Pursued By A Monstrous Image Of His Own Creation

No student complaints were ever recorded about the 6'5" monstrosity that wandered the campus between 1947 and 1951. Frederick H. Gwynne `51 had yet to undergo the three-hour make-up process that would transform him into Frankenstein's close cousin for the 1960s television show "The Munsters."

Gwynne, who died of cancer in 1993, also played Officer Francis Muldoon in the show "Car 54, Where Are You?" and as the Southern judge in "My Cousin Vinny." But he is best known for his longtime role as the slow-witted and bumbling but affable Munster.

Years after the popular show went off the air, friends say, children would approach Gwynne in the street and say hello to "Mr. Munster."

But the real Fred Gwynne was nothing like lummox he played on T.V.

Those who knew him well describe his sharp wit and acting skill and say how unfortunate Gwynne was to have been permanently type-cast after his career on "The Munsters."

They describe Gwynne as a multi-talented, complex man who was justified when he told friends that he hated America's perception of him.

Renaissance Man

Gwynne was born in 1926 and grew up in the New York City neighborhood of Tuxedo Park. He attended the Groton School in Connecticut--a well-known preparatory academy.

According to life-long friend David S. Biddle `49, who attended both Groton and Harvard with "Freddy," acting was only one of Gwynne's talents.

Gwynne's first love, according to Biddle, was drawing and painting.

"Freddy was a wonderful cartoonist," Biddle says. "He inspired me to begin writing a comic strip for my local newspaper."

Biddle recalls one example of Gwynne's cartooning ability and artistic creativity that took place on a vacation the two took together.

"I was at Cape May with Freddy a few years ago, and we agreed to draw caricatures of each other," Biddle says. "I drew him as a man in his 60's, but he drew me as I looked when we were kids."

Gwynne's daughter, Madyn Gwynne, says her father was "foremost an artist, not an actor."

His love of drawing led Gwynne to publish a number of children's books in the 1980's--most notably, "The King who Rained" and "A Chocolate Moose for Dinner."

"He loved clever puns," Biddle says.

Gwynne was also a gifted singer.

Biddle says he and Gwynne would entertain their high school friends by singing a capella--Gwynne was a bass.

Gwynne followed Groton with a brief stint as a radio operator during World War II and then headed to the New York Phoenix School of Design, where he planned to pursue his interest in art.

But his singing changed Gwynne's plans.

In 1946, two years before Gwynne came to Harvard, Biddle and David G. Binger `48 founded the College's famous a capella group, the Krokodiloes.

On a visit to Harvard, Gwynne heard the group perform and, according to Binger, decided to become a part of it.

"He really came to Harvard for the Kroks," Binger said. "He had a wonderful voice."

At Harvard, Gwynne began designing covers for the Harvard Lampoon and became the organization's president in 1950.

Madyn Gwynne says some of her father's fondest memories were of the Kroks and of the Lampoon.

"I went to a Krokodiloes reunion with him once," Gwynne says. "He loved singing, and he loved his College years-especially the Lampoon."

But while at Harvard, Gwynne also began acting. He became a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and acted in a series of Harvard plays.

"He was a very good Shakespearean actor," Biddle says. "That's where he got his reputation."

Both Biddle and Binger say Gwynne helped popularize the theater scene at Harvard and fill the seats in the Brattle Theater.

"When we came to Harvard, it was bereft of arts," Biddle said. "We started arts at Harvard."

It was while performing in a Shakespeare play, according to Binger, that Gwynne was discovered by Broadway actress Helen Hayes, who helped launch his Broadway debut in 1952, as a gangster in the play "Mrs. McThing."

He next played a police officer in "Irma La Douche."

Those early roles eventually led to a supporting role in the Oscar-winning Marlon Brando film "On the Waterfront."

Next up was "Car 54," and finally the role that put Gwynne on the map.

It's Alive!

From 1964-1966, Gwynne starred as Herman Munster in the CBS show "The Munsters."

Every shoot day, a reported three-hour makeup procedure would be required to make Gwynne into the Frankenstein character he played.

He was also affixed with a costume that, according to Binger, "put a lot of weight on his head and shoulders." By the end of his life, Gwynne had difficulty turning his head from side to side--a condition Binger blames on the Munster costume.

But those who knew Gwynne say the image the Munster part left him with was much worse than the pain of the make-up and costume.

"He was a consummate actor in that he had so many personalities," Madyn Gwynne says. "He was a far more complex character than the one he played on The Munsters."

"The role gave America a perception of him," she adds. "Most people didn't think he would be so bright."

Binger also calls The Munsters a waste of Gwynne's talent.

"The Munsters was a dog," Binger says. "Once I said `Freddy, what're you doing?' He said 'Making $200,000 a year. What're you doing?'"

However Binger says a role like Herman Munster was the only sort that Gwynne could consistently find.

"He was tall and funny-looking and had the kind of face that casting directors have trouble with," Binger says. "His looks prevented him from having a better career in Hollywood."

Dr. Jekyll, Not Mr. Hyde

The real Fred Gwynne was known to his friends as many things-none of which was slow-witted or boring.

Biddle describes Gwynne as a jokester who could keep crowds of people rolling their seats.

"At Groton," Biddle says. "Freddy was going to make money being funny."

"He had a really simple joke that used to make us laugh hysterically: What did the big rose say to the little rose? Hiya bud. It happened to hit us as hilariously funny one day, and Freddy got detention for disturbing the dining room," he says.

Biddle also says Gwynne was extremely creative.

"He once tried to invent a fin that would help people swim underwater," Biddle says. "It didn't work, but that shows his zany side."

His extracurriculars left Gwynne little time for his studies while at Harvard.

"I would suspect that Freddy's marks at Harvard weren't terrific," Biddle says. "We would just say that if you rubbed your shoulders on the walls at Harvard, you'd get an education."

Social life and extracurricular activities brought Gwynne to Harvard and fostered his career.

But the role that made him famous was a monster devoid of social skills or talent.