Paul Lynde's hilarious, boundary-pushing one-liners kept home audiences in hysterics. The actor spent his entire career playing the stereotypical hilarious gay uncle on screen and vehemently denying he was also the hilarious gay uncle off-screen as well. One thing's for certain: Lynde had horrifying tragedies at his back and shocking skeletons in his closet.
1. He Wanted Drama
Paul Lynde came from humble beginnings. Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, he was the fifth of six children and his parents owned a meat market. When Lynde was just five years old, he had a fateful experience: His mother took him to see the silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. That was it for the young boy. He knew at that early age that he wanted to be a dramatic actor.
He had no clue that leading the life of an entertainer would be a magnet for trouble.
2. He Had A Favorite
Growing up in a large family was difficult for Lynde. When he was still a boy, Lynde latched on to one sibling, his older brother Coradon, as his go-to for friendship. He even made the mistake of calling him his favorite sibling out of his five brothers and sisters. So, why was it a mistake to have a favorite? Because sometimes life is just that cruel.
3. He Lost Him
Lynde's favorite sibling was older than Lynde and just the right age to participate in WWII. Coradon Lynde went to Europe to fight for freedom and ended up in one of the most famous incidents: the Battle of the Bulge. This was the battle that was the beginning of the end for Germany. Sadly for Lynde, it was also the end of his brother: they declared him missing in action and presumed deceased.
But there was even more suffering to come.
4. He Was A Big Boy
Lynde’s mother was famous for her cooking, and since his parents owned a butcher shop, there was no shortage of good food at the Lynde residence. Once Lynde had graduated from high school, this dangerous combination had him weighing 95 kg (205 lb). Lynde’s size embarrassed him, and this embarrassment followed him throughout his entire life.
Luckily, he found a silver lining to cling to.
5. He Made A Move
The same year he lost his brother, Lynde entered Northwestern University. That's when Lynde discovered something surprising: He had an infectious funny bone. Lynde would write monologues and make his drama classmates roll on the floor laughing. As fate would have it, those giggling classmates ended up being some of TV’s brightest stars. They included Cloris Leachman of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Charlotte Rae of The Facts of Life, and Star Trek’s Jeffrey Hunter.
All this laughter would soon come in handy, as life was about to serve up a double tragedy.
6. He Faced Tragedy Twice
Remember, Lynde’s brother was still officially missing in action. In 1949, however, authorities located his body. While this must have been something like closure for the grieving Lynde family, it was also an event that prompted even more sadness. After finding out about their son, both of Lynde’s parents tragically passed—within weeks of each other.
His parents’ passing devastated Lynde, but he bravely decided to put his sadness aside. In fact, he ran in the other direction.
7. He Started At The Bottom
Paul Lynde couldn’t get away from the Midwest fast enough. He set his sights high and headed for the Big Apple. Like many aspiring actors, he worked at odd jobs and hoped for a big break in show business. He did stand-up comedy at the famous Number One Fifth Avenue and appeared on Broadway in a revue called New Faces of 1952. All of this was great—but it didn’t constitute a big break.
Lynde watched dejectedly from the sidelines as his friends soared to the top. Left in the trenches waiting for his moment, he could only cross his fingers and wait.
8. He Fell On Hard Times
Unfortunately, Lynde fell on tough times in New York City. He eventually had to live in a slightly sleazy apartment building that catered to struggling actors. It was basic living, and the tenants even had to share a kitchen. While Lynde was there, one actor accused Lynde of taking his food. Lynde was lucky he didn’t receive a colossal punishment from this accusation.
You see, the accuser was none other than the legendary—and hot-tempered—Marlon Brando. But while Brando was on the verge of greatness, Lynde had a long waiting game ahead of him.
9. He Found The Role Of A Lifetime
It wasn’t until 1960—when he was 34 years old—that Lynde finally got the break into show business that he’d been waiting for. There was a new musical called Bye Bye Birdie and many thought it would be a huge hit. Lynde was up for a supporting role playing an ill-tempered father who was in constant confusion about the people around him—especially his teenage daughter.
Lynde auditioned for the role and nailed it. They offered him the part and, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it changed the course of Lynde’s life forever.
10. He Made An Odd Choice
While he didn't play the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, Paul Lynde brought something new to the table. His performance as Harry MacAfee was unlike anything audiences had seen in a mainstream Broadway musical. While most actors may have gone for a dad that belonged in the army, Lynde’s MacAfee was actually quite effeminate. It was an odd choice for an angry father, but the audiences loved it—and him.
