When we think of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman, we think of scary creatures and the Universal Monsters franchise. In 1964, that line of thinking would change when CBS aired the first episode of a Universal TV show called The Munsters. The show took these iconic characters and re-imagined them as a typical working-class American family of the time. Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) was the head of the household which included his wife Lily (Yvonne De Carlo), their son Eddie (Butch Patrick), her father Count Sam Dracula a.k.a. “Grandpa” (Al Lewis) and her niece Marilyn (Beverly Owen & Pat Priest). So how did Universal take its scariest monsters and turn them into a cast of characters for the whole family to enjoy?
The idea for The Munsters was first brought up in 1943 by Universal animator Bob Clampett who was famous for his work on Looney Tunes. Clampett proposed it as a series of cartoons between 1943 and 1945. The studio never went with it at first but did re-visit it in the 1960s when Rocky & Bullwinkle writers Allan Burns and Chris Hayward proposed a similar idea of an animated series. It was passed on to Norm Liebman and Ed Hass who wrote a pilot script for the series called “Love Thy Monster.” There was a split decision on whether the show was to be animated or live-action. In the end, live-action won and MCA Television filmed a presentation to pitch to CBS. The original pitch was vastly different from the show we know and love today. It was in color and rather than Canadian-American actress Yvonne De Carlo playing Lily, actress Joan Marshall played Phoebe. Butch Patrick was not the original Eddie, either. The role was first played by Nate “Happy” Derman in the pitch episode. Marshall was replaced because she looked too much like Morticia Adams (The Munsters and The Addams Family both ran in the same era). Derman was replaced because he was deemed too nasty to play the character.
On February 18, 1964, a new pitch episode was presented in black-and-white which included the final cast (Beverly Owen was replaced as Marilyn by Pat Priest in the 14th episode of the first season) that fans are familiar with and the show was picked up by CBS for prime-time television. Fred Gwynne, already a veteran of television, was the perfect casting for Herman as he stood 6’5″ tall which was enhanced by 40 to 50 pounds of padding, make-up and 4-inch asphalt spreader boots. Because The Munsters was a Universal production, make-up artist Bud Westmore was allowed to use Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein style as a template for Herman.
The Bride of Frankenstein would become the inspiration for Lily Munster. She did not have a beehive hairdo, but the white streaks on black hair would remain at least for a little while. Lily’s character was changed not only in name and casting, but in appearance and personality. Phoebe was more gothic and had a harsher personality, especially toward Herman and Eddie. Lily was a loving wife and mother who would be the mediator and peacemaker during family disagreements. By the middle of season one, her make-up and jewelry had undergone minor changes and her hair lost the white streaks. The cast and crew were worried that De Carlo would not fit in based on the fact she had already been a major film star, most noteably in the 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments. She fit right in after a few episodes and Butch Patrick called her his second mother when they were on set.
One of the show’s most memorable characters was Count Sam Dracula who was affectionately known to the characters and fans as Grandpa. New York-born actor Al Lewis would reunite with fellow New Yorker and Car 54 co-star Fred Gwynne when The Munsters began filming in 1964. Lewis and Gwynne would be the only original cast members that lasted from the original pitch episode to the final series episode. Grandpa was based off Dracula but was given that family charm and humor the others were given. He and Herman would get themselves into all kinds of predicaments which would lead to them being given a long talk by Lily. Grandpa was also a mad scientist whose experiments would literally blow up in his face.
Eddie and his cousin Marilyn were the children of the household. Eddie was styled to reflect The Wolfman and even carries a doll named Wolfie. He was the curious, school-aged boy who liked to play catch and interact with other children. Marilyn was the only character in the show who did not have the appearance of a monster. Even though she looked like a regular person, she was still accepted by the family. She was a normal teenager who was growing up, going to school and falling in love with boys.
The Munsters aired on Thursdays at 7:30pm but was cancelled on May 12, 1966 after two seasons because of low ratings due to the premiere of Batman which was filmed and aired in color. However, it has gained a massive cult following since it was re-aired in syndication starting in the 1990s. There were attempts to revive interest in the show such as the 1966 movie Munster, Go Home!, the only time the original characters were seen in color on screen. In the 1980s and 1990s, such films as The Munsters’ Revenge and Here Come The Munsters and a TV show spin-off, The Munsters Today tried to introduce the characters to a new generation but with completely different casts. Rock band Fall Out Boy samples the Munsters theme in their hit song Uma Thurman. In the end, the original cast, characters and even Munstermobile prove that The Munsters will certainly live on.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)