Jul 10, 2007

Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne was a modern renaissance man.
With his deep baritone voice, he was an accomplished actor and singer performing in plays and musicals on and off Broadway. He was a sculptor and painter holding a one man exhibition of his art and he also wrote and illustrated nearly a dozen children's books. With all of this talent, it's funny to think he's best remembered as TV's Frankendad.

Frederick Hubbard Gwynne was born on July 10, 1926 in New York City. His father was a stockbroker, his mother a former cartoonist. His father died from complications during routine surgery when Fred was five .

He attended a prep school where he got his first taste of the stage, enlisted in the Navy after graduation and entered Harvard on the G.I.Bill.

Gwynne took full advantage of his years at Harvard. He majored in English, studied art, became a founding member of the Krokodiloes [Harvard's oldest a capella group], wrote and illustrated for the Harvard Lampoon and was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club. It was the wacky Hasty Pudding productions that kindled his interest in theater.

In 1951 he graduated Harvard, married his first wife Jean Reynard and moved to New York to pursue an acting career.

Gwynne got a job at the J Walter Thompson Advertising Agency and worked there for the next five years writing copy by day and acting in theater and television in the evenings. He made his movie debut as an uncredited punk in "On the Waterfront" in 1954.

In 1955, Gwynne made a guest appearance on The Phil Silvers Show as Private Honigan. The character was well liked and Gwynne was called back to guest star in a few more episodes. When Phil Silvers producer Nat Hiken was casting for a new show, he offered Gwynne the role of police officer Francis Muldoon in "Car 54 Where Are You?". The police sitcom ran two seasons.

When Car 54 was cancelled, Six foot five inch Fred Gwynne was cast as Herman Munster, the green tinted head of the Munster clan. A 15 minute color pilot was pitched to the networks and the show got a strong maybe from CBS.

In the pilot episode, Gwynne plays a rather skinny Herman with a different cast. Adjustments were made to the show and it's cast, a second short pilot episode was shot in black & white to show to sponsors and the show was finally put into production.

The Munsters premiered Sept. 24, 1965 and ran for two seasons. For 70 episodes, Fred Gwynne endured hours of daily makeup, four inch lifts and pounds of padding to help transform him into one of the goofiest, dads in sitcom history.

While the all black & white show has become an enduring classic, the role was Hollywood poison for Gwynne who couldn't seem to shake Herman loose. Casting directors said he was married too closely to his Munster persona in the public eye. Fred turned back to the stage and his art and rode out the short sightedness of Hollywood.

In 1981, when he was called to do a reunion show for The Munsters, he asked for a huge amount of cash and surprisingly, the producers said yes. Gwynne played Herman one last time in Revenge of the Munsters.

In the 80's Gwynne delivered some great character performances in Cotton Club [1984], The Boy Who Could Fly [1986], Fatal Attraction [1986], Pet Sematary [1989] and his final role as a southern judge trying Joe Pesci's case in My Cousin Vinny [1992].

After My Cousin Vinny, Gwynne purchased a farm in Maryland and was in semi retirement when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on July 2, 1993 just a week away from his 67th birthday.

While there was a decade or more where Gwynne wouldn't talk about the Munsters, the silence was more of a career move than an outright hatred of the character. In a 1979 interview after a career of successes in other fields, Gwynne summed up his Munsters experience; "Funny thing, yesterday morning I found my youngest son and daughter watching the rerun of an old [Munsters] episode and I said, 'My God, THAT'S not still on, is it?' Well, even so, I was very lucky and it was great fun to be as much of a household product as something like Rinso. I almost wish I could do it all over again."

There isn't a fan of the Munsters who doesn't feel the same way

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