Today is the birthday of the irreplaceable Paul Lynde (1926-1982).
Technically Lynde was a comic actor — one of our very best, although it seems to me he had too few opportunities to achieve what he really might have. Yes, he was ubiquitous, especially in the 1970s, but almost always in guest shots, most regularly as the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares from 1968 to 1981, but also on countless other game shows, variety shows and situation comedies (most consistently as a semi-regular on Bewitched, 1964-1972). It must be pointed out that he was never less than stellar in any appearance he ever made; this is why he continues to stand out in people’s minds despite this piecemeal exposure to his talents.
He had at least three different modes.
When his character was trying to be funny (e.g. as practical joker Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, or when delivering one liners on Hollywood Squares) he had an infectious way not only of laughing at his own joke, but of laughing even as he said it.
There was a laugh in his voice. Lynde was very toothy. His whole face and body cued us when to laugh.
Mode #2 was more of a bitchy, arch way of delivering a line, of being really snide. This was really great for stage acting (which he occasionally did) or for acting in sketches and sit-coms. This too was hilarious. He had a way of including the audience in his nastiness, and of sort of bobbing his head side-to-side in finicky disapproval.
Mode #3 is uptightness. He especially did this mode in his early years in roles in the 50s and 60s, such as his part as the father in Bye Bye Birdie: “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?”
He was frequently cast as a businessman in a hat in early sit com appearances, and indeed, that was his character in his only real starring sit com The Paul Lynde Show in 1972, a sort of white collar version of All in the Family:
The show was actually very well received but network executives pulled him off it in order to put him on another flagging sit-com The New Temperatures Rising, which then failed anyway.
That was his best, most promising shot, and a great loss it was for such a capable comedian. Thereafter, it was year after year of Hollywood Squares and guest shots on shows like Donny and Marie. He died of a heart attack (about which there was much gossip) in 1982.
To find out about the history of show business including television variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my newer book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc