Lily Munster has gone down as one of television’s most famous mothers. She was Herman’s beloved wife, Grandpa’s daughter, mother to Eddie and aunt to Marilyn. Lily held the family together and was always ready with advice when it was needed. Behind the makeup and the cobwebs was a Canadian-born actress named Yvonne De Carlo.
Yvonne De Carlo was born Margaret Yvonne Middleton on September 1, 1922 in West Point Grey (Vancouver), British Columbia, Canada as the only child of William Middleton and Marie DeCarlo. When William left Marie, three year-old Yvonne went to live with her maternal grandparents, Michele and Margaret. Yvonne was enrolled in dance school and eventually went to Hollywood to become a singer but she and her mother returned to Canada when their visas expired. The De Carlos returned to Hollywood several times where Yvonne would be entered beauty pageants. She was first runner-up to “Miss Venice Beach” and placed fifth in a Miss California competition. Showman Nils Granlund hired her as a dancer for Florentine Gardens but she was arrested by U.S. Customs and Immigration and deported back to Canada. He would later plead with the government for her return, sponsoring her and reassuring them she would have steady employment.
De Carlo would make her first movie appearance in 1941’s Harvard, Here I Come. However, there would not be much after so she used her dancing experience to join Ed Carroll’s chorus line. She would go onto entertain the troops during World War II and became an instant favorite, receiving many letters from soldiers. After a brief period of either bit parts or no parts at all, Yvonne De Carlo got her big break courtesy of Universal Pictures’ 1944 film, Salome, Where She Danced. De Carlo said she got the role by taking photographs of herself then got two friends who were Canadian service members to spread the word and lobby on her behalf. While the movie was not critically acclaimed, it did well and De Carlo was praised for her performance. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:
“Miss De Carlo has an agreeable mezzo-soprano singing voice, all the ‘looks’ one girl could ask for, and, moreover, she dances with a sensuousness which must have caused the Hays office some anguish. The script, however, does not give her much chance to prove her acting talents.”
She was signed to Universal and made a dozen movies with them including a role in 1949’s Criss Cross starring Burt Lancaster. She made efforts to branch out into other kinds of roles but Universal kept her in roles similar to Salome. In 1951, she asked for, and was granted, her release from Universal. In 1952, she got a television role on an episode of Lights Out. She would go on to numerous guest roles and performance roles on such shows as The Ford Television Theater, Shower of Stars, Bonanza and The Virginian. In 1954, she would be cast in one of the most famous movies of all time.
Cecil B. DeMille cast De Carlo as Sephora, wife of Moses in his epic film, The Ten Commandments opposite Charlton Heston and an all-star cast. She took weaving lessons at UCLA and practiced sheep herding in the San Fernando Valley to prepare for the role. DeMille wrote in his autobiography:
“I cast Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, the wife of Moses, after our casting director, Bert McKay called my attention to one scene she played in Sombrero, which was a picture far removed in theme from The Ten Commandments, I sensed in her a depth, an emotional power, a womanly strength which the part of Sephora needed and which she gave it.”
She even released a record in 1957 called Yvonne De Carlo Sings under the orchestration of John Williams (yes, that John Williams) who worked under the name John Towner. Her last notable film roles were 1957’s Band of Angels starring Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier, a 1958 Italian film The Sword and the Cross and 1963’s McLintock! starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
By 1964, Yvonne De Carlo was in debt so she signed with Universal once again as Lily opposite Fred Gwynne in The Munsters. She was hired to replace Joan Marshall who played the role of Phoebe in the original test pilot. The show only lasted 70 episodes but garnered a large fanbase and endures a following through syndication and home entertainment release. She was well-loved on the set by the cast and crew. “It was a happy show with audience appeal for both children and adults. It was a happy show behind the scenes, too; we all enjoy working with each other.” Butch patrick, who played Eddie, said of De Carlo in a 2013 Rockcellar interview:
“I met with Yvonne DeCarlo, who replaced Joan Marshall, the actress in the pilot. They changed the character name from ‘Phoebe’ to ‘Lily’ and Happy Derman [from the pilot] was out and I was in and cast as “Eddie Munster” on The Munsters […] Yvonne would be a maternal influence. She’d be a mom because my mom wasn’t around so she’d be a matriarch, not only on the show but when I’d see her outside of the makeup on Mondays and Tuesdays. Once in a while she’d bring her kids down to the set.”
When the show ended, De Carlo switched to theater and starred in numerous off-Broadway musicals including a critically-acclaimed performance in the Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies where she performed “I’m Still Here.” She made her last on-screen appearance in a 1995 Disney Channel movie. She suffered a stroke in 1998 and passed away in 2007 at age 84 from heart failure. She was married to Robert Drew Morgan from 1955 to 1974 and had two children, Bruce and Michael who passed away in 1997. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for movies and television. Yvonne De Carlo was not only an amazing actress but she was our mother if only for a half hour for 70 episodes.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)