Billy Eichner is aiming to set a precedent for LGBTQ actors in Hollywood movies by starring as a queer TV legend himself.
Lynde, who died in 1982 at age 55, rose to fame on Broadway in the smash 1960 musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” a role he reprised in the movie version three years later. His comedic talents soon led him to TV, and in 1964, he landed a recurring part on “Bewitched” as Uncle Arthur. Two years later, he made his debut on “Hollywood Squares”; he would become the game show’s regular “center square” guest from 1968 to 1981.
Though Lynde never came out as gay, his sexuality was said to have been an open secret in the film and TV industry during his lifetime. His deliberately camp persona in many of his roles winked at his private life.
In a wide-ranging interview with Deadline to announce the new project, Eichner compared his own professional trajectory with that of Lynde’s and said that ― while things have improved ― LGBTQ actors still have “limited” opportunities in front of the camera.
“What’s happened is that, when someone comes out of the closet, we celebrate them,” said Eichner, whose credits include the seminal series “Billy on the Street” and Disney’s photorealistic “Lion King” remake. “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,” he continued. “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.”
Eichner’s remarks came days after GLAAD unveiled the 2020 edition of its Studio Responsibility Index, an annual survey that serves as a barometer for LGBTQ representation in mainstream films. The advocacy group’s research found that 22 (or 18.6%) of 118 major studio films released in 2019 featured LGBTQ characters.
However, many of the most high-profile roles were played by actors who don’t identify as LGBTQ in real life. The Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” for instance, was a critical and commercial hit that nabbed a Golden Globe win for actor Taron Egerton, who is straight.
Eichner lamented that gay actors are “not even allowed to play our own heroes” and is hopeful that his performance in “Man in the Box” will lead to lasting change in the movie industry. Though he doesn’t think straight actors should be absolutely barred from portraying LGBTQ characters, he’d like the casting process to be less “hypocritical” and “lopsided.”
“There is no gay Tom Hanks in this country,” he said. “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.”
“We have the lived-in experience to bring the intellectual nuance of it to the screen,” he added about LGBTQ actors. “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.”
“Man in the Box” is one of several projects on Eichner’s current short list. Before the COVID-19 crisis shut down film production across the country, he’d been scheduled to begin work on a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy with two gay men as its central couple. He’s also slated to play conservative blogger Matt Drudge in “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”