Today is the 89th birthday of the actor Fred Gwynne. He was so much more than Herman Munster and I love coming across other characters he has played. It’s like bumping into an old friend in an unexpected place: a special treat. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Fred Gwynne
OCCUPATION: Film Actor, Theater Actor, Television Actor
BIRTH DATE: July 10, 1926
DEATH DATE: July 2, 1993
EDUCATION: Harvard University, New York Phoenix School of Design
PLACE OF BIRTH: New York City, New York
PLACE OF DEATH: Taneytown, Maryland
BEST KNOWN FOR: Fred Gwynne was an actor known for his roles as Herman Munster on the sitcom The Munsters and as the crusty judge in the film My Cousin Vinny.
Actor. Born Frederick Hubbard Gwynne on July 10, 1926 in New York City, is perhaps best known for his roles in the 1960s sitcoms Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters. His father was a successful stockbroker and his mother was a former cartoonist. In 1932, the happy household changed dramatically when Fred’s father died from complications after routine surgery. After high school, the young Gwynne, who stood at a lumbering, rail-thin six-foot, five-inches, enlisted in the Navy and served on a sub chaser during World War II.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, Gwynne attended the New York Phoenix School of Design, then entered Harvard University on the G.I. Bill. There he became president of The Harvard Lampoon, and drew cartoons for the popular periodical, a talent acquired from his mother. However, after performing several of The Hasty Pudding Club‘s farcical productions, the young man with the powerful baritone voice realized his future was upon the stage. Eager to learn his craft, the Harvard graduate joined the Brattle Theater Repertory Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he played a variety of characters in numerous plays.
In 1951, Fred married Jean “Foxie” Reynard, whom he had met through friends. After a successful run as “Bottom” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the young thespian and his new companion headed to New York to pursue bigger and brighter possibilities. Although most casting directors thought he was too tall and unattractive to be a leading man, he landed a supporting role in Mrs. McThing on Broadway, starring Helen Hayes. Gwynne simultaneously worked as a copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising agency to make ends meet between assignments. For the next five years he juggled his day job with numerous stage and television roles, appearing in such prestigious productions as Studio One, Kraft Theater, and The Phil Silvers Show.
In 1954, the 28-year-old made his film debut with a bit part in On The Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando. Gwynne’s career took another surprising turn when he landed his first major Broadway role in the musical, Irma La Duce. It was during the run of the show that TV producer Nat Hiken hired Gwynne to co-star as Francis Maldoon in the NBC television series, Car 54, Where Are You?. The show was a success, though only ran from 1961-1963.
The Gwynne family now included two children: a daughter named Gaynor and a son Kieron, who was mentally handicapped and required constant care. However Fred’s schedule was demanding and he spent little time at home. He was also writing and illustrating children’s stories and in 1958, Best in Show, the first in a line of successful books, was published.
In 1963, tragedy struck when his youngest son, Dylan, drowned in the family pool, leaving Fred brokenhearted and depressed. While he was still trying to cope with the emotional devastation of his son’s death, NBC canceled Car 54.
However, Gwynne was not out of work for long. In 1964, he was cast in the CBS television series, The Munsters. Portraying Herman Munster, the towering actor (who was required to wear five-inch platform boots) transformed the traditional Frankenstein monster into a lovable and hysterically funny character that was popular with both adults and children. Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote that “there is not the slightest question that Mr. Gwynne, superbly made up as Frankenstein, is the whole show.” However, by 1966, The Munsters was losing a ratings war with the popular series, Batman. Universal Pictures fought back with a feature-length color film, Munster, Go Home, which bombed at the box office. The series was then taken off the air, to little protest.
After the demise of The Munsters, Gwynne’s career came to a screeching halt. TV and movie producers were afraid to hire him, believing audiences would only see the fumbling Herman Munster, which left Gwynne frustrated and bitter. However, he continued to find success with children’s books, which now included such classics as God’s First World, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, and A Little Pigeon Toad. He appeared in a string of failed television pilots and a few TV movies, including The Littlest Angel and Arsenic and Old Lace.
Gwynne returned to the stage and won critical acclaim as Big Daddy in the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Ashley. Other successful stage roles included Claudis in Hamlet and the stage manager in Our Town. In 1976, he won an Obie Award for his performance in the off-Broadway play, Grand Magic.
Gwynne also made a comeback to the big screen with a small role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting drama, Luna, starring Jill Clayburgh. He eventually began to make appearances in such A-list films as Ironweed with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, and The Cotton Club starring Richard Gere. In 1981, he returned to the role that he had fought so hard to leave behind–Herman Munster in the TV movie, Munster’s Revenge.
Gwynne continued to appear in supporting roles, the highlight being his turn as the comic foil for Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. After forty years of working non-stop, Gwynne decided to put his film career on the back burner. He and his wife, Deborah, purchased a farm in rural Maryland and the actor only accepted work as a voice-over artist in radio and television commercials.
Just one year into his tranquil, new life, Gwynne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on July 2, 1993, at the age of 66.