The year 1964 saw the debut of rival shows about monstrous families in suburban America. The Addams Family, a somewhat darker vision inspired by Charles Addams' horrifically funny New Yorker comics, may have been developed first (accounts vary), but certainly, the first to air were the clean-cut, Universal Studios-inspired Munster family.
Their history goes back to 1963, when Universal's Jerry Hensler proposed (or some have argued, stole from the Addams' people) the notion of friendly monsters in suburbia.1 Certainly, the idea suited the times. The late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed a revival of the old monster movies on television. And the cycle of bizarre, high-concept "idiotcoms" had already started. The Beverly Hillbillies, in particular, proved that fish-out-of-water families could be lucrative.
They shot the pilot (actually, two pilots, if one includes a very brief, now lost test pilot) on the set of Psycho. While Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis appeared as Herman and Grandpa, as they would in the final show, the rest of the cast differed. It included Joan Marshall as a rather gothic Phoebe Munster who resembled uncannily Caroline Jones' Morticia Addams, and Happy Derman as a deranged wolf-boy son. While the show sold, the pilot was substantially altered and recast. The family also received a newly designed house, a conventional haunted mansion which stood at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) is a creation of Dr. Frankenstein, apparently adopted at some point by a family named Munster and raised into respectable citizenhood. He's married to Lily (Yvonne DeCarlo), the daughter of Count Dracula, who goes by the name "Grandpa" in the series and is played by veteran actor Al Lewis. He's taken to smoking cigars and playing with potions. Neither vampire character drinks blood; nevertheless, at least one episode identifies the family patriarch as the infamous Transylvanian bloodsucker.
Herman and Lily have a son, Eddie (Butch Patrick), who resembles, inexplicably, a werewolf. And finally, they have a niece, Marilyn, whom they pity for her disturbing, freakish appearance. Specifically, she resembles Marilyn Monroe.
Originally, Beverly Owen played the part of Marilyn. She was engaged to a man in New York, however, and unhappy with her life in Hollywood. Reportedly, Gwynne and Lewis gallantly backed her efforts to break her contract, and Pat Priest replaced her after 13 episodes. The actresses were similar-looking, and Marilyn was in any case rarely the focus of an episode. Many people remain oblivious to the fact that there ever were two Marilyns in the show.
The Munsters proved a hit, inspiring fans-- especially among children-- and an amazing amount of merchandise. Munster toys, lunchboxes, and costumes all sold. Models were made of the Munster Family and the Munsters hot rods. Famed car designer George Barris created both the original Munsters Coach, using at least three classic cars for parts, and the "Dragula" driven by Grandpa in the later episodes. A comic also appeared; the show's light tone permitted the old Comics Code Authority to ignore the presence of vampires, still theoretically forbidden in any funnybook wanting Code approval. Lily and Grandpa, for a time, were the only Code-approved vamps in comicdom.
To this day, Munsters merchandise new and old sells. Collectible Munster model cars are issued from time to time, as are Munsters dolls and figures. Polar Lights re-issued the old Aurora model of the family in their living room.
Despite its success, the show faced cancellation in 1966, after only two seasons. The studio made the decision quite suddenly. One factor, rather short-sighted, was the pressure they faced to shoot in color, which was deemed too expensive for an already costly family show. In addition, the show's comedy had grown increasingly broad and physical. While slapstick and silliness had always been a part of The Munsters, the loss of its more subtle and satiric touches resulted for a less rounded comedy, and may have cost them some of their audience. Batman, too, played its part; the successful and colorful series made its debut in 1965 and drew much of kid audience. The Addams Family, interestingly, was cancelled at the same time as their Mockingbird Lane rivals.
The worldwide popularity meant that the family was immediately reunited for a bigscreen, full-color movie, Munster, Go Home!, which would turn a tidy profit and help sell the show in syndication. Pat Priest was not invited to participate; producers replaced her with the teenage Debbie Watson. The plot concerned the events which transpire after Herman inherits Munster Hall, the British home of his adoptive family.
A television movie, The Munster's Revenge(1981), bombed. DeCarlo, Gwynne, and Lewis reappeared; Jo McDonnell now played Marilyn and Casey Martell took the role of Eddie.
From 1988 to 1991, the Munsters once again appeared on television, in a show which claimed they were accidentally frozen in 1966, and only recently revived. It featured John Schuck as a heavy Herman, Lee Meriweather as Lily, Howard Morton as Grandpa, Jason Marsden as Eddie, and Hilary Van Dyke as an apparently de-aged Marilyn (actually, this incarnation also featured two Marilyns; Mary-Ellen Dunbar played the character in the pilot episode). Despite low ratings and critical ridicule, this version lasted three seasons, one more than the original.
In the mid-1990s, Fox tried to revive the show once more with a new cast and a couple of movies, Here Come the Munsters (1995) and The Munsters Scary Little Christmas (1996). Neither proved very successful, though the first features nearly all of the original cast in cameo appearances.
In 2010, NBC hired Bryan Fuller, of Pushing Daisies fame, to write a new Munsters pilot. The resulting show, Mockingbird Lane, reworked the basic concept into a very different, Gothic outing that did not last, and really lies beyond the scope of this write-up.
The Munster Home still stands on the Universal backlot. Fred Gwynne died regretting the typecasting that he felt resulted from his work as Herman, though he had a number of strong film and theatre roles in his later years, and a career as the author of children's books. Yvonne de Carlo continued to act in various roles; she died in 2007. Butch Patrick now hosts the official Munsters website and can be hired for Halloween events. Al Lewis reveled in any attempt to cash in on his past fame. He also ran for public office in New York on the Green Party ticket, but was officially refused permission to run as Al "Grandpa" Lewis. He died on February 3, 2006. Beverly Owen and Pat Priest, after so many years, have never met.
Thanks to Jet-Poop for his encouragement.
1. Warner Brothers also pitched a very similar concept for a cartoon years earlier.
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