Are You a Square?

by Susie Hodgson

Remember when there were only three television stations? NBC, founded in 1926, was the oldest. Although headquartered in New York, there has always been a strong presence in the west. In 1952, NBC moved to Burbank where it enjoyed many successful years. Except in the 1970s.

Overall, the ‘70s were not good years for the peacock network. Nonetheless, there was one thing that was successful in the 70s and that was game shows. From 1966 to 1981, a certain NBC Tic-Tac-Toe game reigned and it was called The Hollywood Squares. Most people remember two people from that show – the host Peter Marshall and the cut-up, Paul Lynde.

Peter Marshall was a song ‘n dance man who moved to L.A. in 1966 to emcee The Hollywood Squares. He figured it’d be a 13-week gig at best. He never expected it to last 15 years! He said it was the most fun job a guy could have. It only took four-and-a-half hours a week to film a week’s worth of shows, and it was all laughs! At least, most of the time.

Try to keep track of this. Peter Marshall was born Ralph Pierre LaCock in West Virginia. You can probably guess why he changed his name. He got Peter from Pierre and pulled Marshall from a local college. His family was in “show biz” and his sister Joan went on to become actress Joanne Dru. Joanne’s first marriage was to singer/actor Dick Haymes, who was very popular in the 1940s (State Fair) but ended up a wreck. Dru’s second marriage was to actor John Ireland, with whom she co-starred in 1949’s Best Picture All the King’s Men. Ireland also just happened to be half-brothers with funny man Tommy Noonan. Tommy Noonan was Peter Marshall’s comedy partner in the 1940s and ‘50s. Peter Marshall later married (three times) and had many children, one of whom is Major League baseball player Pete LaCock. Peter Marshall won four daytime Emmys for his hosting work.

Now let’s look at the man everyone thinks carried the show: Paul Lynde. He was a very funny man. And just like The Tears of a Clown, he led a tragic private life. Lynde was born and raised in Ohio, one of six children. His favorite brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge and his parents each dropped dead soon after the government confirmed that death. But as a kid, Paul lived in a family that cherished food. Paul became the stereotypical “fat kid” through all his schooling, including college. He learned young that by being funny, he made friends and wasn’t bullied. Upon college graduation, he set out for Broadway. He was determined to become “rich and famous.”

In 1952, he got his first break co-starring in a show called New Faces of 1952. He lost weight. That led to his really big break – starring as the father in Broadway’s 1960 hit show Bye Bye Birdie, a take-off on Elvis. Lynde’s number, “Kids!” was a very popular scene. The show was made into a movie in 1963 and, again, was a tremendous success. But Paul was displeased that he wasn’t as “big” in the movie version – and that was because of a certain lithe little newbie by the name of Ann-Margret. Paul and his pal, also from Bye Bye Birdie, Dick Van Dyke, began drinking… more and more.

And then Lynde migrated to television. A director named Bill Asher and his wife Elizabeth Montgomery had a popular little show called Bewitched and they brought their friend Paul on as Uncle Arthur. It was a match made in heaven. Except Lynde’s behavior was anything but heavenly. Paul Lynde always wanted to be a serious actor. And yet he always played the same comedic role – himself. Over the years, he tried making pilots and even had his own television show or two, but they bombed. The network found Lynde difficult to work with – no thanks to his ever-increasing drinking. He also continued to struggle with his weight. And then there was his sexual orientation... It was widely known in Hollywood that Lynde was gay. His acting didn’t exactly hide it and even played up his eccentricity and flamboyance. But still, it hurt. It was never discussed. It takes a lot of energy to pretend.

Lynde was a mess. He was arrested for DUI several times, plus a couple of public intoxication-related charges. Then there was the boy he was with in a hotel who “fell” out of the window in Lynde’s 8th floor room, which the studio swept under the rug. Later, there was an incident involving a cop in Utah, and then there was the time he publicly made racist remarks. They say Lynde was a “mean drunk.”

In 1966, The Hollywood Squares came calling. In the first two years, Lynde sat in whatever square he was assigned. But it became clear very soon that he was the funniest and most popular “star” in the game and Paul was made the permanent center square – the most coveted spot on the game board – where he remained for the rest of the show’s tenure. The Hollywood Squares show had the host (Marshall) asking the “stars” trivia questions. The star would often make a joke or invent an answer, to bluff. The country was mesmerized. Those stars were so funny! Smart too! Who knew?!

The writers at The Hollywood Squares knew. All those funny answers were scripted. Sorry, people, they were. Of course, there were some ad-libs. Lynde did have a quick wit, but generally, his wit was writ. The zingers he and others delivered were often risqué, piquing the nation’s interest even more, such as:

Question: It is considered in bad taste to discuss two subjects at nudist camps. One is politics. What is the other?
Paul Lynde: Tape measures.

Q: How many men are on a hockey team?
Lynde: About half.

Q: Does Raquel Welch like milkshakes?
Lynde: She doesn’t have much choice, does she?

But inside, Lynde was full of rage. He felt that middle square was like a prison. During the commercials, he’d frequently verbally attack a contestant or even audience members. He was miserable, but he was finally rich and famous! Meanwhile, the show’s plug was pulled in 1981.

In early 1982, Paul was invited to a friend’s birthday party. Uncharacteristically, he never showed up. Some friends were worried and went to his house. They found Paul in bed. Dead.

Hollywood was a-buzz with rumors of young boys and pills. But the coroner ruled that Lynde suffered a major heart attack, brought on by years of heavy drinking and smoking. Friends swore he’d quit drinking. He was only 55. Bet you’re glad to be a square now, aren’t you?

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