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By James Hibberd
July 21, 2020 at 04:30 PM EDT
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Billy Eichner and Paul Lynde
Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Everett Collection

Billy Eichner is looking to portray trailblazing TV celebrity Paul Lynde in a feature film.

Eichner is developing Man in the Box, a movie about the former Hollywood Squares star, who rose to fame in the 1960s and '70s while having to conceal his sexuality.

The news was first reported by Deadline, and comes on the heels of EW's viral story, "The Mad, Sad, Totally Fab Life of Paul Lynde," which examined Lynde's life and career for our May LGBTQ issue. In that story, we spoke to the Billy on the Street host about his feelings about the complicated Lynde, whose undeniable talent and comic timing were offset by self-destructive and abusive behavior, as well as conflicted attitudes about being a gay man in Hollywood.

"He was way ahead of his time in terms of his willingness to be as overtly gay as one could be in that era on television," Eichner said. "Which is not to say he was out — because he wasn't — but I don't think that would have been a real possibility at that point. Considering that it's still challenging for actors and comedians even 40 years later, and he was on television all the time and he was beloved, he probably was the first gay person — whether he was using that word or not — to show up regularly in a lot of people's homes across America."

Despite considerable television fame on Squares, guest appearances on other shows (like playing Uncle Arthur on the original Bewitched), and occasional movie roles (such as playing the big-screen version of Harry MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, a role he founded on Broadway), Lynde never did reach the level of dramatic success he strove for, and he died in 1982.

"He didn't ever pretend to be straight," Eichner noted. "He wouldn't let publicists and studio execs set him up in some fake relationship with a woman that the tabloids get photos of so that America would be more comfortable with him. So even though he didn't come out and say, 'I'm gay,' he really wasn't faking it either — which is what the majority of gay actors at that time felt that they had to do."

In addition to his reality show work, Eichner voiced Timon in The Lion King and is playing news aggregation master Matt Drudge in FX's upcoming edition of American Crime Story. While Eichner doesn't much physically resemble Lynde, there's little doubt the actor could convincingly bring out Lynde's notoriously snarky spirit. While the 41-year-old Eichner didn't grow up watching Lynde, he familiarized himself with his work on YouTube later and felt he could personally relate to Lynde in some respects — particularly as an actor who created a reality TV persona on Billy on the Street that some mistakingly believe is what Eichner is like in real life.

"I could see them making the realization that, 'Oh, Billy on the Street is a character," Eichner said. "It's a persona. It's not who this guy is.' Like Paul, I went to Northwestern and I could relate to some of that. I think it's complicated for people to process that I'm not my persona. Luckily, it's 40 years later, so things have evolved for gay people in Hollywood to a point where I can have a more diversified career than he was allowed to have, and I can also be completely openly gay… but the industry is still narrow-minded when it comes to gay actors."

The movie is being developed by producer Tom McNulty, with a script by Edwin Cannistraci.

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