Wednesday, July 10, 2013

BORN ON THIS DAY: FRED GWYNNE

One of the truly great character actors was Fred Gwynne. He was a wonderful actor, but after his appearance as Herman Munster in television's The Munsters, Gwynne was forever type cast in that role. The gentle giant of an actor was born on this day, July 10th, in 1926.

Gwynne was born in New York City, a 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 immigrant from London, England. Gwynne attended the Groton School, and graduated from Harvard University, where he was affiliated with Adams House, in 1951. 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. At Harvard, 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. During World War II, Gwynne served in the U.S. Navy. He later studied art under the G.I. Bill.

Gwynne joined the Brattle Theatre Repertory Company after 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.


Phil Silvers was impressed by Gwynne from his work in Mrs. McThing and sought him for his television show. As a result, in 1955, Gwynne made a memorable appearance on The Phil Silvers Show, in the episode "The Eating Contest" as the character Private 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 then cast next in The Munsters as the head of the family.

Even though he was now identified as Herman Munster, he still worked steadily into the 1990s. One of his best later performances was as Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary. It was based on author Stephen King himself, who is also quite tall — 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. In his last film, Gwynne played Judge Chamberlain Haller in the 1992 film comedy My Cousin Vinny, in which he used a Southern accent, and his verbal sparring with Joe Pesci's character over how to pronounce the word "youths" was prominently featured in the film's trailer. Gwynne died at the relatively young age of 66 when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 2, 1993 just eight days before his 67th birthday...



2 comments:

  1. This is a great tribute. Thank you for posting it.

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  2. This is probably unfair, but my favorite Fred Gwynne moment was when he chided Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny" for pronouncing "youths" as "yewts".

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