Not so very long ago, a lifetime ago, those words took Americans somewhere wicked. In the ’70s, if that sentence was uttered by a contestant on Hollywood Squares, lights would flash around the center cube in a grid of celebrities — those of the stripe who wind up on game shows — and settle on a genuine star. He was tanned, with shining teeth, if no leading man. He was in his 40s but looked older, and he had a whinnying snigger. But when it came to providing risqué answers to questions posed by the NBC show’s host, Peter Marshall, he could not be matched.
Is the electrical current in your house AC or DC?
“In my house, it’s both!”
Does Mark Spitz believe it’s easier to swim nude?“
Well, it’s easier to steer...”
You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?
The audience would roar approval at his bawdy jokes, and Lynde would flash his Cheshire-cat grin. He delivered that performance thousands of times in the 14 years after the show’s 1966 premiere. Between Lynde’s center-square residency and his guest spots on sitcoms and variety shows, the actor was booking up to 200 televised hours each season by the mid ’70s. It made him rich enough to buy Errol Flynn’s L.A. mansion, where he lived with his dog, a terrier named Harry. “There was no one funnier than Paul Lynde,” says Whoopi Goldberg, who took over the center square in the Hollywood Squares revival that premiered in 1998. “I don’t know if the public thought about his sexuality.”
Being gay was the secret of Lynde’s success, even though it was a (half-hearted) secret. He hid his truth in plain sight, reveling in a camp persona. All these years later, people still don’t know what to make of him. Lynde’s brilliance was rooted in gayness, but he was deeply conflicted about it. “Paul’s following was mostly straight,” says Cathy Rudolph, author of Paul Lynde: A Biography. “He was afraid if his following was mostly gay, it would open the eyes of his fans that he was also gay and that would end his career.” Lynde was both a role model and a walking stereotype. There was no one else quite like him on any screen. “He was probably the first gay person — whether he was using the word or not — in a lot of people’s homes across America,” actor-comedian Billy Eichner says. “He was ahead of his time in terms of being as overtly gay as one could be, unlike so many stars of that time.”
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