Icon Of The Month: Fred Gwynne

That’s right, this month the amazing Fred Gwynne, is my icon of the month.

Frederick Hubbard Gwynne was born on July 10, 1926, in New York City, son of Frederick Walker Gwynne, a partner in the securities firm Gwynne Brothers and a successful stockbroker, and his wife, Dorothy (Ficken), a former cartoonist. His paternal grandfather was an Episcopal priest born in Camus, near Strabane, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and his maternal grandfather was an emigrant from London, England. Although Gwynne grew up in Tuxedo Park, New York, he spent most of his childhood in South Carolina, Florida, and Colorado because his father travelled extensively. Fred Gwynne attended the Groton School where he first appeared on stage in a student production of William Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.
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 and a radioman 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 where he was affiliated with Adams House, graduating in 1951. He was a member of the Fly Club, sang with the a cappella group “The Harvard Krokodiloes”, he was a cartoonist for the popular periodical “The Harvard Lampoon” (a talent acquired from his mother) and eventually became its president. He acted in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals shows, it was here he realised 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. After his 1951 graduation he then moved to New York City to pursue bigger and brighter possibilities. In 1952, to support himself, Gwynne worked as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson Advertising agency. Although most casting directors thought he was too tall and unattractive to be a leading man he was cast in his first Broadway role, a supporting role as a gangster named ‘Stinker’ in a comedy called “Mrs. McThing”, which starred Helen Hayes and ran for 320 performances. Gwynne simultaneously worked his day job 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 productions as “Studio One” and “Kraft Theater”.
In 1954, the 28-year-old made his first cinematic appearance playing – in an uncredited role – the laconic character ‘Slim’ in the Oscar-winning film “On the Waterfront” opposite Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb. Gwynne’s career took another surprising turn when he landed his first major Broadway role in the musical, “Irma La Duce”. Shortly afterwards Phil Silvers sought him out for his television show because he had been impressed by Gwynne’s comedic work in “Mrs. McThing”. As a result, in 1955, Gwynne made a memorable appearance on “The Phil Silvers Show”, in the episode “The Eating Contest” as the character ‘Corporal Ed Honnergar’, whose depressive eating binges are exploited by ‘Sgt. Bilko’ (Phil Silvers), who seeks prize money by entering Honnergar in an eating contest.
Gwynne’s second appearance on The Phil Silvers Show (in the episode “Its For The Birds” in 1956 in which Bilko persuades bird expert Honnergar to go on The $64,000 Question) and many other shows led writer-producer Nat Hiken to cast him in the sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” as Patrolman ‘Francis Muldoon’, opposite Joe E. Ross. The show was a success, though only ran from 1961-1963.During the two-season run of the programme he met longtime friend and later co-star, Al Lewis. 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. 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, At 6 ft 5 in tall, it was an attribute that contributed to his being cast as ‘Herman Munster’, a goofy parody of ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, in the CBS television sitcom series “The Munsters”. For his role he had to wear 50 lbs of padding, makeup, and 4-inch asphalt-spreader boots. His face was painted a bright violet because it captured the most light on the black-and-white film, he reportedly lost ten pounds in one day of filming under the hot lights. The funny character 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 hugely 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.
Gwynne was known for his sense of humour and retained fond recollections of Herman, saying in his later life, “… I might as well tell you the truth. I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try not to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.” 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, Gwynne started refusing to have anything to do with or even to speak of the show. He was unable to gain new character roles for over two years. He appeared in a string of failed television pilots and a few TV movies, then In 1969 he was cast as ‘Jonathan Brewster’ in a television production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”. (The Brewster character had originally been played by Boris Karloff in the Broadway theater production of the play; Karloff had also famously played the movies’ ‘Frankenstein’ character that Gwynne’s ‘Herman Munster’ character would later be based on.)
