Best known for his television roles in the 1960s as Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You? and paterfamilias Herman Munster in The Munsters, Fred Gwynne (b. New York City, July 10, 1926; d. Taneytown, MD, July 2, 1993) was an enormously talented comedian and character actor with a fine baritone singing voice.
Frederick Hubbard Gwynne’s father, of Protestant Irish extraction, was a wealthy New York stockbroker. Gwynne attended the Groton School, where he made his first stage appearance in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and after serving as a Navy radioman during World War II, went on to Harvard College. Gifted in many fields, he wrote for the College newspaper, drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon, sang with the Krokodiloes (Harvard’s answer to the Whiffenpoofs), and was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, performing in the traditional drag revues. After graduation in 1951, he moved back to New York City, where he supported himself as a singer, copywriter, book illustrator and commercial artist before landing his first Broadway role in Mrs. McThing, starring Helen Hayes.
After a successful 320-performance run, Gwynne’s next Broadway stint, The Frogs of Spring, lasted only ten days. He then appeared as a young thug in On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando. But it was a featured appearance on The Phil Silvers Show in 1955 that gave Gwynne his big break in television: he returned for another episode the following year, and won roles in many special television plays (The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Kraft Television Theatre, The DuPont Show of the Month). In 1961, in the midst of a Broadway run of Irma la Douce in which he was co-starring, he was cast as a principal character (Officer Francis Muldoon) in Car 54, Where Are You?, which ran for two seasons. He returned to Broadway singing in the musical Here’s Love in 1963.
Fred Gwynne stood a slim six feet, five inches, had a world-class lantern jaw and eyes not unlike a Bassett-hound’s, and yet his charisma, warmth, and humor shone clearly through these formidable features. All this made him the perfect choice to play Herman Munster, the unforgettable knockoff of Frankenstein’s monster, with a sentimental heart and a bolt through his neck. For each of seventy-two episodes of The Munsters (1964–66), Gwynne spent three hours in makeup, donning boots with four-inch lifts (bringing his height to six-foot-nine) and over forty pounds of padding, and having his face smeared with bright violet greasepaint. (It is said that after one shoot, he had sweated off ten pounds.) The actor later admitted, “I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try not to . . . ,” but the fit of Herman’s persona with Gwynne’s turned out to be too perfect. For a time Gwynne found it difficult to get cast in roles that would not have suited Boris Karloff as well (Arsenic and Old Lace, ABCTV 1969).
Gwynne sang in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, The Littlest Angel (1969) and later played important parts in the Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1974), Our Town (1975) at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, and A Texas Trilogy (1976), again on Broadway. Among Gwynne’s forty-odd feature and television films are Harvey (TV, 1972), Captains Courageous (TV, 1977), The Mysterious Stranger (TV, 1982), The Cotton Club (1984), Water (1985), Off Beat (1986), The Boy Who Could Fly (1986), The Secret of My Success (1987), Ironweed (1987), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Disorganized Crime (1989). His character with the thick Maine accent in Pet Sematary (1989) was based on the film’s author, Maine-iac Stephen King, who is nearly as tall as Gwynne himself. Gwynne’s last film role was as the southern judge in My Cousin Vinny (1992).
Gwynne wrote and illustrated a total of ten children’s books, among them The King Who Rained (1970), A Chocolate Moose for Dinner (1976), A Little Pigeon Toad (1988), and Pondlarker (1990). He also did commercial voiceovers and read parts for seventy-nine episodes of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. He began to exhibit his artwork in 1989. When Fred Gwynne died of pancreatic cancer a few days short of his sixty-seventh birthday, he left behind his wife Deborah and four children.