66 (passed away Jul. 2nd, 1993)
Jul. 10th, 1926
New York City, New York, USA
Fred Gwynne's Main TV Roles
Main Movie Roles
Guest TV Roles[none found]
Fred Gwynne was an enormously talented character actor most famous for starring in the television situation comedies "Car 54, Where Are You?" (1961) (as "Officer Francis Muldoon") and "The Munsters" (1964) (as the Frankenstein clone "Herman Munster"). He was very tall and had a resonant, baritone voice that he put to good use in Broadway musicals.
Born Frederick Hubbard Gwynne in New York City on July 10, 1926, to a wealthy stockbroker father, he attended the exclusive prep school Groton, where he first appeared on stage in a student production of William Shakespeare (I)'s "Henry V". After serving in the United States Navy as a radioman during World War II, he went on to Harvard, where he majored in English and was on the staff of the "Harvard Crimson" student newspaper. At Harvard, he studied drawing with artist R.S. Merryman and was active in dramatics. A member of the Hasty Pudding Club, he performed in the dining club's theatricals, appearing in the drag revues of 1949 and 1950. After graduating from Harvard with the class of 1951, Gwynne acted in Shakespeare with a Cambridge, Massachusetts repertory company before heading to New York City, where he supported himself as a musician and copywriter. His principal source of income for many years came from his work as a book illustrator and as a commercial artist. His first book, "The Best in Show", was published in 1958.
On February 20, 1952, he made his Broadway debut as the character "Stinker", in support of Helen Hayes (I), in the comic fantasy "Mrs. McThing". The play, written by "Harvey (1950)" author Mary Chase (I), had a cast featuring Ernest Borgnine, the future "Professor" Irwin Corey and Brandon De Wilde, the young son of the play's stage manager, Frederick DeWilde. The play ran for 320 performances and closed on January 10, 1953. He next appeared on Broadway in Burgess Meredith's staging of Nathaniel Benchley's comedy "The Frogs of Spring", which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on October 21, 1953. The play flopped, closing on Halloween Day after but 15 performances. He did not appear on Broadway again for almost seven years.
Gwynne made his movie debut, unbilled, as one of "Johnny Friendly"'s gang of thugs who menace Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan's classic On the Waterfront (1954). From 1956 - 1963, he appeared on the TV dramatic showcases "Studio One" (1948), "The Kaiser Aluminum Hour" (1956), "Kraft Television Theatre" (1947), "The DuPont Show of the Month" (1957), "The DuPont Show of the Week" (1961) and "The United States Steel Hour" (1953). But it was in situation comedies that he made his name and his fame.
In 1955, he made a memorable guest appearance as "Private Honigan" on "The Phil Silvers Show" (1955). He played a soldier with an enormous appetite that Phil Silvers' "Sgt. Bilko" entered into a pie-eating contest, only to discover he could only eat like a trencherman when he was depressed. The spot led to him coming back as a guest in more episodes. While appearing on Broadway as the pimp "Polyte-Le-Mou" in the Peter Brook (I)-directed hit "Irma La Douce" (winner of the 1961 Tony Award for Best Musical), "Bilko" producer-writer Nat Hiken cast him in one of the lead roles in the situation comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" (1961). The show, in which he revealed his wonderful flair for comedy, had Gwynne appearing as New York City police officer "Francis Muldoon", who served in a patrol car in the Bronx with the dim-witted "Officer Gunther Toody", played by co-star Joe E. Ross ("Oooh! Oooh!"). "Car 54, Where Are You?" (1961) lasted only two seasons, but it was so fondly remembered by Baby Boomers, it inspired a feature film version in 1994. He also served as "Lamb Chop"'s doctor on another Baby Boomer classic, "The Shari Lewis Show" (1960).
Another one of his Car 54, Where Are You? co-stars, Al Lewis (III), not only became a life-long friend, he appeared as Gwynne's father-in-law in his next situation comedy. Gwynne was cast as the Frankenstein's monster-like paterfamilias in "The Munsters" (1964), which also lasted two seasons. In addition to wearing heavy boots with four-inch lifts on them, Gwynne had to wear 40 - 50 lbs of padding and makeup for the role and he reportedly lost ten pounds in one day of filming under the hot lights. He made guest appearances as "Herman Munster", most notably on "The Red Skelton Show" (1951), appearing on April 27, 1965, along with Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, a pop band from The Beatles' native Liverpool. Gwynne appeared in character as "Herman Munster" in a "Freddie the Freeloader" comedy sketch.
When The Munsters was cancelled after the 1965-1966 season, Gwynne returned to the theatre to escape television typecasting, although he did return for a featured appearance in the televised version of Arsenic and Old Lace (1969) (TV), playing the psychotic "Jonathan Brewster" in an all-star cast, including with his "Mrs. McThing" co-star Helen Hayes (I), Lillian Gish, Bob Crane (I), Sue Lyon, Jack Gilford (I) and David Wayne (I).
He appeared twice on television in Mary Chase (I)'s _"Harvey" (1950)_, the first time in 1958 on the "Dupont Show of the Month" version broadcast by CBS, in which he appeared in support of Art Carney as "Elwood P. Dodd". Others in the cast included Elizabeth Montgomery (I), Jack Weston and Larry Blyden. He appeared as the cab driver in the 1972 version, Harvey (1972) (TV), in which James Stewart (I) reprised his role as "Elwood P. Dodd", in which he was reunited with his Broadway co-star Helen Hayes (I).
