PAUL LYNDE: Sardonic Clown

It’s difficult to say what role I first discovered Paul Lynde. I was born in the winter of 1966, and throughout my childhood in the late sixties and seventies, he was everywhere. Never a leading man, yet he was a standout in small roles in the most popular films, tv shows, and game shows. For a comedic actor who always got the minor roles, he was so beloved that he had his own television show- even his own Halloween special.

Paul Edward Lynde was born June 13, 1926 into a large family (2 sisters and 3 brothers) in Mount Vernon, Ohio. His parents were Hoy Corydon Lynde and Sylvia Bell Doup. His father owned and operated a meat market and was also a local police officer, including time spent as the sheriff of the jail. Both Hoy and Sylvia died in 1949, months apart, in their early 50s. The family tree bad ticker would be passed down as an early death for their son, Paul, too.

Inspiration for a life as an entertainer came early to Paul. When he was barely five years old, his mother took him to see the dramatic silent epic Ben-Hur (Ben-Hur: The Tale of Christ, 1925). His dreams were locked in from that moment forward. He was musically inclined- played the bass drum in the Mount Vernon High School band. Paul graduated from Northwestern University in 1948 where he studied drama, then made his way to New York City. His fellow Northwestern classmates included Cloris Leachman, Jeffrey Hunter, and Patricia Neal. Upon revealing his plans for pursuing an acting career in the ‘big apple,’ PL was quoted, “my dad hit the roof and I hit the road, simultaneously.” After juggling odd jobs, he started doing stand-up acts in the supper club, “Number One Fifth Avenue,” then eventually landed acting on Broadway.

His big Broadway break was in the musical revue, “New Faces of 1952” which included comedy and musical skits and introduced rising newcomers Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, and Carol Lawrence. After hundreds of runs, it was later filmed as, “NEW FACES” in 1954. In 1956, Lynde co-starred with Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett in the sitcom, “Stanley” and “The Martha Raye Show.”

The 1960s was Paul Lynde’s sweet spot. He was constantly working on every medium, in high-demand. He began his role as the father Harry MacAfee on the original Broadway production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1960. He would later reprise that same role in the popular 1963 film. Noting the eclipsing popularity of co-star Ann-Margret, Lynde recalled, “I was in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ on Broadway – played the father. I was in the film version, but they should have retitled it ‘Hello, Ann-Margret!’ They cut several of my and the other actors’ best scenes and shot new ones for her so she could do her teenage-sex-bombshell act.”

In 1960, he wrote and released a comedy album, “Recently Released.” All six tracks are his original material. But, television would be his most popular home during this decade. Starting in the early sixties, he would pop up as a familiar face on variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Dean Martin Show,” and many sitcoms including “The Munsters,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Gidget,” “That Girl,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” “The Patty Duke Show,” “The Flying Nun,” and “F Troop.” He was also a regular on “The Red Buttons Show” and various Perry Como shows/specials.

This decade ushered in his film career beyond BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), with hits like: SON OF FLUBBER (1963), UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE (1963), FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG (1964), SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964), BEACH BLANKET BINGO (1965), THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966), and HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968). Two of these films he co-starred with my personal favorite funny leading lady, Doris Day.

In his typical scene-stealing hilarity, Lynde performs in drag for a bathroom scene. He noted,” I had a drag scene in Doris Day’s The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). An elegant gown. Actually, it was more expensive than any of the ones Doris had to wear. That day that I came in fully dressed and coiffed, I was the belle of the set! Everybody went wild! Doris came over and looked me up and down and told me, ‘Oh, I’d never wear anything that feminine.'”

Beginning in 1965, Paul Lynde took on his most famous television role, Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched.” He was so beloved as the prankster warlock that many would assume his performances well outnumbered the only 11 episodes he acted. In fact, his initial role on “Bewitched” was a completely different role. During the first-season episode “Driving is the Only Way to Fly” (air date March 25, 1965), he portrayed a mortal, “Harold Harold,” Samantha Stephens’s nerve-wrecked driving instructor. Audiences clamored for more Lynde. Star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband director/producer of the show William Asher agreed. Thus the recurring “Uncle Arthur” was created. “The Joker is a Card” (air date October 14, 1965) was his debut. His final appearance was in “The House That Uncle Arthur Built” (February 11, 1971) in the series’ seventh season.

One of the most distinctive traits about Paul Lynde is his delivery of lines. His uniquely sarcastic, drawn-out speech often followed by his own laughter became his signature. This allowed him a career in animation. His voice work included one of my warm memories from my childhood, the cranky but lovable rat “Templeton” in “Charlotte’s Web” (1973). His other voice works include: “Mildew Wolf” from “Cattanooga Cats” (1969 – 1971, Hanna-Barbera), “Claude Pertwee” on “Where’s Huddles?” (1970, Hanna-Barbera), and “Sylvester Sneekly” on “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” (1969 – 1970, Hanna- Barbera).

