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Fred Gwynne: 14 Joyful and Tragic Facts About ‘The Munsters’ Star

As you'll discover, there was much more to the actor than the role of Herman Munster

Any time an actor — and this was definitely true of Fred Gwynne — steps in front of a camera, the hope is for a connection between performer and the audience. When there is, it can be magic, but the downside when the connection is that strong is that the audience refuses to see them as any more than that one character.

That was the prison that Fred Gwynne found himself in when he played Herman Munster on the 1960s classic TV sitcom, The Munsters.

Unfortunately, for much of his life, Gwynne lived with frustration and resentment over Herman Munster, fueled by personal tragedy that he never discussed publicly. And it was actually very rare for him to talk about the show’s legacy or his personal feelings about it.

What follows is a look into the life and carer of Fred Gwynne, before, during and after The Munsters.

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1. He lost his father at a young age

The actor with Audrey Meadows
Actress Audrey Meadows and Actor Fred Gwynne in a shot from the TV Series The DuPont Show of the Week, 1962 United SNBC/De Carvalho Collection/Getty Images

Fred Gwynne was born New York City in 1928 and moved quite a bit as a youngster, due to his father’s work as a stockbroker. By all accounts he had a happy childhood, but that was marred when he lost his Dad during what should have been a routine sinus infection. As a result, he became withdrawn and introspective, seeming to only find peace in the sketches that he enjoyed drawing.

2. Prep School changed things for Fred Gwynne

The stars of CBS in 1965
A studio pose of CBS television stars, circa 1965. From left to right, (back row) John McGiver, Sterling Holloway, Yvonne De Carlo, Paul Ford and Fred Gwynne; (front row), unidentified, Cara Williams and Tina LouiseSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images

When he attended prep school at age 13, he found the will power to remove himself from the shell he’d placed himself in. Despite the fact he felt self-conscious over his height — 6’6″ — it turned out that he was extremely popular, singing in the school choir and expanding his passion for art.

3. He attended Harvard University

Fred Gwynne in 1961
Fred Gwynne in 1961©NBC/IMDb

Following a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he began attending Harvard, where he became part of the school’s Hasty Pudding Theatrical show. The response from the audience convinced him that there might be something to this whole acting thing after all.

He also realized that he could make his looks, which members of the media would describe as “lanky and lantern-jawed,” work for him. Personally, it proved the perfect response to friends who said with his looks that he’d never make a living as an actor.

4. Success came to Fred Gwynne in the 1950s

By the early 1950s, Fred Gwynne was on Broadway in shows like Mrs. McThing, Love’s Labour Lost and The Frogs of Eternity. He also began making TV guest appearances and co-starred with Marlon Brando in the feature film On the Waterfront.

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5. Car 54, Where Are You?

Television viewers first got to know him in the 1961 to 1963 sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, playing Officer Francis Muldoon. This show was a satire of police dramas and saw him co-starring with actors like Joe E. Ross and Al Lewis, who would eventually join him on The Munsters in the role of Grandpa.

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6. Fred Gwynne was more comfortable not being himself

In 1962, Fred Gwynne wrote a guest column for The Pittsburgh Review, where he pointed out an interesting fact about himself: “If I had to stand up in front of strangers and be Fred Gwynne, I’d be immobilized by embarrassment. As long as I have lines to say, and a character to project, I’m all right.” Which must have made later difficulties finding roles, particularly in film and TV, even more frustrating.

7. Fred Gwynne Meets The Munsters

If the classic Universal horror movies and The Donna Reed Show had a baby, it would be The Munsters. Fred Gwynne played Herman Munster, wearing an amazing duplication of the makeup that had turned Boris Karloff into Frankenstein’s Monster in the films of the 1930s.

His costars were Yvonne De Carlo as vampiress wife Lily, Butch Patrick as their son, Eddie “Wolfgang” Munster; Al Lewis as Grandpa, who also happens to be Count Dracula; and Pat Priest as perfectly human-looking Marilyn.

