EXCLUSIVE: Actor-comedian Billy Eichner and producer Tom McNulty are developing Man in the Box, a biopic based on the life of groundbreaking TV icon Paul Lynde. Eichner plans to star. They’ve optioned a script by Edwin Cannistraci, and Eichner and McNulty are currently meeting with creatives to round out the rest of the production team.
After his breakout turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Lynde became a big TV star with his guest turns as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, and in his role on the long-running game show Hollywood Squares. While Lynde was never publicly “out,” he never lied about his sexuality either, as most famous gay actors of that era did. His unique comic persona often and overtly nodded to his “barely-closeted” lifestyle in a way that still feels groundbreaking for his time. But he was not on the same lists for roles as straight actors. One of the reasons Eichner wants to see the film made is because of the chance to illustrate how little things have changed.
Eichner’s versatility can be seen in everything from hosting Billy on the Street to voicing Timon in The Lion King to playing Matt Drudge in the upcoming American Crime Story, and he has written with Judd Apatow a star vehicle for himself with Nick Stoller directing at Universal. He had so many powerful thoughts on why the story of Lynde and his frustrations reflect what gay actors still feel in Hollywood that I thought it best to just run the whole interview.
DEADLINE: Paul Lynde was a very funny actor, but what about him made this worth movie treatment for you?
EICHNER: There’s some overlap, between Paul and I, in that we both had our breakthrough in the industry, as performers, presenting a rather larger-than-life, flamboyant, gay persona on screen. Even though I was always very out, Paul was never technically out. But he was as out as you could be, at that time, in that he was clearly leaning into a flamboyant persona. Unlike Rock Hudson, and Tab Hunter, and Cary Grant, and all these other actors, he wasn’t pretending to be straight. You didn’t see him getting set up on dates with women, or having phony relationships with women, to try to present to the world as a straight man. I think that was very admirable, for the time, and also, if you look at those jokes on Hollywood Squares, he comes as close to admitting he’s gay as you possibly can. He’s making thinly veiled, at best, references to gay sex, to finding men attractive, to swinging both ways. It’s not even subtle, and rather bold for the time. That wasn’t some underground, indie film being shot in New York; it was as mainstream as you can get. Hollywood Squares was a huge hit, always in the top 10 or 20 shows, for over a decade. It made him a very famous, wealthy person.
DEADLINE: Were there roles he coveted but had no chance getting, and what toll did it take on him?
EICHNER: Well, here’s the thing. Before Hollywood Squares, coming off of Bewitched, where he played Uncle Arthur, which was kind of another wink wink gay character, he was beloved. He got his own sitcom, The Paul Lynde Show, and they made him this straight, suburban dad. I think it lasted one season, premiered to decent numbers, and then fell off pretty quickly, and wasn’t picked up. After that came Hollywood Squares. I just think it was a general sense of, you don’t have access to those types of roles. Now, look. He’s a complicated guy, he’s not a martyr or an angel. He had terrible substance abuse problems. He could be a real asshole, and again, one of the reasons I think it’s a compelling story is because when we are presented with these biopics about gay people, we’re often seen as martyrs, victims. We’re not seen as fully complex people, emotionally complicated, and as messy as anyone else. So, he was hypocritical, himself, in certain ways. He was offered, apparently, some gay roles, coming off of Hollywood Squares, that he didn’t want to take. He was scared to take those roles. It was more the general sense that, how could he be the star of this show, this real mainstream hit, in Hollywood Squares, where everyone’s saying he’s hilarious, waiting on the edge of their seats to see what he has to say, but that could be the extent of his opportunity? It’s hard to imagine that, had he been straight, and not as flamboyant, that he wouldn’t have had such limited options. Now he’s a complicated guy, so some of it was his own doing. After The Paul Lynde Show failed, he was always waiting around, wanting someone to write him a great vehicle.
He wasn’t a Mel Brooks, or Woody Allen, or one of these guys who were also very unconventional comedy stars, who may not have had the career that they had if they didn’t sit down and write it for themselves. You can’t pin it all on the gay issue. It’s more complicated than that, and I like that it’s more complicated than that, because again, he’s not just a symbol. He’s not just some gay victim.
