The Friendship and Careers of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis

Fred Gwynne was born in New York in July of 1926 and died in Maryland in 1993.  Al Lewis was born in New York in April of 1923 and passed away in New York in February of 2006. At first glance, they don’t seem to have a lot in common, but a closer look reveals why they enjoyed a long friendship.

Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne grew up in New York and had a very wealthy and advantaged upbringing.  He was a radioman in the Navy during World War II.  When the war was over, Gwynne entered Harvard, studying drawing and dramatics. He became a member of their Hasty Pudding Club, being involved with many theatrical productions. Gwynne graduated in 1951 and went on to work for a Shakespeare repertory company. He was a talented man with a variety of interests and earned his living from several careers.  He was a copywriter, a musician, a book illustrator, and a commercial artist.

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In 1952, he made his Broadway debut, acting with Helen Hayes in “Mrs. McThing.” The play ran for 320 performances.  In 1953, he performed in his second Broadway play, “The Frogs of Spring” which had a much shorter run.  In 1954, he had a small role in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando.

He also began appearing on television in the 1950s, and most of his roles were on dramas such as Kraft Theater or DuPont Show of the Week.

The one exception was The Phil Silvers Show where he appeared in 1955 and 1956. The producer of this show, Nat Hiken, went on to create a similar show called Car 54 Where Are You? about New York policemen.  He cast Gwynne as one of the leads, Francis Muldoon. The show ran for two seasons and when it was cancelled, Gwynne went back to his theatrical dramas.

In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver, decided on a different concept for a show called The Munsters.  Fred was cast as the lead role.  While this show also ran two years, the part of Herman Munster was much harder to overcome than Francis Muldoon had been.  Gwynne struggled to find new roles, and when he was unsuccessful, he went back to Broadway.  He did make one pilot during these years for a show called Guess What I Did Today, but no network picked it up. His favorite Broadway performance was Big Daddy in 1974 when he starred in “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.”

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During the 1980s, his cinema career picked up and he ended up with 15 movies to his credit from 1979-1992. Included in this list are The Cotton Club, The Secret of My Success, Fatal Attraction, Ironweed, Pet Sematary, and My Cousin Vinny.

His book writing and illustrating also continued.  His first book, The Best in Show, was published in 1958.  The King Who Rained came out in 1970, and Simon and Schuster published A Chocolate Moose for Dinner in 1976 and A Little Pigeon Toad in 1988.

Throughout most of his career, Gwynne lived a quiet life far from Hollywood. He was married to his first wife Roxy from 1952-1980 and his second wife from 1981 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.

Al Lewis

Al Lewis claimed he was born in 1910 and was a circus performer in the 1920s.  He also said he went to Columbia and graduated with a PhD in child psychology.  After he passed away, his son confirmed that he was born in 1923, and Columbia had no record of him attending school with his given name or his stage name.  His son thought he made himself older to get the role of Grandpa in The Munsters because in real life Yvonne DeCarlo was a year older than he was.

Some of his other jobs included a salesman,  hot dog vendor for the Brooklyn Dodgers, waiter, pool room owner, and store detective.  He was a good basketball player in high school and apparently worked as a basketball scout at some time in his early life. A friend convinced him to join an actor’s workshop in 1949 and that led to a career in vaudeville. In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a variety of TV shows including US Steel Hour, Route 66, Lost in Space, and Gomer Pyle.  He too was cast in the Phil Silvers Show which later resulted in his role of Patrolman Leo Schnauzer in Car 54 Where Are You?

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In 1964, he too was offered a role in The Munsters. In 1966 when the show went off the air, he continued making television appearances and starred in cinema movies.  During the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared on Night Gallery, Green Acres, Love American Style, Here’s Lucy, Taxi, and Best of the West.  His career featured 22 films including They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Boatniks, Used Cars, Married to the Mob, and a remake of Car 54 Where Are You?

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Like Gwynne, he was married twice:  to Marge from 1956-1977 and to Karen from 1984 until his death from heart complications in 2006. Lewis also published several children’s books during his acting career.

Midway through his career he opened an Italian restaurant, Grandpa’s Bella Gente, which Gwynne designed the logo for. He also got into radio and was featured on Howard Stern’s Show often.

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It is surprising that both of these stars were in two sitcoms which both lasted only two years. Let’s take a look at the shows that made them household names.

Car 54 Where Are You?

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This sitcom, set in the 53rd precinct in Brooklyn was an early Barney Miller. Gwynne played Francis Muldoon.  His partner, Gunther Toody, was his exact opposite.  While Muldoon was a bachelor, an intellectual, calm and quiet, Toody was married, naïve, excitable, and talkative. In one show, when the precinct is debating splitting up the two men, Muldoon says “I guess most of the men are smarter than Gunther and less trouble than Gunther, but  . . . well, I’m so used to Gunther.  When he chatters away, the days just fly by.  I’d just be lost without Gunther.” Gunther concurs, “You mean ride around with someone next to me that’s not Muldoon? Francis is a quiet man. He doesn’t say a word. He just sits there all day thinking. It’s very comforting for a man like me to know there’s someone next to him doing the thinking for both of us.” Of course, they split them up only to partner them up again because no one else could take the silence or constant chatter.

Al Lewis played Officer Leo Schnauzer, appearing in every episode.

