Obituary: Fred Gwynne
Monday 05 July 1993
THE bungling police officer Francis Muldoon and Herman Munster, head of a family of ghouls, were two of the great characters in American television situation comedies of the Sixties, and the sad-faced Fred Gwynne was the 6ft 7in star who made them both larger than life.
Born in New York City, Gwynne spent his childhood there and in South Carolina, Florida and Colorado as his stockbroker father travelled extensively. Leaving high school in 1944, Gwynne forsook his original ambition of becoming a portrait painter to join the US Navy as a radioman 3rd class on a sub-chaser in the Pacific. He then spent a year at art school, before studying English literature at Harvard University, where he became involved with the Brattle Theater, a professional repertory company founded by ex-GI graduates.
As a writer and illustrator since his teenage years, he had contributed stories and cartoons to the Harvard Advocate, which helped him to land a copywriting job with the giant J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. This gave him the financial stability he needed to act in his spare time. He starred in The Winter's Tale in the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut, and in Who Was that Lady I Saw you With?, opposite Betty White in Detroit.
But it was Gwynne's successful portrayal of Bottom in a Midsummer Night's Dream that gave him the confidence to move to New York, landing roles on Broadway as the Stinker in the Mary Chase fantasy Mrs McThing, alongside Helen Hayes, in 1952, and as the FreEnch gangster Poloyte-Le- Mou in the hit musical Irma La Douce, wTHER write errorhich made him a star.
In the middle of Irma La Douce's successful run, Gwynne was cast as the dim-witted Officer Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You?, the New York police comedy that began in 1961. His comic talents, already recognised, had been used in The Phil Silvers Show, and now he had his own situation comedy, with Joe E. Ross co- starring as his short, chubby partner Officer Gunther Toody.
After Car 54's two-year run, Gwynne became Herman Munster in The Munsters, the character resembling Frankenstein's monster, with a bolt through his neck, a jagged haircut and oversize boots. Although episodes were shot in black-and-white, Gwynne wore green make-up and, far from portraying Herman Munster as frightening, made him lovable. The series, which began in 1964, ran for two years and 70 episodes, and Gwynne appeared in the spin-off film Munster Go Home] and the television movie The Munsters' Revenge (1981).
Once the television series had finished, Gwynne moved back to the East Coast and joined a repertory company in Stratford, Connecticut, before more success on Broadway as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. He won an Obie award (the off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony) in 1979 for his starring role in Grand Magic.
Having earlier appeared in films such as On The Waterfront (1954), Luna (1979) and Simon (1980), Gwynne returned to the cinema in 1984 as Frenchy in The Cotton Club, and followed it with roles in The Boy Who Could Fly (1986), Ironweed (1987), Fatal Attraction (1987), Pet Sematary (1989) and, last year, My Cousin Vinny, in which he played a Southern judge. His other television appearances include The Lesson (1966) - for which he won an Emmy award - and the mini-series Kane and Abel (1985).
Gwynne also wrote or illustrated a dozen children's books, such as The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, A Little Pigeon Toad, The King Who Rained (1970), A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and Sixteen-Hand Horse (1980).
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