As the 1970s recede into history, it’s hard to recall that back then, stars like Freddy Mercury, Rock Hudson and Liberace worked hard to keep their sexual identities hidden. But one of the biggest stars of the era was an entertainer whose orientation was an open secret: everybody’s favorite gay uncle, Paul Lynde. Today, he’s back onstage, appearing before adoring houses at Bally’s Hotel Casino in Vegas — despite the fact that he died in 1982.
For this, thank Michael Airington, star of The Paul Lynde Show. Airington has spent years conjuring Lynde’s persona from the Great Beyond — to such acclaim that Lynde’s actual lifelong friends drop by to say hello and the late actor’s estate has granted Airington rights to perform as Lynde “in perpetuity.” Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall even recorded voice-overs for the show to allow Airington to recreate Lynde’s snarky answers to questions from his onstage perch in “the center square.” Like most great impressions, Airington’s caricature of Lynde is equal parts reverence and exaggeration — a recreation (warts and all) of one of the funniest and most fascinating gay personalities of all time. Airington stepped out of character to talk about how he brings Lynde to back to life night after night.
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What impact did seeing Paul Lynde first have on you, particularly as a young gay person?
Like so many of us, I started out as a kid not knowing I was gay, but being in that “guys-are-cuter-than-girls” period of life. I think a lot of us related to Paul right away, because he was so out there. At the same time, he was one of the biggest stars on TV, and one of the first celebrities on the cover of People magazine in 1976. True, he never actually ‘came out,’ but that was part of the fun and brilliance of it: all of these double-entendres and sassy asides — many of which I use in the show.
You’ve done impressions of many celebrities, but you’ve spent most of your career refining The Paul Lynde Show. What about him keeps you engaged?
There was something unique about Paul. He didn’t care; he didn’t deny who he was. People loved seeing his bitchy side, whether it was in Bye Bye, Birdie or Bewitched. There was something about him that transcended time — and yet there he was in that People profile in a caftan, with his hairdresser, who is also referred to as his “suite mate.” So he was very much of his time, and yet pushed boundaries, too.
Do you recall the “A-ha!” moment when you realized Lynde might work as a full show?
As many impressions as I did, it just seemed like Paul was one that everybody loved most. When I was living in DC, I saw that Frank Gorshin [who played The Riddler on TV’s Batman in the ‘60s] was doing a his George Burns show, Say Good Night, Gracie in New York; so I took the Amtrak up to see a matinee. When he came out, I was sitting in the back row of the Helen Hayes Theatre in August of 2003, and I thought: “I could do this with Paul Lynde.”
You’ve agreed with Lynde’s estate to present him in a positive way, but he could rip a person to shreds with some of the things he’d say, and his drinking problem exacerbated that over the years. He made a lot of us who were in the closet back then wonder if we would end up bitter old queens.
Oddly enough, that’s how Neil Simon got involved. There I am, onstage in the middle of the show, and at one point, I ask, ‘Have any of you ever written a Broadway show? Have any of you ever been on Broadway?’ You know, the way Paul would, with a bit of a cackle. And everybody around me is laughing, and I later find out it’s because Neil Simon was with his wife in the audience. After the show, Neil sent notes, saying to just get rid of all the sad stuff. So now we do the show as if he never died — it’s just that he’s been away for 35 years. I simply come out and say, “Hello, Las Vegas, did you miss me?”
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If he never dies, how do you wrap things up?
Well, he never got the big movie break he’d been hoping for. So we do the movies he didn’t get, and we re-enact the screen tests. We end the show with him playing Leonardo DeCaprio’s part in Titanic, and we always bring a girl up from the audience to play Kate Winslet. The show ends with me up in the Hollywood Squares set, singing “I Am What I Am,” with that line that describes Paul perfectly: “I am my own special creation.” Then I say, “It was nice seeing you, Peter.”
I have gay men coming up to me crying tears that are both happy and sad, because I’ve put them in touch with a piece of their own past. And that lets me know I’ve done my job.
As our conversation continues, Michael Airington has a stroke of good luck while developing “The Paul Lynde Show,” and we share some classic zingers from Lynde’s reign on Hollywood Squares.
You weren’t happy with the initial attempts to script what would eventually become The Paul Lynde Show. Why?
I decided to move back to LA in December of 2003, and I had a group of writers on the first draft, and I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Paul dies in the first five minutes of a heart attack and the rest of the show is angels taking you back and showing you your life? That’s what you came up with?” So I rewrote what they wrote, and they didn’t like what I’d done either. My savings were slipping away, and this is about April and my friend Jim at the Historic Trust in D.C. calls me up to say, ‘Oh my God, there’s a box of Paul’s personal belongings from a one-man show he did in the mid-’70s, complete with his notes and arrangements for a 16-piece orchestra.’ I bought it for $120 dollars.
Who has that kind of luck? That’s almost a kiss from Paul Lynde himself.
You’re telling me. Then I got Peter Marshall to come on board — and he brought their mutual friends to see the show. I’m talking about people like Karen Valentine, Cloris Leachman, Jaye P. Morgan and Kaye Ballard — and the woman who was his beard for years and years, Jann Forbes. I also negotiated with the estate to grant me the rights to do Paul exclusively, so I’m the only person allowed to do a complete Paul Lynde show, and part of that is because we agreed to present him in a positive way.
In the finished product, what’s the balance between biography and pop culture?
It’s “Paul the Entertainer” front-and-center most of the time, but he does talk about alcohol and his first big break in The New Faces of ‘52 and hating Ann-Margaret. You get to know Paul the person: Paul the fat little boy and when he was roommates with Marlon Brando, Imogene Coca and Wally Cox — and that his drama class included Charlotte Rae and Charlton Heston.
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Do you address the darker side of Paul at all?
You get some glimmers of darkness, because Paul does know how to tip a cocktail. About seven minutes into the monologue, I say, ‘I need a drink,’ and as the show goes on he gets drunker and nastier until we get to the story arc of the show where alcohol fuels one of the meanest and nastiest moments of the night. And as I’m trying to create this story arc, Peter keeps interrupting with Hollywood Squares questions — and they’re all actually from the show.
They got away with some pretty daring stuff for the day.
Oh my God, yes.
ACTUAL QUESTIONS AND PAUL LYNDE ANSWERS FROM HOLLYWOOD SQUARES
You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?
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?
Any good boat enthusiast knows that when a man falls out of your boat and into the water, you should yell, “Man overboard!” Now what should you yell if a woman falls overboard?”
Full speed ahead!
Why do butchers beat their meat, Paul?
Paul, why do Hell’s Angels wear leather?
Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.
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It is considered in bad taste to discuss two subjects at nudist camps. One is politics, what is the other?
It is the most abused and neglected part of your body, what is it?
Mine may be abused, but it certainly isn’t neglected.
According to Ann Landers, what are two things you should never do in bed?
Point and laugh
Does Ann Landers think there’s anything wrong with you if you do your housework in the nude?
No, but I have to be terribly careful when I do my ironing.
True or false: there is now a travel agency that specializes in nude cruises to Europe.
I bet I know how they pick the captain.
Can anything bring tears to a monkey’s eyes?
Learning that Tarzan swings both ways.
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Last modified: July 26, 2019