He’s a complicated person, who didn’t always believe in himself, as much as he should have. But one has to ask, why? Why didn’t the culture, society, the industry, bolster him the way that it bolstered Woody Allen, or Mel Brooks? He did have demons, and the final thing I’ll say is that when people look back at Paul Lynde, and friends of his like Bruce Vilanch have told me this, if Paul Lynde was around to hear that people were still talking about him, he would be floored, shocked. Because he thought of himself as an afterthought, even though he had Hollywood Squares, he was funny, made money and was famous. He thought the world would view him as a punch line.
DEADLINE: How relevant is his story to the way things are now for openly gay actors? Still marginalized?
EICHNER: Perhaps we’re not as marginalized, politically, or in the world at large and obviously things have gotten better. But within our industry, although you’re seeing more gay people on TV, and more gay characters, we’re often used in such limited ways. I think that dovetails with how Paul felt limited. He came from a very prestigious dynamic acting program at Northwestern, went to New York, did stand-up, and he did Broadway, and I think he absolutely felt that his choices were limited. The same persona that allowed him to become rich and famous, which was they would never say gay in those days. They would say flamboyant. That same flamboyance also limited his options. I’ve always been fascinated in Hollywood with the limited options presented to actors, who present themselves as something other than masculine. We might applaud them, and we might say, oh, they’re so funny, you know, but they have tended, in the past, not to be allowed to have the types of dynamic, chameleon-like careers that straight actors, who get the same level of admiration, the same level of respect, the same number of laughs, have been able to get.
There is no gay Tom Hanks in this country. There is no gay Will Ferrell. There’s no gay Steve Carell. There’s no gay Paul Rudd. There’s no gay Kevin Hart. There’s no gay Will Smith. The list goes on and on, and that’s not a coincidence. After a hundred years of making films, it’s not a coincidence. It’s not that they just haven’t been able to find the right gay man, who has enough talent to have a career like that.
EICHNER: What’s happened is that, when someone comes out of the closet, we celebrate them. We applaud them. We put them on the cover of magazines. We say, thank you for living your truth, and thank you for being brave, and you’re such a role model for our gay kids. And then instantly, that actor gets taken off so many casting lists in the business. This is exactly what happened to Paul, and if it’s still happening today, which I can tell you from my own career, having lived it on the day to day, for almost 20 years now, it happened to Paul in even more extreme ways, and he felt very limited by that.
DEADLINE: I recall when Rupert Everett turned in that great performance opposite Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and people thought there’s the next Cary Grant. He was open about his sexuality in interviews, and was limited by that and those opportunities never materialized.
EICHNER: Yeah. Absolutely. The fact that we can put any gay man, on that list of actors I had just mentioned, even in 2020…look, it’s gotten better. There are so many channels, and so much more content being made, that the door was opened particularly on television, for more stories about LGBT people. Ryan Murphy, who I’ve worked with, and Greg Berlanti, these are openly gay men who took the power, and leverage, and money they had, and used it to pry open the door for the rest of us, on TV. But even so, I think when you do shows that are exclusively LGBTQ+, even when they’re critically acclaimed, they’re put in this niche box. Oh, that’s a lovely show, for gay people. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it great that Pose exists? But you have to beg straight people to watch it.
And so it’s like we’re getting thrown a bone here and there. It’s progress, but it has taken such a long time, considering how gay-friendly, on the surface, Hollywood loves to claim it is. They’ll give money, fight for marriage equality, fight for AIDS research and trans rights. Those are all very important things, arguably more important than seeing gay actors become movie stars. But it does speak to a lingering fear, about what the audience will accept, who the audience wants to see. Is it economically viable to put gay actors, and gay characters, at the center of a story, and not merely on the fringes?
DEADLINE: Are there examples in particular where this happens?
EICHNER: One of the main reasons I want to do this is…because gay actors are never, hardly ever, I should say, allowed to play our own gay icons. Harvey Milk, Freddie Mercury, Elton John. Where are the gay actors? And it’s not to take anything away from those performances, which were all excellent. But why don’t we get to tell our own stories? I have a lot of friends who are openly gay actors in Hollywood. Many of us are successful, and have carved out lovely careers, to varying degrees. But when it really comes to some big project about a gay icon, the one everyone’s throwing awards at…we love the spectacle of rewarding a straight actor, for quote unquote, transforming himself into a gay person.