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8. He faced physical challenges as Herman Munster

Herman wasn’t an easy role for Gwynne to play. Despite his height, they used platform shoes to bring him up to about 7-feet, and Herman’s outfit weighed about 50 pounds. On top of that, there was the time spent each day applying all that makeup. He was also performing over-the-top material on a daily basis without an audience to play off of.

But whatever the challenges, the bottom line is that the audience fell in love with Herman Munster, who, despite his appearance, was an all-American dad that loved his family, went to work each day (at a funeral home) and did the best he could to get through life. And then there was that boisterous, infectious laugh of his. One reviewer commented, “Watching his sporadically animated mannerisms, one is reminded of TV’s Mister Ed enmeshed in deep conversation, punctuated with the facial pantomimes of Jerry Lewis.”

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9. When the show ended, he never wanted to look back for personal reasons

Fred Gwynne and first wife Jean Reynard
American actor and artist Fred Gwynne with his wife, Jean Reynard, at their home in Bedford, New York, 1957Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Munsters only ran from 1964 to 1966 (and spawned the 1966 film Munster, Go Home!), though it’s never been off the air since thanks to reruns. When it was over, if he had his choice, Fred Gwynne would never have looked back, though there were a number of reasons for him to want to leave that period of his life behind.

In 1952, he’d married socialize Jean Reynard, with whom he had five children, the youngest of which was Dylan, who was born in 1962. Sadly, less than a year later Dylan drowned in the family pool. One can only imagine the personal pain this must have caused Gwynne, which undoubtedly colored his personality for the rest of his life and explains why he would barely talk about the past, choosing to move ever forward.

10. The stage saved his career

Eva Marie Saint and Fred Gwynne
Eva Marie Saint and Fred Gwynne talk together, early 1970s Tim Boxer/Getty Images

The attempt to overcome typecasting in the aftermath of The Munsters was insurmountable, and it was the stage that kept Fred Gwynne employed. He worked in regional stage productions throughout the United States in between the roles he did get. There was also a return to Broadway in A Texas Trilogy and an audition for the fatherly role on the sitcom Punky Brewster, but he left in annoyance when the director referred to him as Herman rather than Fred.

11. Sculpting and drawing provided peace for him

During the making of Car 54, Gwynne would tell the media that once the cop’s uniform came off, he’d put on old clothes, rush to his home studio and start working on a sculpture. He admitted that he didn’t make much money doing so, but he had the inner satisfaction of being noncommercial. But years later that changed when he decided to write and illustrate a series of children’s books for which he became very well known.

12. Herman Munster became a hero to Fred Gwynne

While Fred Gwynne reprised the role of Herman in the 1981 TV movie The Munsters’ Revenge, that project didn’t do much for him. However, in the 1980s Nickelodeon’s Nick at Night, and then the TV Land network, began rerunning many of the classic TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s, including The Munsters. As a result, even more people fell in love with it.

What’s really interesting is that many of the kids who watched the show during its original run, were now executives and those executives welcomed the opportunity to work with one of their childhood heroes. Gwynne began finding himself in demand as a character actor starting in the mid-80s. As a result, he was cast in a number of TV movies and films like The Secret of My Success, Fatal Attraction, Ironweed and, especially, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

13. Fred Gwynne gave us the phrase “Youts”

Fred Gwynne in My Cousin Vinny
Fred Gwynne judges in a scene from the film My Cousin Vinny, 199220th Century-Fox/Getty Images

In 1982, Fred Gwynne delighted filmgoers with My Cousin Vinny, the Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei film in which he played Southern Judge Chamberlain Haller. The audience roared with his every interaction with Pesci’s Vinny Gambini, and Fred’s confused repeating of Gambini’s “youts” rather than youths entered the popular vernacular. In that film and those scenes, Gwynne opened himself up to a whole new generation of fans.

The irony is that while it seemed in that moment that he’d finally put Herman Munster to rest, it turned out to be his last role.

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14. He passed away at age 66

In his personal life, Fred Gwynne and Jean Renard divorced in 1980 and, eight years later, he married Deborah Flater. On July 2, 1993, just shy of his 67th birthday, he died of complications from pancreatic cancer.

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