Cast a straight actor in the role of a gay icon, and they’ll likely get an Oscar for it. But Billy Eichner is looking to change that with his role as groundbreaking TV icon Paul Lynde. Eichner plans to star in Man in the Box, a biopic based on the life of the TV star whose sexuality was well-known, despite never being officially “out.” With this lead role, Eichner hopes to de-stigmatize the casting of queer actors in major LGBTQ roles.
Deadline was the first to report that Eichner has been tapped to star in Man in the Box, a biopic about the Bye Bye Birdie breakout star who would become a staple of the ’50s television scene with roles on Bewitched and the long-running game show Hollywood Squares. While Lynde never officially came out of the closet, the actor was never shy about his sexuality, which was well known in front of and behind the camera. Eichner is keen to star in the role, telling Deadline in a wide-ranging interview about the struggles for gay actors in Hollywood that he hopes it will encourage the industry to cast more queer actors as gay icons:
“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? 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.”
Eichner added that although progress has been made since Lynde was a major star in the ’50s, coming out can still have devastating consequences for a queer actor’s career. “When someone comes out of the closet, we celebrate them. We applaud them. We put them on the cover of magazines,” Eichner said. “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 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.”
That’s partly what drew Eichner to the role of Lynde, noting that “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,” Eichner said. But even though Eichner is out of the closet, Lynde never had that privilege, even if his flamboyant persona allowed him to embrace his sexuality in a way that Hollywood stars at the time like “Rock Hudson, and Tab Hunter, and Cary Grant, and all these other actors” were, Eichner said. “[Lynde] wasn’t pretending to be straight.”
Man in the Box will be produced by Tom McNulty with a script by Edwin Cannistraci. Cannistraci, and Eichner and McNulty are currently meeting with creatives to round out the rest of the production team.
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