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The Endurance of the Munsters

October 26, 2015

I confess to an absolute love of Frankenstein and any riffs on the story. Something about the modern Prometheus captivates me. And it just may have begun with Herman Munster.

The Munsters has become a cult classic, living well beyond its original two seasons. It should have bombed, or least been a forgettable show. Yet it lives on in undead glory because of two actors. Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo.  A lot of attention is given to Al Lewis’s Grandpa, but Al always plays Al, whereas Gwynne and De Carlo found unique characters that made the show work.

Imagine being told you’re to play Frankenstein’s creature as a likable, non-scary charmer. Up until then, the creature has always been horrific, from its origin in Mary Shelley’s book, to the Boris Karloff movies. Gwynne pulled it off with creative choices and boyish charm. He made all the hard decisions. If you think that wasn’t much, consider that several actors played the role in the following years as TV studios tried to recapture lightning in a bottle. They all failed. Miserably.

Like Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, Gwynne had to create every mannerism and choice from whole cloth, without a single mistake.  And that under heavy make-up, heavy padding and heavy costuming.

To appreciate De Carlo’s Lily Munster, one must first observe Phoebe, the original character portrayed by another actress. Badly, I might add. De Carlo, a real-live movie star who could have been bitter about “slumming” in a kid’s show, instead lit up the small screen with a bright, sunny, frumpy vampire (who never seemed to be a vampire). While Gwynne and Lewis had the comedic scenes, De Carlo owned the screen whenever she was in a scene. Watch her and see so much you missed.

Oddly, it was the same two characters over in the Addams Family that made that show work. Morticia was electric and Lurch was hilarious with small, fully-committed choices. While they were also the vampire/spider/weird mom and the creature, the actors took them a completely different direction. Carolyn Jones played it more like Phoebe Munster, but with a smoldering intensity that sizzled. Ted Cassady played Lurch in a more traditional manner with comedic elements that took the edge off the character. Gomez was fun, but the only other character that sang in that show was Thing (a hand played by Ted Cassidy. Imagine being upstaged by a hand.)

There’s something to be said about men’s egos vs women’s. Gwynne (and Nimoy) regretted their roles. And De Carlo and Jones, both silver screen actresses, didn’t.  The funny thing was that Gwynne and Lewis campaigned against hiring De Carlo, thinking a big-shot actress would be a diva. So far from the truth… She just liked to work and never complained about being typecast.

John Shuck and other guys… played Herman in revivals and came off as buffoonish without the full realization Gwynne gave it. While Gwynne gave it the iconic look, he also found depths to a children’s character that gave him something he should be proud of, and probably inspired thousands of Frankenstein fans.

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