And for Lynde, well, it was the start of something spectacular.
11. He Didn’t Disappoint
Lucky for Lynde, Bye Bye Birdie was such a big hit that they decided to make it into a movie. Casting Lynde in the film was a no-brainer. Audiences had loved him on Broadway, so they would love him in theaters. Unsurprisingly, he did not disappoint. His quirky, effeminate, and quite nasty Harry MacAfee was also a show stopper on the big screen.
There was one person, however, that made the movie less about Lynde and more about her.
12. She Annoyed Him
With the production of Bye Bye Birdie underway, producers brought on-screen siren Ann-Margret to play the role of Lynde’s character’s daughter. In the play, her role was important but not central. In the film, however, producers wanted to showcase Ann-Margret so they replaced some scenes to give her more time on screen. Lynde lost some scenes and, needless to say, he didn’t care for the changes.
In response, he aimed his lethal wit at her and said that they should’ve changed the name from Bye Bye Birdie to Hello Ann-Margret. In spite of this, Lynde was still heading for superstardom. However, he did have one fear—type casting.
13. What Was He?
In spite of the Ann-Margret debacle, Lynde had found a character that made people laugh, and it was hard not to bring this same character to many of his roles. Lynde was quickly becoming the go-to comedian for 1960s TV. He appeared in many sitcoms and variety shows and yet he seemed to still be playing Bye Bye Birdie’s Harry MacAfee. But what was the real Paul Lynde like?
Was he also effeminate? Was he…gasp…gay?
14. He Was Ready With An Answer
Amongst his fans, there was confusion about what Paul Lynde actually was. They assumed his woman-avoiding, campy character was just that—a character. When the press asked him about a girlfriend or wife, Lynde had an answer at the ready. He said that long ago a sweetheart from high school had broken his heart and it was for this reason, he remained a bachelor.
I guess some people will believe anything as long as they really want to believe it. It was definitely getting more and more difficult to differentiate his on-screen life from his real life. And this next performance didn’t help make things clearer.
15. He Was Meta
In Bye Bye Birdie, there is a song about appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, which Lynde's character sings. In an early example of being "meta" Lynde sang the song about being on The Ed Sullivan Show, while he was actually on The Ed Sullivan Show. To make matters more bizarre, Ed Sullivan himself appeared in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie.
It seemed that every character Lynde played had some sort of double meaning. This was absolutely true when he appeared on TV’s Bewitched.
16. They Wanted Him Back
In 1965, Lynde landed a one-episode role in the very popular TV show Bewitched. His driving instructor character so impressed audiences and producers of the show that they wanted him back. There was, however, a problem: The show didn’t have a need for another scene with a driving instructor. Luckily, with the trademark twitch of Samantha’s nose, Lynde was magically transformed into a totally different character.
17. He Was On Repeat
The producers of Bewitched were actually the star, Elizabeth Montgomery, and her husband. They loved Lynde’s work on the show, so they made up an uncle for Montgomery’s lead character Samantha. Again, Lynde took a small recurring role and turned it into gold. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the snarky Uncle Arthur. Lynde was using some of the same mannerisms that he used in Bye Bye Birdie, but can you blame him? Audiences couldn’t get enough.
The viewing public wanted the Paul Lynde they knew—but, as it turned out, they didn’t want too much of him.
18. He Wasn't A Leading Man
Between 1962 and 1967, both ABC and CBS tried to put Lynde in a lead part in a series—and it all ended in disappointment. In three of the four cases, the pilot episodes did not lead to a series. One pilot, the impossibly titled Sedgewick Hawk-Styles: Prince of Danger seemed to have a chance at success. Strangely, however, ABC abruptly canceled the series.
The sudden end to this series shocked and confused Lynde—and probably his fans too. So what was the problem?
19. His Secret Came Out
It later came out what ABC’s problem actually was. They were afraid of using Lynde for two reasons: his unstable behavior off-screen and all those rumors flying around that Lynde was gay. This, of course, was true—but the contradiction here was obvious. Lynde's characters were always a pleasure to watch because they always seemed gay and unstable. Surprise surprise!
But let's not get it twisted. When it came to his personal life, the actor attracted all kinds of mayhem.
20. He Hit The Town
In 1965, Paul Lynde and his fellow actor Bing Davidson went out on the town and started drinking. They returned to their hotel severely inebriated. It was a recipe for disaster. It all went wrong when Davidson tried to show Lynde a trick and went out on the balcony. Before Lynde knew what was happening, Davidson ended up on the wrong side of the balcony railing, hanging on for dear life.
