Updated: January 14, 2019
IN MEMORY OF ACTOR-COMIC FRED GWYNNE
Frederick Hubbard Gwynne (July 10, 1926 – July 2, 1993) was an American actor, artist and author. Gwynne was best known for his roles in the 1960s sitcoms Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, as well as his later roles in The Cotton Club, Pet Sematary and My Cousin Vinny.
Fred 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 his wife, Dorothy (Ficken). 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 traveled extensively. Fred Gwynne attended the Groton School.
During World War II, Fred Gwynne served in the United States Navy, as a radioman on a submarine chaser. He later studied art under the G.I. Bill before attending Harvard, 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, was a cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon (eventually becoming its president), and acted in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals shows.
Gwynne joined the Brattle Theatre Repertory Company after his 1951 graduation, then moved to New York City. To support himself, Gwynne worked as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson, resigning in 1952 upon being cast in his first Broadway role, a gangster in a comedy called Mrs. McThing, which starred Helen Hayes.
In 1954 he 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. 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. During the two-season run of the program he met longtime friend and later co-star, Al Lewis. Gwynne was 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) tall, an attribute that contributed to his being cast as Herman Munster, a goofy parody of Frankenstein's monster, in the sitcom The Munsters. For his role he had to wear 40 or 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. Gwynne was known for his sense of humor and retained fond recollections of Herman, saying in 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 his iconic role in The Munsters, he found himself typecast, unable to gain new character roles for over two years. 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. 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 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. 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 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.
In addition to his acting career, Gwynne sang professionally, painted, 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.Before divorcing in 1980, the couple had five children: Gaynor (daughter, b. 1952); Kieron (son, b. 1954); Evan (son, b. 1956); Madyn (daughter, b. 1965) and Dylan (son, b. 1960 / d. 1963, drowning).
Fred Gwynne died of complications from pancreatic cancer, in his cigar room at his home in Taneytown, Maryland, on July 2, 1993, eight days short of his 67th birthday. He is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church Cemetery in Finksburg, Maryland.