Paul Lynde began his career on Broadway, scoring a breakout role as Mr. MacAfee in the original production of Bye Bye Birdie. Lynde won rave reviews for his portrait of a neurotic father, and moved on to a career in television thereafter. He had another hit with a recurring role as the flamboyant Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, and later, became a TV icon playing as the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares.
As a popular actor in the 1960s and 1970s, Lynde found himself in an odd position, never able to openly live as a gay man, but often playing “coded” gay characters or using wink-at-the-camera entendre to signal his homosexuality to viewers. Off-screen, he had a reputation for heavy drinking and drug use, as well as cruel behavior. He died in 1982.
Now Eichner–another comic with a reputation for acid wit–says he has found his dream role. “There’s some overlap,” Eichner tells Deadline, “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.”
Eichner also sees Man in the Box as an opportunity to expand images of queer people on screen. “He’s a complicated guy, he’s not a martyr or an angel,” Eichner says of Lynde. “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.”
As a personal career move–and as an opportunity for a queer actor–Eichner feels protective over the role. “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 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.”