21. He Let Go
Lynde failed to see the humor in Davidson’s joke and begged him to come back onto the balcony. Suddenly, the joke wasn’t that funny anymore, as Davidson began losing his grip on the railing. Lynde desperately tried to haul Davidson back onto the balcony—but it was a doomed effort. To Lynde’s horror, Davidson let go and fell. It was eight stories to the ground and Davidson did not survive.
This certainly was a horrible accident, but what would it do to Lynde’s career?
22. It Never Happened
Two officers showed up—and it looked like it was going to be the scandal of the decade. Lynde was a hot TV actor and it was nightmarish incidents like these that sold magazines. Somehow Lynde—or more likely his handlers—talked the officers into keeping the accident a secret. In the end, the horrible tragedy received zero media coverage and there wasn’t even a hint of a scandal for Lynde. It was like it had never happened.
Good thing for Paul Lynde, as big things were coming his way.
23. They Put Him In A Box
In 1966, NBC had a show that was trying as hard as it could to win America’s heart. The show was Hollywood Squares and it was an original take on the simple tic-tac-toe game with Hollywood celebrities sitting in different positions in the grid. The idea was that the celebrities would offer hilarious answers to trivia questions. When Lynde, with his trademark camp and off-color humor, was one of the guests, he was a huge hit.
Producers wanted to see more of Lynde, so they did something rather sneaky.
24. He Was Front And Center
Anyone who knows how to play tic-tac-toe knows that the center square is the most strategic one. Producers soon got the idea to place Lynde in the center of the board, as audiences would get to hear his acid and hilarious remarks more frequently. As the center square, Lynde got away with outrageous double entendres and references to being gay.
When host Peter Marshall asked Lynde if it was against the law to call a marine a sissy, Lynde’s response was: "I guess I'll have to take the law into my own hands". All of this flew right over audiences' heads.
25. It Wasn’t Clear
A lot of Lynde's campy one-liners were references to him being…let’s just say…not so fond of women as romantic partners. He never described himself as gay, but his mannerisms and many of his jokes went in that direction. Audiences didn’t care as long as they were laughing. But it wasn’t only the audience who were in hysterics, Lynde was also laughing—all the way to the bank.
26. He Had A Huge One
Behind all the laughter, the actor relished in his big fat paychecks. Lynde was really raking it in on the Hollywood Squares, and it led him to do something outlandish: He bought an enormous Hollywood mansion. But this couldn’t be just any mansion—it had to match his Hollywood Squares salary. Lynde went out on a financial limb and purchased a home that had belonged to movie icon Errol Flynn.
Paul Lynde was flying high, and—if you know anything about show business—he was about to go in the other direction.
27. He Couldn't Convince Them
It seemed that TV viewers couldn’t get enough of Lynde, so ABC started thinking about a show for him. Conservative ABC, however, wanted to make one thing clear: Lynde was straight. To prove this, The Paul Lynde Show featured Lynde as a married attorney with two daughters. Somehow, this didn’t sit right with his fans. It wasn’t as though they wanted to accept him as gay, but they also didn’t really feel comfortable seeing him as straight either.
Even his on-screen wife complained they rarely were active in the bedroom. The reception of the show said it all.
28. He Came In Second
Lynde's show only lasted a single season. However, he still received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. TV fans were so in love with Lynde that, on a popularity vote, he came second only to Colombo’s Peter Falk. So, why was The Paul Lynde Show canceled? It could be that viewers just couldn’t buy his role as a married man.
Lynde was in an awkward position. Fans didn’t believe he could play a straight character, but also didn’t want to believe he was gay in real life. He was in a pickle.
29. He Got Away With It
While movie heartthrobs like Rock Hudson had a huge problem with the media always accusing them of being gay, Lynde seemed to have gotten a pass. It wasn’t just Lynde, however, who got special treatment. The Biography Channel stated that in the 1970s, the media didn’t go after TV stars—especially ones that were on game shows. It seems like an odd distinction, but it helped Lynde deal with negative publicity.
Even though, as one critic put it, "there was always some cute guy named Chad standing around holding up a martini glass". Lynde continually wrestled with the prospect of coming out of the closet, but feared the repercussions if he did.
30. He Got His Pride On
In 1976, People magazine did a feature on Paul Lynde. At the time, Lynde had a secret romance with Stan Finesmith, but no one referred to Finesmith as his partner. He was always his "bodyguard," "chauffeur," or his "suite-mate". This must have been beyond humiliating for Finesmith, so when People magazine came to the house to do a photo spread for their feature, Lynde finally took the opportunity to pose with Finesmith.