A talented vocalist, Gwynne sang in a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-television production, “The Littlest Angel” (1969), and went on to perform in a variety of roles on stage and screen. In 1974, drawing upon his own Southern roots, he appeared in the role of ‘Big Daddy Pollitt’ in the Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Elizabeth Ashley, Keir Dullea and Kate Reid where he won critical acclaim. In 1975 he played the ‘Stage Manager’ in “Our Town” at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. He returned to Broadway in 1976 as ‘Colonel J. C. Kinkaid’ in two parts of “A Texas Trilogy”. In 1976, he won an Obie Award for his performance in the off-Broadway play, Grand Magic.
Gwynne made a comeback to the big screen with a small role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s haunting drama, “Luna”, starring Jill Clayburgh. In 1984, he tried out for the part of ‘Henry’ on the show “Punky Brewster”. He is said to have withdrawn from the audition in frustration when the auditioner identified him as ‘Herman Munster’ rather than by his real name. The role of ‘Henry’ subsequently went to George Gaynes. He then starred in “The Cotton Club” starring Richard Gere and went on to star in other A-list films such as “Ironweed” with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and “Fatal Attraction” with Glenn Close and Michael Douglas. In 1987, Fred Gwynne starred in a short-lived TV series “Jake’s M.O.” where he played an investigative reporter. Fred Gwynne’s performance as ‘Jud Crandall’ in “Pet Sematary” was based on author Stephen King himself, who is only an inch shorter than the actor, and uses a similarly thick Maine dialect.
Gwynne also had roles in the movies “Simon”, “On the Waterfront”, “So Fine”, “Disorganized Crime”, “The Cotton Club”, “Captains Courageous”, “The Secret of My Success”, “Water”, “Ironweed”, “Fatal Attraction” and “The Boy Who Could Fly”. Despite his misgiving about having been typecast, he also agreed to reprise the role of ‘Herman Munster’ for the 1981 TV reunion movie “The Munsters’ Revenge” . Gwynne was initially not interested, however, his second wife suggested that he ask the network for a large paycheck which they will probably refuse. However, when NBC surprisingly agreed to his demands, he accepted the role. Gwynne played ‘Judge Chamberlain Haller’ in his last film, the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny”. As a Yale Law School-educated judge in the film, he used a Southern accent in his verbal sparring with Joe Pesci’s character, Vincent “Vinny” Gambini. Critic and cinema historian Mick LaSalle cited that Gwynne’s performance as ‘Judge Chamberlain Haller’ “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.”
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. In addition to his acting career, Gwynne sang professionally, painted, sculpted and wrote and illustrated children’s books, including “Best In Show” (later titled “It’s Easy to See Why”), “A Chocolate Moose for Dinner”, “The King Who Rained”, “Pondlarker”, “The Battle of the Frogs” and “Mice”, and “A Little Pigeon Toad”. Many of these efforts were based on children’s frequent misperceptions of things they hear from adults, such as the “chocolate moose for dinner,” which was illustrated as a large brown quadruped seated at the dinner table. The other books on this theme were “The King Who Rained”, “A Little Pigeon Toad” (in which a child’s mother thus describes her father), and “The Sixteen Hand Horse”.
Perhaps one of the reasons the books did not achieve wider popularity initially was the fact that their format was geared to a very young audience, but the concept itself was more appealing to older children and adults, achieving critical success and eventually becoming regular bestsellers for their publisher. He also lent his voice talents to commercials and radio shows such as “CBS Radio Mystery Theater” (“Kill Now and Pay Later”, “Gate 27”), and for some radio fans, he is known foremost for his contribution to CBSRMT’s success. Later, he held a number of shows of his artwork, the first in 1989.
In 1952, Gwynne married socialite Jean “Foxy” Reynard, a granddaughter of New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor whom he had met through friends. Before divorcing in 1980, the couple had five children: Gaynor (daughter, b. 1952); Kieron (son, b. 1954); Evan (son, b. 1956); Madyn (daughter, b. 1958) and Dylan (son, b. 1960 / d. 1963, drowning). In 1988, Gwynne married Deborah Flater who was over 20 years his junior.
Just one year into his tranquil, new life, Gwynne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in his home near Taneytown, Maryland on July 2, 1993, at the age of 66 in his cigar room at his home in Taneytown, Maryland, eight days short of his 67th birthday. He is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church Cemetery in Finksburg, Maryland. By choice he was never part of the Hollywood or Broadway social whirl, Gwynne lived a quiet life, most who knew him described him as a good friend and neighbour who liked to keep his personal and professional lives separate.
“Funny thing, yesterday morning I found my youngest son and daughter watching the rerun of an old (The Munsters (1964)) episode and I said, “My God, THAT’S not still on, is it?” Well, even so, I was very lucky and it was great fun to be as much of a household product as something like Rinso. I almost wish I could do it all over again”. Fred Gwynne

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