The genius of Fred Gwynne, like the genius of Shakespeare, is best appreciated in relief. If you only him know by his masterpiece, the supremely silly creation Herman Munster you cannot appreciate what an amazing piece of comic acting that character was.
Born today in 1927 (died in 1993), Gwynne was an upper crust WASP whose father was a securities broker, and who was a product of Groton and Harvard. (He was President of the Harvard Lampoon and a member of Hasty Pudding). Before becoming a full time actor he was a copywriter for the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in his voice: all this privilege, all this education.
NOW contrast the real Fred Gwynne, and his other more subdued roles, like his performances in Car 54, Where are You? and movies like The Cotton Club (1984), Pet Semetary (1989) and My Cousin Vinnie (1992) with Herman Munster. The guy was a flippin’ comic genius.
I remember when I was in high school, around 1979, when our class was bused over to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to see Hamlet. Imagine the hilarity that ensued when we realized that HERMAN MUNSTER was playing Claudius. The poor man had to live that down all his life. In all justice, audiences should see all his OTHER work first and THEN The Munsters for maximum appreciation.
By the way, I met — and had a long drunken conversation — with his ex-wife “Foxy” once about 20 years ago. It was either at a wedding or a fundraiser, I wish I could remember which now. She was the grand-daughter of former NYC mayor William Gaynor, an otherwise inoffensive politico BUT for the fact that an assassination attempt was made on his life. She told me all about him. You should look him up!