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Let’s Meet The Munsters: Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne

For years on both network television and in syndication, The Munsters have made us laugh with their light-hearted comedy and antics.  Lily was the matriarch who kept the family in line while little Eddie and teenaged Marilyn went through the joys and pains of growing up.  Herman provided for the family and Grandpa tried to be the next great scientist.  Universal Monsters will be taking a look at the cast of The Munsters in a new series called “Let’s Meet The Munsters.” Let us begin with Herman himself, Fred Gwynne.

Frederick Hubbard “Fred” Gwynne was born on July 10, 1926 in New York City to Frederick Walker Gwynne and his wife Dorothy Ficken.  His father was a partner in his own securities firm and was able to provide for Fred.  Fred Gywnne would go to school at Groton, served in the Navy during World War II and attended Harvard University where he graduated in 1951.  While at Harvard, Gwynne was a member of the Fly Club, sang a cappella with a group called the “Harvard Krokodiloes,” was a cartoonist and later president of the Harvard Lampoon and acted in the “Hasty Pudding Theatricals.”

Fred Gwynne

(L-R) Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross

Gwynne made his on-screen debut in the 1954 classic On the Waterfront as Slim, an uncredited role.  The next year, Gwynne was cast in The Phil Silvers Show by Phil Silvers himself.  Gwynne played Private Ed Honnergar in an episode titled “The Eating Contest.”  Sgt. Bilko (Phil Silvers) uses Honnegar and his depressive binge eating to win quick money.  He would return as Honnegar and once again be taken advantage of by Sgt. Bilko for quick money in a second episode titled, “It’s For The Birds” where he is entered into a trivia game show.  Writer-Producer Nat Hiken saw his performance and cast Gwynne in one of his most famous television roles, Officer Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You? opposite Joe E. Ross, another Phil Silver Show veteran, who played Muldoon’s partner, Officer Gunther Toody.  This is where Gwynne would meet long time co-star Al Lewis who played Officer Leo Schnauser.  The show ran for two years and would make Gywnne, and even Lewis, household names in television.

In 1964, Fred Gwynne was cast as Herman Munster in The Munsters.  At 6’5″ tall, he fit the Frankenstein monster mold and was clad with 40-50 lbs of padding, makeup and 4-inch asphalt-spreader boots.  He wore violet face paint because the color caught better on black-and-white film.  He would be reunited with Al Lewis who played Grandpa.  Gwynne made entire generations laugh as Herman got himself into all kinds of trouble and predicaments usually at the hands of Grandpa and his experiments or spur-of-the-moment ideas.  The show ran for 72 episodes spanning two seasons and despite him being typecasted because of it, Gwynne enjoyed his time as Herman saying, “… I might as well tell you the truth.  I love old Herman Munster.  Much as I try not to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.”  Gwynne would reprise the role in a 1981 reunion special The Munsters’ Revenge.

Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne had to wait over two years after The Munsters ended before he was given another acting role.  The next role he did get was in the 1969 television production of Arsenic and Old Lace as Jonathan Brewster.  Ironically enough, Boris Karloff, whose Frankenstein monster Gwynne parodied on The Munsters, played Brewster in the Broadway version of the show.  Gwynne began to show off his singing talents in a 1969 television movie The Little Angel and by the mid-70’s was starring on Broadway in plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Our Town, and A Texas Trilogy.  Gwynne returned to the big screen in 1980’s Simon which was followed up by small roles in other films like The Cotton Club, The Boy Who Could Fly and even Fatal Attraction to name a few.  Gwynne would go on to play Jud Crandall in 1987’s Stephen King adaptation, Pet Sematary.  His last role, and maybe one of his most memorable ones, would come five years later in 1992 as Alabama Judge Chamberlain Haller in the Joe Pesci comedy, My Cousin Vinny.  His exchanges with Pesci’s Vincent “Vinny” Gambini are funny and unforgettable.  Fred Gwynne passed away in his sleep from cancer on July 2, 1993.

Fred GwynneFred Gwynne was married to Jean “Foxy” Reynard from 1952 until their divorce in 1980.  They had five chidren together: Evan, Dylan (who unfortunately passed away in 1963), Keiron (who was developmentally disabled), Madyn and Gaynor.  In 1988, Gwynne married Deborah Flater who he remained with until his death.  Gwynne was just as much a loveable giant as Herman Munster and he left millions of us laughing for many, many years.

(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)

About the author

Joe Grodensky

Joe is a man of paradox. Joe is mysterious yet an open book. Joe is outgoing yet introverted. Joe is part wolf and man. Joe's favorite monster movie? Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).

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