It was a brief moment where Lynde could be himself and show where his true love really lay.
31. His Cancellation Hurt Him
Even though his life seemed to be going well, the cancellation of The Paul Lynde Show affected Lynne in a dark way. He had trouble dealing with any kind of failure, and because he couldn’t cope, he turned to the bottle. Lynde had already had drinking issues before the cancellation, but they were now much worse. Heavy drinking was one thing, but before long, Lynde’s personality took a sinister turn.
32. He Was Like A Snake
In spite of the magazine photo spread that showed Lynde as a perfect gentleman, there was an underlying problem. Many people commented on Lynde’s cruel behavior when he was drinking. Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski, in their book Center Square, said that, when inebriated, every word out of Lynde’s mouth was pure venom. There's even a story where Lynde used a restaurant manager’s hand as an ashtray. Ouch.
Catty remarks were all part of the game, but then Lynde went too far.
33. He Was Insensitive
In 1977, Lynde received an invite to be the Grand Marshall at his alma mater Northwestern University. The parade went off without a hitch, but Lynde got into trouble afterward. While eating at a Burger King, he spotted a professor from the university who happened to be Black. We don’t know exactly what Lynde said to the professor, but according to rumor, he suggested the professor get a job behind the counter. Needless to say, the joke didn’t land.
When confronted with his statement, Lynde blamed the incident on exhaustion and over-drinking.
34. He Lost A Loved One
You can’t blame everything bad that happened to Lynde on his drinking. In 1977, Lynde lost his closest companion—his dog Harry MacAfee who Lynde had named after his character on Bye Bye Birdie. Harry MacAfee, however, wasn't an ordinary pet. The grieving actor reportedly had trouble simply leaving his home without his canine friend.
When the dog passed, Lynde did something outrageous, expensive, and ultimately very sad.
35. There Were Too Many Memories
Remember, Lynde had bought Errol Flynn’s mansion and he loved it dearly. Well, now it was just full of too many memories of his favorite pooch. This sadness led Lynde to pack up his bags and look for a new place to live—one that didn’t remind him of his beloved pet. Over-drinking and the loss of a loved one? Things were not looking good for our favorite wise-cracking gay uncle.
36. He Lost His Clothes
Allegedly, Lynde took a flight that went horribly wrong. It turned out that he'd been drinking heavily so heavily that by the time the plane landed, he had to have airline staff help him disembark. If this wasn’t bad enough, when he got off the airplane, Lynde had somehow lost all his clothes. He entered the airport wearing nothing but a blanket. But that wasn't all.
Lynde seemed to stir up trouble no matter where he went.
37. He’d Been Drinking
In 1978, while working with the squeaky clean Donny and Marie Osmond in Salt Lake City, Lynde found himself in a mess all over again—this time with the law. Lynde had been drinking in a tavern, but after he left, he made a disturbing discovery. Someone had broken into his car. Miraculously, there was an officer nearby, and Lynde asked for his help.
The problem was that the officer was already working on another car burglary and had no time for Lynde. Completely intoxicated, the actor made a huge mistake.
38. He Messed With An Officer
At this point, Lynde became belligerent with the officer. He had decided that he wouldn’t let the officer go until he received the help he wanted. Lynde got so aggressive that the officer had to do something drastic. He had no choice but to take Lynde down to the station. The officer didn’t go as far as to book Lynde, but he could have. The charge would have been interfering with an officer—which, incidentally, sounds a bit like one of Lynde’s setups on Hollywood Squares.
39. He Didn’t Fit In
As it turned out, Donny and Marie Osmond found out about Lynde’s incident outside the bar in Salt Lake City. They also found out something more surprising: Lynde had been drinking at a well-known gay establishment. The folks running Donny and Marie didn’t take more than a second to realize that Lynde and the ultra-religious Osmonds were not a good match.
Lynde had to say goodbye to his recurring guest appearance—and the money that came with it.
40. He Had A Legendary Fan
Of course, Lynde continued to earn money from Hollywood Squares. He still had a huge fan base and received many letters from admirers. One such letter arrived at the studio and went on and on about how wonderful Lynde was. Lynde must have lost it when he got to the end and saw the signature—the letter writer was none other than film legend Greta Garbo.
Paul Lynde had no shortage of fans, and yet, he still couldn't escape the shadow of his own unhappiness.