Policemen were split on their view of the show.  Some took offense and felt they were portrayed in a negative light, while others enjoyed it and identified with some of the comedic elements. It was filmed in The Bronx at Biograph Studio.  There was a large sign out front identifying it as the 53rd precinct till a woman came in pleading to save her from her abusive husband and the sign was quickly taken down.

Originally titled Snow Whites, the show aired at 8:30 eastern time Sunday nights between The Wide World of Disney and Bonanza.  The only clue I could find for the original name was that the show was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble who made several detergents for clothing. It was filmed in black and white, but the police cars were red and white so they would show up better on black and white film. The show also starred Beatrice Pons, Charlotte Rae, Nipsey Russell, Alice Ghostley, and Larry Storch.

Perhaps what the show is best remembered for was its catchy theme song.  Anyone who viewed an episode or two can probably remember the fun lyrics:

There’s a hold up in the Bronx, Brooklyn’s broken out in fights.

There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights.

There’s a scout troop short a child; Kruschev’s due at Idlewild . . .

Car 54, where are you?

 

The Munsters

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In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver decided to feature another “wholesome” family who just happens to live at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in Mockingbird Heights. The family consists of Grandpa who is always experimenting in his lab; Herman who is the funeral director at Gateman, Goodbury, and Graves; his wife Lilly, a vampire; their son Eddie who is a werewolf; and their beautiful black-sheep Marilyn.  Marilyn was beautiful but they viewed her as odd looking and she seemed to get a lot of dates but when she brings them home, they never ask her out again. The family also owns two pets – Spot, a prehistoric animal Grandpa rescued and Igor, a bat.  They lived a somewhat normal life but drank bat milk and cooked in a cauldron. On the hour, a cuckoo clock chimed and a raven, voiced by Mel Blanc, appeared and said “Nevermore.”

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All the actors had to endure a two-hour make-up session, but Gwynne had the worst time because he had to wear 40-50 pounds of padding.  One day he lost 10 pounds filming under the lights.  They gave him gallons of lemonade between takes and later rigged a way to blow cool air on him underneath the material.

The entire family could have been played by different actors.  John Carradine was offered the role of Herman. The pilot featured Joan Marshall as the wife and instead of Lilly, her name was Phoebe. Marilyn was played by Beverly Owens for 13 episodes and then Pat Priest took over for the rest of the show’s run. Eddie was first offered to Bill Mumy, Will Robinson from Lost in Space, and Grandpa to Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

After the show was cancelled, the Munster mobile often traveled to memorabilia shows.  There was also a Dragula built with purple silk upholstery and chrome pipes for the exhaust. Although the show was only on the air for two years, there were a lot of collectibles such as board games, lunch boxes, paper dolls, and coloring books.

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In 2001, the McKee family of Waxahachie, Texas was such a huge fan of the show that the family built their 5000+ square foot house to exactly resemble the Munsters’ home including the crooked weather vane and grand staircase that lifted up to feed Spot.

Both Gwynne and Lewis were born in New York.  They both appeared on the show Brenner early in their careers. Both were tapped from their roles in The Phil Silvers Show to play roles on Car 54 Where Are You? They both went on to star in The Munsters.  Neither of them ever had another series.  They both chose to live on the east coast. They both wrote children’s books.  They were each married twice and married to their second spouse for the rest of their lives. They both had a lot of success in the movies as well as television. They were both men with fascinating careers before they ever entered acting.  I learned a lot about these interesting friends.  Happy Birthday to Fred Gwynne would have been 91.

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4 thoughts on “The Friendship and Careers of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis

  1. I had not heard of either of these men but I recognized Grandpa from The Munsters as soon as I saw an older version of him. I had never thought about the amount of make-up or the time it might take to get make-up put on for some of these shows. It sounds like that might have been the hardest part in appearing in The Munsters!

    I did not see many episodes of The Munsters but I am very aware of the show and the characters in it. I can’t believe some of these shows like The Munsters and Batman are so recognizable to me but they were only on for a short time. It makes me wonder how some shows last through time and others are forgotten right away when they might have been on for the same amount of time.

    Also, The Munsters always makes me think of the Monstars from Space Jam!

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    • I have to admit The Munsters was not one of my favorite shows. I was surprised by the similarities Gwynne and Lewis had. I really didn’t know much about either of them so this was a fun blog for me.
      I do remember watching reruns of Car 54 though. There used to be a great show on weeknights from midnight till 2. This was in the mid to late 70s and they showed both dramas and comedies from the 50s and 60s. I’ve never met anyone else who ever saw it (eerie music playing) but that’s where I learned about a lot of shows. They always did a little intro about each one.

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  2. I was too young for “Car 54,” but “The Munsters” was part of my childhood. It’s still one of my favorite shows (I have DVDs of the entire first season). There are several things that make the show special: like you said, it was a spoof of conservative, all-American families like the Cleavers and the Nelsons; also, the irony of huge, scary Hermann’s cloddish, juvenile behavior; also, the seemingly endless puns generated by the family’s belief that they’re “normal,” when everyone else sees them as monsters; lastly, the chemistry between Gwynne and Lewis. They were one of many comedic duos that effectively exploited the straight man/funny man genius of Laurel and Hardy. My favorite show is when the rock band The Standells visits the house and provides music for a beatnik party and poetry reading. It’s back when beatniks (proto-hippies) were considered “freaks” by straight society, so these beats and monsters get along famously!

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    • Thanks for following. I was able to read several of your blogs and live the variety. I will go back and read several more as time permits. While I live in Wisconsin now, I grew up in Pennsylvania not too far from where you did.

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