THE MUNSTERS (1964)

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The Munsters

Created by Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly ('Amos n' Andy', 'Leave It To Beaver'), 'The Munsters' hit the screen at almost the same time as another spoof horror series 'The Addams Family.'

Living at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, a decrepit gothic mansion, the Munster family consisted of 7 foot tall Herman -a Frankenstein look-alike (Fred Gwynne) complete with bolted neck and leaden boots, his wife Lily (Yvonne DeCarlo) a vampire who walked around the house dressed in shrouds, Grandpa (Al Lewis) a Dracula look-alike whose constant experiments went wrong, Eddie (Butch Patrick), Herman and Lily's werewolf son, and their niece Marilyn (Beverly Owen in series one and Pat Priest thereafter).

Stories revolved around the family's contacts with the outside world and the misconception that they were normal and everyone else was strange. Marilyn was treated as a misfit because she was an attractive blond in the mould of her namesake, Marilyn Monroe, the family drove around in a hearse, and their house was adorned with weeds on the outside and cobwebs on the inside. Herman worked for the undertakers Gateman, Goodbury & Graves. Although the jokes wore a little thin after a while, the series could, with all credibility, be described as having an underlying message of racial tolerance, drawing comparisons with the Munsters as an immigrant family whose friendly intentions are continually misunderstood simply because they looked different and appeared to inhabit an entirely unconventional lifestyle.

Al Lewis came to the series after appearing on radio and TV for a number of years but with only modest success. He had made a few guest appearances in another hit US sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You? which was created by Nat Hiken who was also repsonsible for The Phil Silvers Show (aka Bilko). Lewis later recalled that he had been doing a Broadway musical with Silvers and Nancy Walker when Hiken called him and asked him to do a couple of guest shots on Car 54. He went to New York in the Christmas week of 1960 and was first cast as a building construction superintendent trying to get a woman out of a building. About a week later he played the owner of a car repair shop called Fenders playing alongside Billy Sands who had starred in The Phil Silvers Show as Pvt. Dino Paparelli (there is an 'in joke' here because in 'Bilko' there was also a character known as Fender). Of course, one of the stars of Car 54 was Fred Gwynne (who had also made an early appearance in the Silvers show -playing a one-off character called The Stomach in the episode 'The Eating Contest').

Following on from those guest shots the series sponsor Proctor and Gamble recommended that Al Lewis be given a regular part in Car 54. Nat Hiken created the role of officer Leo Schnauser for Al Lewis and he did the part for the next two years. Lewis and Gwynne in particular seemed to have an on screen chemistry that worked really well. Then Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher proposed to Universal (who owned the rights to most of the old classic movie monster characters) a comedy show based on their horror creatures. Al Lewis, and Fred Gwynne were invited to shoot the pilot, although at that time the role of Lily Munster had not been cast. The pilot was just a 15 minute shoot and was lifted from the script for the episode 'My Fair Munster.' Cast as Lily was Joan Marshall and Eddy, the Munster's son was played by Happy Durman. The only other to go on and become a regular from the pilot shoot was Beverly Owen.

One thing that was not made clear when both actors were given the pilot script to read was the amount of make-up they were required to wear. But Al Lewis claimed that he had a glorious time doing the part. After the show ended Lewis continued acting but Fred Gwynne complained that the show virtually wrecked his acting career for a number of years and for many of those years he flatly refused to even talk about 'The Munsters'. On the other hand, Lewis had no such problem. "Nobody ever said to me 'We're not casting comic Dracula's this week'. Nothing like that. It didn't bother me any, because before I did 'The Munsters' I worked. After it I worked."

A movie, 'Munster Go Home', featuring the TV cast was released in 1966 and Gywnne, DeCarlo and Lewis reprised their roles for a 1981 TVM; 'The Munsters Revenge'. A weak attempt to revive the series for television with an all new cast was made in 1988, but without the innate warmth and polish of the original performers it was doomed to be little more than an embarassing and decidedly unfunny ghost of its former incarnation.

In 1995 The Munsters reappeared on Fox TV in Here Come The Munsters which was a prequel to the original series explaining how the family first left Transylvania and arrived in America. Unfortunately it was set in the 1990s and not the 1960s. The new cast of actors were made to look exactly like the original cast and many of the originals (Yvonne De Carlo, Al Lewis, Butch Patrick and Pat Priest) made guest appearances. Sadly, Fred Gwynne had passed away in 1993.

Review: Laurence Marcus 2006

for Television Heaven