school drama teacher, Lynde enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL; his fellow drama department students included Patricia Neal, Cloris Leachman, Jeffrey Hunter and Charlotte Ray, with whom he performed in campus sketches. During World War II, Lynde's brother Cordon was reported missing in action in the Battle of the Bulge. In 1949, his brother's remains were at last identified and both parents tragically died within three months of one another.
Lynde moved to New York City in 1948. One of his first homes away from home was a tenement apartment building in which he lived, commune-style, with several other young actors - one of them being Marlon Brando. Starvation diets brought Lynde's weight down and he survived initially by waiting tables and selling his blood at city hospitals. He dabbled as a stand-up comic and performed in stock, an early role being lovelorn Wall Street broker Billy Crocker in a 1951 staging of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" at the Corning Summer Theater in upstate New York. Lynde made his Broadway debut in "Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952," which ran from May 1952 until March 1953 at the Royale Theatre. His castmates included singers Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence, as well as comic actress Alice Ghostly. Lynde contributed and directed sketches to Sillman's "New Faces of 1956," but did not appear again on Broadway until the 1960 premiere of the "Bye Bye Birdie." Directed by Gower Champion, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical ran for more than 600 performances and made stars out of Lynde and leading man Dick Van Dyke.
By 1955, Lynde had become a semi-regular on the third and final season of "The Red Buttons Show" (1952-55), which had shifted networks from CBS to NBC for its final year. During this time, he also appeared on episodes of "Hallmark Hall of Fame" (CBS/NBC/PBS, 1951- ), "Producer's Showcase" (NBC, 1954-57) and "The Phil Silvers Show" (CBS, 1955-59). He was heard but never seen on the short-lived situation comedy "Stanley" (NBC, 1956-57). Broadcast live, the half-hour program was a vehicle for rising comics Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett, with Lynde kept offscreen as acidic hotelier Horace Fanning, who barked his displeasure at his employees via a public address system. Despite the presence of both Neil Simon and Woody Allen among the writing staff, the series was shut down after a single season. In 1960, Recently Released, a long playing album of Lynde's sketch material, was released under the aegis of Columbia Records.
In 1963, Lynde made his film debut as a sardonic sportscaster in Disney's "Son of Flubber." That same year, he and Dick Van Dyke were the only cast members of the Broadway run of "Bye Bye Birdie" to be cast in Columbia Pictures' film adaptation directed by George Sidney. Lynde reprised the role of Harry McAfee, harried father of lovestruck teenager Ann-Margret, and performed the patter song "What's the Matter with Kids These Days?" He played a comic gardener in "Under the Yum Yum Tree" (1963), Columbia's adaptation of the 1960 Broadway farce starring Jack Lemmon, and was an overzealous cemetery director in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). He excelled in madcap roles in the United Artists release "For Those Who Think Young" (1964) and "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965) for American International Pictures, as well as appeared in drag for MGM's espionage comedy, "The Glass Bottom Boat" (1966). Roles on television included return engagements on "The Munsters" (CBS, 1964-66), "Burke's Law" (ABC, 1963-66) and "I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-1970).
Between 1965 and 1971, Lynde was featured in 10 episodes of ABC's supernatural sitcom "Bewitched" (1964-1972) as Uncle Arthur, the outré warlock relation of suburban sorceress Elizabeth Montgomery. The role was a perfect fit for Lynde's comic sensibility; part spoilt child, part bitchy doyenne. Though the character's sexuality was never an issue on the series, Lynde's sexuality was by this point clear to the savvier viewers. He did have a lover at this time in 24-year-old actor James "Bing" Davidson, who had uncredited roles in "Move Over, Darling" (1963) and "Harlow" (1965). In July 1965, the pair was involved in a freak accident at the Drake Hotel in San Francisco, in which Davison fell to his death in Lynde's presence. Witnesses to Davidson's eight story fall and the responding police were quick to absolve Lynde of any liability or guilt in the accidental death and, remarkably, no appreciable degree of scandal arose from the incident. That same year, Lynde's brother John also died, at the age of only 38.
In October 1966, Lynde made his first appearance on the new daytime game show "Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1966-1980) and became a regular panelist in 1968. Occupying the tactically crucial center square, the comedian doled out a barrage of sexual innuendo, snarky remarks and withering comebacks that sounded, however scripted they may have been by the writing staff, entirely his own. Lynde's success from his long association with the show allowed him to afford a lush home in Beverly Hills and to achieve the level of fame and fortune he had imagined for himself as a small town boy. Now every housewife's desired best friend, he continued to take on acting assignments and had two failed shots at a series of his own with Screen Gems and ABC: "The Paul Lynde Show" (1972-73), which lasted a single season, and "The New Temperature's Rising Show," a failed retooling of the hospital sitcom "Temperature's Rising" (1972-73), which was cancelled 20 episodes into its second year. Lynde also provided voice work on a number of animated feature films, including his unforgettable turn as the selfish rat Templeton in "Charlotte's Web" (1973), "Journey Back to Oz" (1974) and "Hugo the Hippo" (1974).
By the late 1970s, Lynde's behavior began to concern friends and coworkers as his private struggles with alcohol and narcotics leached into his professional life. In 1978, he was dropped as a semi-regular from the cast of "Donny and Marie" (ABC, 1976-79), the popular variety hour hosted by Mormon pop singers Donny and Marie Osmond, due to his arrest outside a gay bar in Salt Lake City. In 1979, Lynde vacated the center cubby of "Hollywood Squares" under a cloud of controversy, with backstage whispers maintaining that he had been fired for his drinking and belligerent behavior; when The National Enquirer printed the rumors as fact, Lynde filed a $10 million law suit for defamation of character. Lynde also attracted an unintended measure of scrutiny for using racial epithets while a special guest of his alma mater, Northwestern University, and for anti-Semitic remarks related to his career doldrums. Withdrawing ever more into private life, Lynde told friends and associates over the Christmas 1981 holidays that he had kicked alcohol and drugs, but only a week later, on Jan. 10, 1982, he died of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at the age of 55.