Monster Thespian

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FRED GWYME'S FIRST STARRING ROLE on Broadway—as a gendarme in 1960's Irma La Douce—came about, he once explained in his reverberating cello of a voice, because the director was looking for "a tall, lugubrious, strange-looking man." That physical casting was taken to its extreme four years later, when Gwynne donned prosthetic flattop, green greasepaint, neck bolts and thicksoled boots (adding another five inches to his 6'5" frame) for CBS's camp-classic sitcom The Ministers. From 1964-67 he played Herman Munster, the Frankenpapa who ran his family of ghouls with a befuddled charm and a thundering laugh—borrowed, Gwynne said, from a stagehand.

Which is not to say that Gwynne, who died on July 2 at the age of 66 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was just a baggy-pants Boris Karloff. He was a first-rate character actor whose parts ranged from the bumbling Officer Francis Muldoon in NBC's Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63) to the drawling judge in last year's movie hit My Cousin Vinny, and even to Sir Toby Belch in a 1974 stage production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Says comic Nipsey Russell, who costarred with Gwynne on Car 54: "Fred was much more of a scholar than the public realized."

Gwynne's pedigree was certainly a far cry from Mr. Munster's. The son of a self-made New York stockbroker, and housewife mother, Gwynne graduated from Groton and Harvard. He was, variously, an ad copywriter, a professional artist, either author or illustrator of more than a dozen children's books, and even a gentleman farmer, savoring his leisure on his Taneytown, Md., spread with second wife Deborah (he had four children from a first marriage).

So how did this dignified man find it in himself to play a galumphing giant? Al Lewis, who was The Munsters' Grandpa, saw no dichotomy: "Fred was very creative, very honest, very sincere, very simple." But perhaps it was more than that. Confessed Gwynne in 1982: "I love old Herman Munster."

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