Long Islander's teen friendship with TV star

Cathy Rudolph, 55, of Port Jefferson Station, displays Cathy Rudolph, 55, of Port Jefferson Station, displays memorabilia of the late comedian Paul Lynde, whom she met as a star-struck teen. (Dec. 30, 2013) Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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The unlikely friendship between a teenager from Levittown and one of America's most popular TV comedians began nearly 40 years ago with a trip to the local library and culminated with a recently published book about the experience.

Cathy Fitzgibbon was 17 when she became infatuated with Paul Lynde. Determined to learn as much as she could about the funnyman at the literal center of the hit game show "Hollywood Squares," she visited the Levittown Public Library one afternoon in November 1975. There, she found a reference book on Hollywood stars that included Lynde's resume, and a phone number she assumed was his office. When she went home and dialed the number, Lynde himself answered in his famous droll voice. It turned out the comedian's personal phone number had been inadvertently published in the book.

Nearly 40 years later, Fitzgibbon -- now 55-year-old Cathy Rudolph of Port Jefferson Station -- giggles girlishly as she recalls that day, and the teenage crush that led her to the library. "It was a one-in-a-million shot," she says. "Girls today love Justin Bieber. Imagine if they found his cellphone number, called, and he answered?"

Despite never having had a successful show of his own, Lynde regularly topped audience polls of most-liked TV stars. Still, he wasn't really 1970s teen-idol material. In 1975, he was close to 50 years old -- older than Cathy's father. He also had played a father in the Broadway musical comedy and movie, "Bye Bye Birdie" -- where he sang "Kids," a song that famously posed the question, "What's the matter with kids today?"

None of that mattered to this kid from Levittown. "His humor was so wild," Rudolph says, and in her eyes, "he was so sexy."

 

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A hint of his private life

An example of that humor is Lynde's famous response to a question posed to him on "Squares" by host Peter Marshall. "You're the world's most popular fruit. What are you?," Marshall asked. Lynde's response: "Humble."

As that cheeky answer suggests, Lynde was also gay, at a time when such an admission could have curtailed his career.

During her phone call, the bold teenager engaged Lynde, managed to convince him she wasn't completely crazy and asked if she could meet him the next time he was in New York. She assured the comedian that she would be chaperoned by her father. Lynde cautiously agreed.

"I was astonished," recalls her dad, Jerry Fitzgibbon, now 83 and a retired postal worker who still lives in Levittown. "I was really impressed that she'd managed to set this up."

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Two weeks later, over the Thanksgiving holiday, star-struck daughter and skeptical father took the train into Manhattan and met Lynde at the Pierre Hotel. Rudolph describes the moment she saw him: "He was taller than I expected, almost 6 feet. He was wearing a navy blue shirt, dark jacket, and slacks. His face was tan, his sandy brown hair looked soft, and it was a little windblown to the side. My heart was racing. He looked even better than I thought he would in person."

Cathy's dad recalls their two-hour meeting as a relaxed, enjoyable, afternoon. "They were like old friends, they just hit it off," Jerry Fitzgibbon says. "He was a gentleman. I felt very comfortable with the guy and with the way he treated my daughter."

Over the next five years, Cathy corresponded with Lynde regularly and visited him about a dozen times. They met on Long Island when he played the Westbury Music Fair, at his home in Beverly Hills and elsewhere. While she admits to having had an adolescent crush on Lynde, she says their relationship was strictly platonic (and acknowledges that, at the time, she was "naive" about his homosexuality). She also recalls him as more subdued off camera. "He could be shy and quiet," she says. "But if he had a few drinks, he could be the funniest person in the whole world."

 

'See you soon'

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Her last night in his company was in Toronto in August 1980. She and a friend watched Lynde perform onstage in the Neil Simon play "Plaza Suite," then had dinner with him after the show. At the end of the evening, she said "goodbye." Lynde quickly corrected her. "Please don't say that," he told her. "Just say, 'I'll see you soon.' "

Five months later, in January 1981, he died of a heart attack at age 55. Later, there were dark rumors that it had been caused by a sexual escapade gone wrong. Rudolph talked to his housekeeper and a few other close friends and concluded "there wasn't anything fishy" about Lynde's death. "His father died at 54," she points out.

Life went on, television went on, and Paul Lynde became a distant memory for most of the viewing public. But not for his biggest fan.

She married, had children (a daughter and son, now 20 and 18, respectively) and began a career in sales. But she missed Lynde and wanted to put to paper the story of their friendship and his life.

Writing a book can be a daunting challenge, especially for a nonprofessional writer, so it took Rudolph a while to find the time and to summon up the courage. What resulted is her personal tribute to a friend: "Paul Lynde: A Biography: His Life, His Love(s) and His Laughter." The book was published last month, and she'll be talking about it next Saturday at the Book Revue in Huntington (see box, above). The biography also is available at amazon.com.

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Writing the book took her three years. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says. "Piecing all the parts of Paul's life and career so that it flowed time-wise and made sense was a challenging part," says Rudolph. "The hardest part, was writing about Paul's death, I kept putting that chapter off. That was hard, and I was sad he was alone."

As a Christmas present, she gave a copy of the book to her dad, who had supported her quixotic quest from the beginning. "I'm so proud of her," he says with emotion. (Cathy's mom, Patricia, died in August 2012).

Rudolph's proposal for the book had been rejected by a half-dozen publishers. She finally found BearManor Media, based in Duncan, Okla., which specializes in books on popular culture. "All she had to say was 'Paul Lynde' and I was halfway sold," says BearManor founder and CEO Ben Ohmart. "I love the guy."

So does Rudolph, who maintains a collection of Lynde memorabilia in her house on what she calls her "Wall of Paul." Still, as the book title suggests, she was determined to make it a biography, not a love letter.

So, while the opening and closing chapters describe their initial meeting and subsequent friendship, the rest is a well-researched look at the life of Lynde, a very funny man who also was haunted by demons far less benign than the mischievous warlock Uncle Arthur he played on the TV show "Bewitched."

Among them, the death of his older brother in World War II; alcoholism; his repressed sexuality; a scandalous and scarring incident in 1965 in which a young male friend accidentally fell to his death from Lynde's hotel window; and, most of all, his belief that as a trained and proudly professional actor, he was never given the opportunities he felt he deserved.

"He was always frustrated," Rudolph says. "He felt that no one gave him a chance to do anything beyond what he was doing."

While Lynde never realized what he felt was his potential, his adolescent friend -- now a middle-aged woman -- has. "I had two goals in my life," she says. "To meet Paul Lynde and to someday write a book. Now I can say I've done both."

 

MEET THE AUTHOR

Cathy Rudolph will be talking about her book, "Paul Lynde: A Biography" and memories of their friendship.

WHERE Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington

WHEN Jan. 18, 7 p.m.

ADMISSION The lecture is free; the book is $19.95

MORE INFORMATION Call 631-271-1442 or visit bookrevue.com

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