I don’t think there needs to be a rule, like straight actors can never play gay, but it is so lopsided. It never works in the other direction. And we’re not even allowed to play our own heroes. I can tell you right now, that a gay actor, a gay person in general, understands the nuances, the idiosyncrasies, and the emotional complexity of playing another gay person, especially a famous gay person, playing another famous gay person, than a straight person does. And we are never granted the opportunity to bring all of our life experience, as gay people, to the screen, and it has become a little bit frustrating to watch that happen over and over and over again.
DEADLINE: How might this movie help? It does seem a moment when inclusion is more important and Hollywood appears to be listening.
EICHNER: I think you have to shine a light on the issue, in order for people to even understand that it’s there. But I think it’s deeper. Here’s another reason why I want to do the movie. It goes deeper than just the problem of gay actors not getting enough roles. That’s a problem that affects 0.00001% of the population. It affects gay actors, you know, which is obviously a very, very niche problem, but here’s what goes deeper and here’s what’s universal about it. The reason that [Lynde] was limited in his options, professionally and creatively, was because he did not present as masculine. And the minute someone does that, they are limited in their options. That is the story of gay characters throughout Hollywood history. The fact that we’re still not there is fascinating to me. What studio executives and the audience at large decided they will believe a gay actor doing on screen, or not doing, is really fascinating to me. It comes down to masculinity. We accept a masculine actor, playing effeminate, and in fact we’ll reward him for it greatly. And when the opposite happens, when someone’s presented themselves as flamboyant, or more effeminate, as an actor, or as a person, tries to do the opposite, it’s almost thought of as a joke.
“Oh, look at him, trying to butch up. That’s hilarious.” Now, I’m not saying we should put value on someone butching up, because f*ck that. There should be no special value on that, but that is the way the world has behaved. And in particular, it’s the way that Hollywood has behaved, and Hollywood has been…now, I’m getting worked up, but Hollywood has been so hypocritical, when it comes to gay men, and gay actors, openly gay actors, and all openly LGBT actors. Because on the one hand, they’re the first to attend a fundraiser. It’s like, we’re so liberal, and we’re so tolerant, and we’re so accepting. OK, then, where are your movies that center gay characters with gay actors? They don’t exist. I’ve heard stories. I mean, they’re rumors, but I know they’re true, about actors who were considered [for a major movie franchise], who weren’t ‘out’ actors. Even though they were closeted, they couldn’t even be considered because someone was worried that they might come out at some point. That’s not 40 years ago. This is within the past 10, 15, 20 years. So that fear is still very much lingering. What I’m trying to do in my career, in general, is…look, like I said, I’ve always been out. I respect everyone’s journey. It’s a complicated thing to come to Hollywood as a gay man, and an actor, and decide whether to be out or not. For me, it was never that complicated.
I made a decision early on, right after I graduated college, that I was going to be out. I didn’t want to live any other way. It just sounded miserable to me, but there is a sacrifice that comes with that, and what I am trying to do is show that that sacrifice, it’s bullsh*t. That shouldn’t exist. It shouldn’t be considered a sacrifice. We should all be on the same lists, together.
You know, a straight actor who is on a list…whenever there’s a gay character…I’m doing this rom com, about a gay male couple that I wrote and I’m starring in for Universal, that Judd Apatow is producing. Nick Stoller and I co-wrote it. We were just about to shoot it when COVID hit. Hopefully, we’ll shoot it next year, but I’m an EP on that and heavily involved in all ways. So, I was privy to casting discussions, and I would see when the casting lists were circulating, about which actors to call in for which role. There were so many straight actors on every list to play gay characters. And then, at the beginning before I raised my voice, for the straight characters in the movie, there were never gay actors on the lists for those roles. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s not a two-way street.
I’m trying to change that, and I also think it’s so important for us to be able to tell our own stories, because we have the lived-in experience, to bring the intellectual nuance of it to the screen. I don’t have to go sit with 30 gay people and try to find out what it’s like to be gay. I know, and no one knows better than me and my friends. I think we need to stop undervaluing that, the feeling that if a gay person plays a gay person it’s not acting but if a straight person plays a gay person, we give them an Oscar.