41. It Was Quitting Time
In 1979, Lynde decided it was time to end his reign as the king of the center square. It wasn’t that he was through with the job, but it was over a disagreement about his salary. Lynde wanted more money, while the studio wanted to pay him less. The scandal-hungry media, however, couldn’t let the issue be about something as boring as money. They had to get creative.
42. He Called Foul
When members of the press heard that Lynde was finally leaving Hollywood Squares, they turned it into a scandal. They said that the show had fired Lynde for an unsavory reason: They claimed he’d shown up to set inebriated and spent most of the day acting belligerently. This outraged Lynde and he turned around and sued them for $10 million.
The lawsuit went south and, sadly, so did Lynde’s reputation.
43. He Couldn’t Work
After Hollywood Squares, Lynde found it difficult to get roles. One theory is that it was because he was gay. But there were other theories out there. After all, he struggled with substance abuse, and he had a reputation for being difficult to work with. To say Lynde suffered from a complicated character is an understatement. But weren’t these complications part of what made him so endearing?
Lynde was between a rock and a hard place. It was time for an epiphany.
44. He Saw The Light
Lynde never publicly revealed what happened—but there was some event, or tragedy, around the late 1970s that made Lynde change his ways. This mysterious event made Lynde take stock of his life and reevaluate his lifestyle. The actor quickly gave up some of his more harmful activities like drinking. But was it too late? Was his reputation already written in stone?
45. He Couldn’t Refuse
Lynde was clearly on a better path in life, but roles were not coming his way. Hollywood Squares was also not doing so well. The game show, now without Lynde, tanked in a big way. The studio was desperate to get Lynde back into the center square, but Lynde was tired of living in a box. The station had to think of a way to get Lynde back where they wanted him.
Well—studios being studios—the best they could come up with was more money. Surprisingly, their unoriginal plan worked. In 1980, Lynde accepted their offer and climbed up to the center square once more.
46. He Didn’t Show Up
Hollywood Squares had a short resurgence in popularity and then the station canceled it for good. But tragedy quickly followed. Only a year later, Lynde scared his friends by not showing up to a birthday party. When his friend Paul Barresi went to his home to investigate, he had to break down the door to see if Lynde was okay. Lynde was far from okay.
His lifeless body lay on his bed. It was January 11, 1982, and Lynde was just 55 years old.
47. There Was Something In His System
Paul Lynde’s passing was certainly newsworthy, and soon, the speculative whispers began. Newspapers quickly reported that authorities found traces of a heart drug, called butyl nitrate, in Lynde’s system. The use of this drug seemed totally consistent with Lynde’s health problems. But that wasn't the end of it. The media also included a sordid tidbit of information.
48. His Passing Was Mysterious
The drug found in Lynde's system had a more nefarious use. It was a stimulant for people who wanted to heighten their bedroom activities. A more common name for it is "poppers," and it’s an inhalant often associated with the gay community. Since Lynde had a heart condition from his extreme lifestyle, it would not be a surprise that using poppers could have a very negative effect on his heart.
This begged the question: Was Lynde using the inhalant alone or with someone else?
49. Was He Alone?
A scandalous rumor circulated after Paul Lynde’s passing. Some said he had a visitor to his home who could have caused his demise. The man who found Lynde’s body, friend Paul Barresi, said that when he broke into Lynde’s house, the alarm went off. He said that Lynde only set the alarm when he was home alone and ready for bed. That’s it. Case closed.
But wait a minute, who is this Paul Barresi anyway? Doesn’t that name sound familiar?
50. He’s A Fixer
If the name Paul Barresi sounds familiar it's because he is now known as a Hollywood fixer. This former adult movie star had a recent gig when actor Amber Heard hired him to dig up some dirt on Johnny Depp. I’m not saying he lied about Lynde’s final night, but let’s get real: The guy is now paid to make celebrity problems disappear into thin air.
Incidentally, Barresi is also linked to John Travolta—another star the press has been pestering to come out of the closet.
51. They Changed It
In 1996, celebrity writer Boze Hadleigh wrote a book called Hollywood Gays. In it, he finally put to rest any speculation about Lynde’s orientation: Lynde was finally out. It’s not clear if it’s related, but a few years later, Lynde’s birth town of Mount Vernon, Ohio made a change to their welcome sign. The old sign proudly stated their one claim to fame: Paul Lynde. The new sign now recognizes itself as the home of the writer of the song Dixie.
Maybe Mount Vernon no longer wanted to have an association with Paul Lynde, but no matter, he’d already gotten his validation elsewhere.