Biography of Fred Gwynne, Star of The Munsters

Fred Gwynne in the role of Herman Munster, alongside his costar Yvonne de Carlo
Fred Gwynne in the role of Herman Munster, alongside his costar Yvonne de Carlo.

American Stock Archive / Getty Images

Fred Gwynne (July 10, 1926—July 2, 1993) is best remembered for his role as Herman Munster in the 1960s TV series The Munsters. In addition to his acting career, Gwynne was also a successful children's picture book illustrator.

Fast Facts: Fred Gwynne

  • Full Name: Frederick Hubbard Gwynne
  • Known As: Fred Gwynne
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: July 10, 1926 in New York, New York, USA
  • Died: July 2, 1993 in Taneytown, Maryland, USA
  • Key Accomplishment: Portrayal of Herman Munster in the 1960s sitcom The Munsters
  • Spouses' Names: Jean Reynard (m. 1952-1980), Deborah Flater (m. 1989)
  • Children's Names: Gaynor, Kieron, Evan, Madyn, Dylan
  • Famous Quote: "I decided to take a stab at acting."

Early Life and Military Service

Gwynne was born in New York City, but he spent much of his childhood in South Carolina, Florida, and Colorado because of his father's frequent work travel. (His father, a wealthy stockbroker, was a partner in the securities company Gwynne Brothers.) Gwynne attended the Groton School, an exclusive college preparatory boarding school located in Massachusetts.

Gwynne served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He attended Harvard University after the war. There, he participated in an a capella singing group, drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon, and appeared in stage productions.

After graduation in 1951, Gwynne moved to New York City and worked a variety of jobs—from commercial artist to copywriter while looking for acting opportunities. He landed his first Broadway role in the Helen Hayes play Mrs. McThing. It ran for over 300 performances.

Acting Career

Fred Gwynne's next Broadway play was a flop. He appeared in a movie for the first time in 1954: an uncredited appearance in the Academy Award Best Picture winner On the Waterfront. While Gwynne's stage and movie careers struggled, others in the industry continued to admire him, including comedian Phil Silvers, who remembered Gwynne's performance in Mrs. McThing.

The Phil Silvers Show became a pioneering TV hit and Fred Gwynne's guest spot in the 1955 episode "The Eating Contest" impressed the show's star and home audiences alike. He appeared again in the 1956 episode "It's for the Birds." Gwynne acted in a wide range of TV productions through the rest of the decade. He returned to the Broadway stage in 1960 in a supporting role in the musical Irma La Douce.

While performing on Broadway, Nat Hiken, producer of The Phil Silvers Show, hired Gwynne to co-star in his new TV comedy Car 54, Where Are You? The show lasted for two seasons. When it came to an end in 1963, Fred Gwynne returned to Broadway to appear in the musical Here's Love.

The Munsters

TV came calling again in 1964, when Leave It to Beaver creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher set out to produce a comedic parody of the classic Universal Studios movie monsters. They called the show The Munsters. They hired Fred Gwynne to play Herman Munster, the patriarch of the monster family. The show took its comic effect from the fact that none of the Munsters seemed to understand why the rest of the world saw them as unusual. It took more than two hours to apply Gwynne's makeup for the gently goofy take on Frankenstein's monster.

The show's ratings were not impressive in its two-year run, but it prospered in syndication. The success generated multiple made-for-TV movie spinoffs related to the show. Fred Gwynne appeared only in 1981's The Munsters' Revenge. A new series The Munsters Today ran on TV from 1988 through 1991. However, Fred Gwynne did not appear in the new show.

After The Munsters came to an end in 1966, Fred Gwynne battled typecasting in his search for new acting roles. Despite the limitations it placed on his career, later in life he said, "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."

Later Acting Career

Fred Gwynne returned to Broadway in 1974 in the role of Big Daddy Pollitt in a revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He also performed in two of the three plays in A Texas Trilogy that opened on Broadway in 1976.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, radio listeners heard the voice of Fred Gwynne on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. He performed in 79 episodes of the series and is credited with playing a crucial part in the success of the show, which ran from 1974 to 1982 on the CBS Radio Network.

Gwynne found success in films in the last decade of his life. He appeared in 1987's Academy Award Best Picture nominee Fatal Attraction. He played the role of Jud Crandall in 1989's Pet Sematary, a character based on the book's author Stephen King. Fred Gwynne's final onscreen appearance was in 1992's My Cousin Vinny playing Judge Chamberlain Haller.

Writer and Illustrator

In addition to his acting and singing performances, Fred Gwynne was an accomplished children's book author and illustrator. His works include A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, and A Little Pigeon Toad. The books were often based on how children mishear words spoken by adults and assign them alternative meanings.

In 1989, Gwynne began exhibiting his paintings publicly. In 1978, he told a New York Times reporter that he always dreamed of being a portrait painter.

Death and Legacy

On July 2, 1993, Fred Gwynne died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Taneytown, Maryland. He is best-remembered for his charming and inimitable portrayal of Herman Munster, as well as his distinct appearance. With his thin build and notable height (he stood at six foot five inches tall), Gwynne embodied the Munster patriarch, and struggled somewhat with the typecasting that followed the iconic role. However, Fred Gwynne still enjoyed a range of acting accomplishments on stage, screen, and TV in addition to a side career as an author and illustrator.