In 1968, he made a TV series pilot for Screen Gems, "Guess What I Did Today?", co-starring Bridget Hanley, who later played "Candy Pruit" on "Here Come the Brides" (1968). The pilot, which was made for NBC, was not picked up by the network. Gwynne had trouble making producers forget his "Herman Munster" character and he started refusing to have anything to do with or even to speak of the show. One of the few visual productions to utilise his beautiful singing voice was The Littlest Angel (1969) (TV), a musical produced as part of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" (1951).
His movie and TV appearances were sporadic throughout the 1970s as he worked on- and off-Broadway. He had used his singing voice again to great effect in Meredith Wilson (I)'s musical "Here's Love", which opened at the Shubert Theatre on October 20, 1963 and played for 334 performances, closing on July 25, 1964. Exactly nine years from the "Here's Love" opening, he appeared at the Plymouth as "Abraham Lincoln" in the Broadway play "The Lincoln Mask", a flop that lasted but one week of eight performances.
His most distinguished performance on Broadway (and the favourite of all of his theatrical roles, was as "Big Daddy" in the 1974 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Though not as cutting as Burl Ives had been in the original production, his "Big Daddy" was lyrical and powerful, so much so that he overpowered Keir Dullea in the role of "Brick". Elizabeth Ashley (I), however, won a Tony Award for playing "Maggie the Cat" in the production, which gave Tennessee Williams his first big success in a decade, albeit in a revival.
Gwynne also was memorable as the elderly "Klansman" in the first two parts of "The Texas Trilogy" in 1977 season. His last appearance on Broadway was in Anthony Shaffer's "Whodunnit", which opened at the Biltmore Theatre on December 30, 1983 and closed May 15, 1983 after 157 total performances. Before saying goodbye to the Broadway stage in a hit, he had appeared on the Great White Way in two flops in 1978: "Angel", the musical version of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel" (which lasted but five performances) and the Australian professional football club drama "Players" (which lasted 23 performances). For the Joseph Papp Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival, he had appeared in Off-Broadway in "More Than You Deserve" in the 1973-1974 season and, in "Grand Magic", during the 1978-1979 season, for which he won an Obie Award. On the radio, Gwynne appeared in 79 episodes of "The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre" between 1975 and 1982.
With time, his characterisation of "Herman Munster" began to fade and he began establishing himself as a film character actor of note in the 1980s with well-reviewed appearances in The Cotton Club (1984), Ironweed (1987), Disorganized Crime (1989) and Pet Sematary (1989), in which his character, "Jud Crandall", was based on author Stephen King (I), who himself is quite tall. Gwynne also made a memorable turn as the judge who battles with the eponymous My Cousin Vinny (1992), his last film. Critic and cinema historian Mick LaSalle cited Gwynne's performance as "Judge Chamberlain Haller" in his August 2003 article "Role call of overlooked performances is long", writing: "Half of what made Joe Pesci funny in this comedy was the stream of reactions of Gwynne, as the Southern Judge, a Great Dane to Joe Pesci's yapping terrier."
Gwynne sang professionally, painted, sculpted, wrote & illustrated children's books, including: "The King Who Rained" (1970); "A Chocolate Moose for Dinner" (1976); "A Little Pigeon Toad" (1988) and "Pondlarker" (1990). He wrote 10 books in all and "The King Who Rained", "A Chocolate Moose for Dinner" and "A Little Pigeon Toad", which all were published by the prestigious house Simon & Schuster, are still in print.
In the first part of his professional life, Gwynne lived a quiet life in suburban Bedford, New York and avoided the Hollywood and Broadway social scenes. He married his first wife Foxy in 1952. They had five children and divorced in 1980. He and his second wife Deb, whom he married in 1981, lived in a renovated farmhouse in rural Taneytown, Maryland. His neighbors described him as a good friend and neighbour who kept his personal and professional lives separate.
Fred Gwynne died on July 2, 1993, in Taneytown, Maryland, after a battle with cancer of the pancreas. He was just eight days shy of turning 67 years old. He is sorely missed by Baby Boomers who grew up delighted by his "Officer Francis Muldoon" and "Herman Munster" and were gratified by his late-career renaissance on film.
- Between 1975 and 1982, he appeared in 79 episodes of "The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre".
- Biography in: "Who's Who in Comedy" by Ronald L. Smith, pg. 199-200. New York: Facts on File, 1992. ISBN 0816023387.
- In his most popular post-_"The Munsters" (1964)_ (qv) role, that of "Judge Chamberlain Haller" in _My Cousin Vinny (1992)_ (qv), one of the sight gags is that the good judge looms a full foot taller than his antagonist, Vinny, as played by 'Joe Pesci' (qv).
- By choice, never part of the Hollywood or Broadway social whirl, Gwynne lived a quiet life in suburban Bedford, New York and, after his second marriage, in a renovated farmhouse in rural Taneytown, Maryland. Most who knew him described him as a good friend and neighbour who liked to keep his personal and professional lives separate.
- Was originally under consideration for the part of Henry Warnimont on "Punky Brewster" until a casting director referred to him as "Herman Munster" instead of his real name. An offended Gwynne abruptly withdrew from consideration and George Gaynes wound up with the part.
- Harvard University class of 1951.
- Herman Munster, Gwynne's character on _"The Munsters" (1964)_ (qv), was ranked #19 in TV Guide's list of the "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time" [20 June 2004 issue].
- Was a member of the Harvard a cappella group, the Krokodiloes.
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