His longest running role is undoubtedly on the game show, “The Hollywood Squares.” A simple premise of tic-tac-toe hosted by Peter Marshall premiering in 1966, Lynde was an immediate hit with his sharp one-liners that often took on a double-entendre edge. He was placed as “center square” regular on the show which provided a higher likelihood for his frequent appearances. The show ran for over a decade, with both daytime and primetime time slots. Lynde appeared in a whopping total of 707 shows. He left the program in 1979 over a dispute on salary, and was persuaded to return in 1980 after ratings slipped after his absence. He remained until the show’s cancelation in February of 1981.

His one-liners from those fifteen years on “The Hollywood Squares” are so hilarious they are still considered comedy gold to this day. You can find clips on YouTube and I highly recommend if you ever need a pick-me-up from an arduous day. (The Best of Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares: https://youtu.be/ebBh2pjpIXc )

Lynde’s life was not void of controversy and heartache. His sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood. His jokes were often veiled jabs at his closeted homosexuality. Hiding and then mocking his own sexuality was likely a major contributor to his own alcohol and drug abuse. Like so many brilliant artists that excel in comedy, there is often a mask hiding the pain. For Lynde, he lived in a time when Hollywood wanted queerness hidden- or the center of the party joke. Lynde had to deliver both.

Tragedy hit July 13, 1965 when Paul Lynde and his friend, a 24 yo struggling actor from Nebraska James “Bing” Davidson, returned to their hotel room at the Sir Drake hotel in San Francisco after a night of hard partying. Drunk and loud, Davidson was known for his pranks and tempted fate at the balcony. According to sfgate.com,

“Davidson, heavily intoxicated and in a jocular mood, turned to Lynde and told him, “Watch me do a trick.” Lynde watched, laughing, as Davidson opened the eighth-floor window and climbed out. For a moment, Lynde thought Davidson had his feet on a ledge down below. But then Davidson’s face turned ghastly and he gasped, “Help me, I’m slipping!” 

Lynde ran to the window, reaching for his friend’s wrists. Down below, a pair of passing beat cops heard screams and joined a gathering crowd staring up at the Sir Francis Drake. Davidson could be seen scrambling, trying desperately to boost his leg back up to the open window. He tried three times before his hands lost their weak grip and he fell to the pavement below. He died on impact.”

That horrible accident didn’t affect his career. But I have a hard time believing that Lynde’s mental health was not forever and deeply rocked by this event. Likely deepening his already present substance addictions. The 1970s brought fewer roles and more frequent public intoxications. After appearing as an occasional guest on “The Donny and Marie Show” (1976 – 1978) for a couple of years, Lynde engaged in a drunken argument with the police outside a local tavern and never appeared in the show again.

According to his biographers, Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski of “Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story,” (2005), Lynde was ‘Liberace without a piano’ and that most 70s viewers described him as “a frustrated bit player and character actor on a daytime game show.” Well, I certainly hope not.

By the early eighties, Paul was ready to become sober for a comeback. Yet it was too little, too late. Paul Lynde died of a massive heart attack at the age of 55 in 1982, discovered at his Beverly Hills home after failing to appear at a birthday party. He is interred at the Amity Cemetery in Mount Vernon, Ohio next to family, including his beloved brother Private Coradon Lynde, who died at the Battle of the Bulge in WW2. Paul’s estate was willed to his two surviving sisters.

Paul Lynde brings me so much joy whenever I see him, no matter how brief the role. To me, that level of scene-stealing talent is the very definition of “what a character!” I’ll leave you with a few highlights of Paul Lynde’s witty zingers…

Peter Marshall: “In “Alice in Wonderland,” who kept crying “I’m late, I’m late?” Paul Lynde: “Alice, and her mother is sick about it.”

Peter Marshall: “Paul, can you get an elephant drunk?” Paul Lynde: “Yes, but he still won’t go up to your apartment.”

Peter Marshall: “What is a pullet?” Paul Lynde: “A little show of affection…”

Peter Marshall: “Paul, Snow White…was she a blonde or a brunette?” Paul Lynde: “Only Walt Disney knows for sure…”

This article is my contribution to the 11th annual What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of (https://aurorasginjoint.com/2023/01/08/what-a-chacracter-11-morning-edition/ )Once Upon a Screen/ @CitizenScreen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club/ @Paula_Guthat, and yours truly. We encourage you to read all the participating bloggers’ articles published throughout today.

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