Actor-comedian Billy Eichner and producer Tom McNulty are developing Man in the Box, a biopic based on the life of gay TV icon Paul Lynde.
After his breakout turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Lynde became a big TV star with his guest turns as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, and in his role on the long-running game show Hollywood Squares. While Lynde was never publicly “out,” he never lied about his sexuality either, as most famous gay actors of that era did.
His comic persona overtly nodded to his “barely-closeted” lifestyle in a way that still feels groundbreaking for his time. But he was not on the same lists for roles as straight actors.
Deadline talked with Eichner who had much to say about Lynde, the role and how things haven’t changed enough for LGBTQ actors in Hollywood…
There’s some overlap, between Paul and I, in that we both had our breakthrough in the industry, as performers, presenting a rather larger-than-life, flamboyant, gay persona on screen. Even though I was always very out, Paul was never technically out. But he was as out as you could be, at that time, in that he was clearly leaning into a flamboyant persona.
…if you look at those jokes on Hollywood Squares, he comes as close to admitting he’s gay as you possibly can. He’s making thinly veiled, at best, references to gay sex, to finding men attractive, to swinging both ways.
It’s not even subtle, and rather bold for the time. That wasn’t some underground, indie film being shot in New York; it was as mainstream as you can get. Hollywood Squares was a huge hit, always in the top 10 or 20 shows, for over a decade. It made him a very famous, wealthy person.
Before Hollywood Squares, coming off of Bewitched, where he played Uncle Arthur, which was kind of, another wink wink, gay character, he was beloved. He got his own sitcom, The Paul Lynde Show, and they made him this straight, suburban dad. I think it lasted one season, premiered to decent numbers, and then fell off pretty quickly, and wasn’t picked up.
So, he was hypocritical, himself, in certain ways. He was offered, apparently, some gay roles, coming off of Hollywood Squares, that he didn’t want to take. He was scared to take those roles. It was more the general sense that, how could he be the star of this show, this real mainstream hit, in Hollywood Squares, where everyone’s saying he’s hilarious, waiting on the edge of their seats to see what he has to say, but that could be the extent of his opportunity? It’s hard to imagine that, had he been straight, and not as flamboyant, that he wouldn’t have had such limited options. Now he’s a complicated guy, so some of it was his own doing. After The Paul Lynde Show failed, he was always waiting around, wanting someone to write him a great vehicle.
There is no gay Tom Hanks, in this country. There is no gay Will Ferrell. There’s no gay Steve Carell. There’s no gay Paul Rudd. There’s no gay Kevin Hart. There’s no gay Will Smith.
The list goes on and on, and that’s not a coincidence. After a hundred years of making films, it’s not a coincidence. It’s not that they just haven’t been able to find the right gay man, who has enough talent to have a career like that.
The fact that we can put any gay man, on that list of actors I had just mentioned, even in 2020…look, it’s gotten better. There are so many channels, and so much more content being made, that the door was opened particularly on television, for more stories about LGBT people. Ryan Murphy, who I’ve worked with, and Greg Berlanti, these are openly gay men who took the power, and leverage, and money they had, and used it to pry open the door for the rest of us, on TV. But even so, I think when you do shows that are exclusively LGBTQ+, even when they’re critically acclaimed, they’re put in this niche box. Oh, that’s a lovely show, for gay people. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it great that Pose exists? But you have to beg straight people to watch it.
One of the main reasons I want to do this is…because gay actors are never, hardly ever, I should say, allowed to play our own gay icons. Harvey Milk, Freddie Mercury, Elton John. Where are the gay actors? And it’s not to take anything away from those performances, which were all excellent. But why don’t we get to tell our own stories? I have a lot of friends, who are openly gay actors, in Hollywood. Many of us are successful, and have carved out lovely careers, to varying degrees. But when it really comes to some big project about a gay icon, the one everyone’s throwing awards at… we love the spectacle of rewarding a straight actor, for quote unquote, transforming himself into a gay person.
I made a decision early on, right after I graduated college, that I was going to be out. I didn’t want to live any other way.
It just sounded miserable to me, but there is a sacrifice that comes with that, and what I am trying to do is show that that sacrifice, it’s bullsh*t.
I don’t have to go sit with 30 gay people, and try to find out what it’s like to be gay. I know, and no one knows better than me, and my friends.
I think we need to stop undervaluing that, the feeling that if a gay person plays a gay person, it’s not acting, but if a straight person plays a gay person, we give them an Oscar.’
If you want to read more about Paul Lynde, check out Stephen Rutledge’s #BornThisDay.
(Photos, YouTube, Avalon; via Deadline)