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People Magazine - September 13, 1976
In his cherished suffering fashion, Paul Lynde refers to himself as "that man in the box," He is, to be sure, trapped - bemusedly - in the epicenter of TV's most ubiquitous game show, The Hollywood Squares. Paul recognizes that the fees and exposure have helped propel him into $325,000-a-year country (counting commercials) and put him in the top five of a national survey of the most beloved nonseries stars. (That means he's ahead of John Wayne, Paul Newman and Helen Hayes.) Yet, after 2,500 segments, Lynde professes to have had a bellyful of the show's slightly canned badinage. By way of example, emcee Peter Marshall lobs up a clay pigeon of a question like "If the right part comes along, will George C. Scott do a nude scene?" Paul hears himself smirking: "You mean he doesn't have the right part?"
The ultimately most puzzling and poignant question is, what is the right part for Paul Lynde? He's the hottest sketch comic on TV - averaging some 200 hours a year of panel and variety shots. Yet Paul maintains that he has come to hate Hollywood as much as the Squares. At the same time, he feels thwarted that he's not, after "eleven bad films," a movie star. As a result, despite his manically comic public persona, life for Lynde, at 50, is a relentless struggle to control his weight, his whiskey and his bitterness.
This summer his manager coaxed him for the first time ever into playing himself on tour rather than in a book show. Despite trepidations, he wrote a quintessential evening with Paul Lynde, prancing through numerous costume changes, including caftans that made him look like Lawrence of Fire Island. ("Someday I'm going to go onstage in a dress if I want to.") He belted out such songs as his signature Kids, from his Broadway and Hollywood smash Bye Bye Birdie. Afterward Lynde patiently greeted queues of fans, individually. It's a measure of Paul's popularity that these sessions often lasted longer than his two-hour show.
Lynde, having survived the three months, is still shaking - from his success - and befuddled by it. "I don't know who the hell Paul Lynde is, or why he's funny," he says, "and I prefer it to be a mystery to me. An actor shouldn't undergo psychoanalysis, because there are a lot of things you're better off not knowing." Lynde has learned, if nothing else his constituency. "Women are my best friends, my best audience," he says. "If I look out from the stage and see a lot of men, I know I'm in trouble." Gays? "My following is straight. I'm so glad," he adds. "Y'know gay people killed Judy Garland, but they're not going to kill me." (In a little-publicized incident in the 1960's, a young actor friend fell mysteriously to his death from Paul's hotel room in San Francisco.)
For all his onstage tensions and self-doubts, Lynde is one of the few comedians in the business with a genuine round-the-clock unscripted wit. Alice Ghostley met Paul on Broadway in their career-making revue New Faces of 1952. She and her husband remain among his closest friends. She says, "Sometimes we just laugh the whole night." It annoys Paul that folks like Buddy Hackett say his Hollywood Squares gags are ghosted. Lynde admits that he and his co-panelists are tipped on the question categories before each taping, but maintains that all his actual zingers are winged on the spot. In any case, his delivery is inimitable, and Lynde is paid, and worth, double the other panelists' scale. That adds up to $1,500 a day when he tapes a week's output of daytime half hours back-to-back.
Not bad for the third - and he claims least favored - of four sons of a Mount Vernon, Ohio sheriff-turned-butcher. From the time 5-year-old Paul saw the original Ben-Hur film, he remembers, "I was obsessed with being rich and famous." Though his family was then living over the county jail, Lynde took to sitting on the steps of a large mansion in town and waving at passing cars. But the stagestruck kid had a problem: "I looked like Kate Smith's niece. At my house," he says, "the main discussion at lunch was what we were going to have for dinner. Salads were either macaroni or Waldorf." He became, in the words of a schoolmarm, "a silly little goose" to cope with taunts at his obesity.
It was a mercy that Northwestern University drama school classmate Cloris Leachman was not on her thinness kick when Ohio Fats arrived, sometimes ballooning (as he still could if he doesn't watch it) to 260 pounds over a 5'11" frame. After graduation he survived four tough years in New York, waiting tables and selling blood for $5 per pint before New Faces. In the following decade, Lynde worked constantly in films like Son of Flubber, as well as on the tube. Along the way, he also headlined sitcoms playing the Dagwood of a dad in The Paul Lynde Show and the harassed hospital administrator in New Temperatures Rising.
What all that has bought is an opulent manse in the Hollywood Hills where Error Flynn once set up his ex-wife. Lynde lives only with his pet pooch. In the driveway are a Ford station wagon for pottering down to the local Safeway (where the butcher's son still picks his own cuts of meat), a Mercedes 450SL roadster and a rare $51,000 Bentley convertible (JFK once owned one of the other 17).
Though one of Hollywood's most skilled chefs, he maintains a strict 1,000 calorie diet, jogs regularly and holds at around 180. It isn't easy. "If you could just cut out the boooooze," he moans, "that would take care of half your overweight, but I love the boooooze." (In 1974 he received a suspended sentence for public drunkenness while on tour in Toledo.)
Is it all worth it? "I'm getting to the point where I say, 'Screw the money,'" reports Lynde, blaming part of his disillusion on the L.A. life-style. Hollywood, he cracks in his show, is "where you get up at noon, read the funnies, and if the sun's not out you go to dirty movies until cocktail time." So Paul constantly threatens to move back to New York ("I had 15 great years there") and open a restaurant. He may just be kidding himself, and he confesses, "If I'm not working, I don't know what to do." Indeed, Paul allowed himself less than a week's rest after his grinding tour before going back to Squares and the other ricochet guest shots.
"I can't even get three weeks off to have cosmetic surgery," he complains in a whine.
Lynde has never really shaken his big-screen aspirations. Not only is he obsessed with someday starring in "a really important movie like The Graduate," but he still loves to rub elbows with his idols. Several months ago, at a Hollywood club, the sight of Lana Turner turned Paul into "a teenager - I'd never seen her in person, and I wanted to protect her." The truth is that TV star Lynde has a greater following than Turner or the stud who once owned his home. Lynde's celebrity, for instance, makes it impossible to go to a public moviehouse. He has to make do watching on pay-cable in his bedroom. The worst of it, Paul complains, is "I miss the popcorn."