Published on July 3, 2016
Frederick Hubbard “Fred” Gwynne (July 10, 1926 – July 2, 1993) was an American actor. 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.
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, Ireland, and his maternal grandfather was an immigrant from London, England. Gwynne attended the Groton School, and then entered Harvard College where he was affiliated with Adams House. He graduated 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 United States 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.
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 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 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, Gwynne starred in a short-lived TV series Jake’s M.O. where he played an investigative reporter.
Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary 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. 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, over how to pronounce the word “youths” which was prominently featured in the film’s trailer.
Vinny: Is it possible that the two yout’s–
Judge Haller: Uh, the two what? Uh, uh, what was that word?
Vinny: Uh, what word?
Judge Haller: Two what?
Judge Haller: Did you say “yutes”?
Vinny: Yeah, two yout’s.
Judge Haller: What is a yute?
Vinny: Oh, excuse me, Your Honor, two youuuuths.
In addition to his acting career, Gwynne sang professionally, painted, and wrote and illustrated children’s books, including It’s Easy to See Why, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, Best In Show, 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 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. 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.
n 1952, Gwynne married socialite Jean “Foxy” Reynard, a granddaughter of New York City mayor William Jay Gaynor. They had five children—three sons, Evan, Dylan, and Keiron, and two daughters, Madyn and Gaynor—before divorcing in 1980. Dylan died in a drowning accident as a child in 1963, and Keiron was born with developmental disabilities. In 1988, Gwynne married Deborah Flater.
Gwynne died of pancreatic cancer in his sleep, at his home on July 2, 1993, 8 days short of his 67th birthday.