Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski

“According to the famous quote by Alexander Pope, a little what is a dangerous thing?” A little pervert. “The great writer George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “It’s such a wonderful thing, what a crime to waste it on children.” What is it?” A whipping. “According to Ben Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, he that falls in love with himself will have no what?” Children. According to the great poem by Edgar Allan Poe, we loved with a love that was more than love, I and my… what?” Gym Teacher.
— Paul Lynde’s replies to questions on Hollywood Squares (from Joe’s Florenski’s tribute site)

Game shows are like soup kitchens for certain types of actors. Whether on the way up or down, between films, or however you put it, no one ever became famous for being a panelist on a game show since What’s My Line? in the 1950s — with one exception: Paul Lynde.

Paul Lynde hated being the center square on Hollywood Squares. He thought he deserved better, and he did. A slowly fading memory now, Lynde is not even a standard subject for comic impressionists. What he needed, and perhaps what he deserved, were a few great roles, either in television or films, something more than playing Uncle Arthur in Bewitched. Center Square, a new biography outlining Lynde’s rise and fall, names many tantalizing, could-have-been projects, including a film never made with Richard Pryor.

According to Center Square, two things stood in Lynde’s way: alcoholism and homosexuality. Of course, neither of those are necessarily a barrier to success in Hollywood. But Lynde was a vicious drunk, using his sharp tongue to lash out with his boundless anger that was released by alcohol. The comic even admitted to an uncanny ability to zero in on a person’s greatest weakness. When he was in his cups, it was a talent he used without regard to his target’s standing in Hollywood. This gave him a reputation around town and took him off most high profile party guest lists.

One of book’s many examples of this lashing out occurs at a meeting between Lynde and Lana Turner:

Before the screen legend could speak a word, Paul’s drunken brain recalled the brouhaha over the murder of her mobster boyfriend, and he snarled, “You killed him, didn’t you?”

Lynde’s homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood. “Paul Lynde” became a character that he could not escape from, with his snide remarks, smirks, and disdain for the rest of the world. His persona was gay to those in the know, but not to everyone. As an example, my wife, who was open to a range of cultures and ideals growing up, knew of Lynde’s homosexuality. I, however, was raised in ’50s suburban America, and had no clue. The rest of Middle America either didn’t know or didn’t care, as Lynde was a sellout favorite in summer stock for decades. During the perhaps more tolerant 1960s and ’70s, Lynde became more open with his sexuality. When a fan asked him in the late ’70s why he never married, Lynde replied, “Do you live in a cave?”

Privately, Lynde took up with hustlers and hangers-on to avoid emotional attachment, at times narrowly escaping career-breaking scandals. Alcohol turned out to be a greater publicity problem than being gay. There were reports of being thrown out of bars, and at least one incident when Lynde made racist remarks in public.

It’s concentration on Lynde’s scandalous behavior reveals Center Stage as a far from scholarly work. Its purpose seems to be more about gossip and celebrity intrigue than providing insight into Lynde’s life and career, or an analysis of his comedic style. The book’s index, for instance, only lists names of other celebrities. Here, his story seems like little more than a long, downhill slide from bad films to Summer Stock to drunken cruising. Although reading more about Lynde’s work with Donny and Marie Osmond or on The Mac Davis Show might be just as depressing, a few pages of one of Lynde’s better monologues or sketches would have been welcome.

The book does include some of his famous quiz answers from Hollywood Squares. As with quotes attributed to Groucho Marx, the replies to host Peter Marshall’s questions are much funnier when you picture them delivered by Lynde’s character.

The book only hints at possible sources of Lynde’s apparently endless rage. There is a quote from the comic that his father was always angry, but this is not expanded upon. Another factor might have been the childhood taunts Lynde suffered for being overweight. Growing up gay in the Midwest in the 1920s did not help, but millions survived the experience without developing Lynde’s self-destructive behavior. Center Square serves well as a short, comprehensive documentation of Lynde’s public life. Though the authors have clearly explored many sources and talked to variety of Lynde’s associates, the fact that the man was extremely private may mean that anecdotes the book offers are, in fact, the only available insights into his character.