Putting a New Face on His Career
by Richard Warren Lewis, TV Guide
Fred Gwynne spends more time in the hands of makeup artists than a vain actress does--and here's how he views the entire procedure.
At 5:40 on a Tuesday morning the jarring ring of an alarm clock sounded in a rented Hollywood hills ranch house, Half-awake, lantern-jawed actor Fred Gwynne quickly silenced the bell so as not to awaken his wife and two children, and methodically began dressing in an old pair of khaki pants, white sweat socks, blue tennis sneakers, V-neck T-shirt and a white cable-knit sweater he had laid out the night before. Then, as he had done three times a week for the past six months, he drove a 1957 sedan he bought for $500 through the early-morning mist to the Universal studios.
His hair still unkempt, Gwynne lumbered down a long corridor to room 23. He pulled off his sweater, changed into a barber's smock and stretched his lanky frame into an adjustable chair, planting his flamingo legs on a counter in front of him. Makeup man Karl Silvera started to apply balloon rubber to his unshaven face, and mortician's wax to his eyebrows. The tedious, two-hour process that transforms Gwynne into Herman Munster, of CBS comedy hit The Munsters, was underway.
The top half of a foam latex mask, molded to the shape of Gwynne's scalp, was carefully fitted into place with tweezers. It flattened the top of his skull and dropped down in a hump over his eyebrows, giving him a Neanderthal look. Pairs of rubber bolts and washers were fastened on either side of his neck. Silvera rubbed dollops of battleship-gray rubber grease across his cheeks, nose, chin and neck, drying it all with an electric blower.
A waiter arrived with a tray of coffee, two hard-boiled eggs and shredded wheat, which Gwynne crumpled in his fingers and dropped into a bowl. "The only problem," he said, "is I usually itch around lunchtime, especially in my nostrils. The most delightful thing is blowing my nose at the end of the day."
Silvera meticulously powdered his face and daubed black mascara and eye-liner in the sockets around his blue eyes. A sickening yellowish-green hue was blended on top of the gray. A black pencil outlined his lips. His flat head was crowned with a wig of human hair that hung in a fringe over a simulated gashed forehead. The hair was coated with spray to hold it in place. A second makeup man employed a black marking pen to affix scars and stitches to his hands and wrists. A manicure with black nail polish ended the amazing metamorphosis. Gwynne grabbed his script and padded toward the set in his sneakers.
The transformation of his rail-thin, 6-foot-5, 180-pound physique was completed in a tiny, portable dressing room. Swede Munden, who served as Clark Gable's dresser for 10 years, helped him into a pair of trousers swollen with foam-rubber padding in the legs. Gwynne tugged on a pair of leather boots weighing 10 pounds and elevated with 5-inch, built-in heels, which give him an eerie, robot lurch while walking. A shrunken jacket, padded with foam rubber in the shoulders and arms, was buttoned from behind. Its shortened sleeves left his scarred wrists exposed.
"For the first three weeks," says Gwynne, "my back, everything hurt. My body was not used to the costume, and the high-heeled boots stretched my tendons. I could hardly walk at the end of a day."
The suffocating foam rubber caused Gwynne to lose 10 pounds. On the back of the Munsters call sheet, which daily lists required props and other paraphernalia, a note was appended, reading: LEMONADE AND SALT TABLETS FOR MR. GWYNNE. "I had the salt tablets for a while because I was sweating so much," Gwynne says. "Maybe they helped me over the first week or two. When I'm really sweating, I get so dry that I drink about a gallon of water. Water isn't that enjoyable and I can't drink vodka on the set, so I settled on lemonade without the sugar."
The producers rented a compressed-air tank to relieve the discomfort of Gwynne's heavy wardrobe. Now, at the conclusion of strenuous scenes, a stagehand pokes its nozzle inside the neck of the costume and releases cool air. "I was just fighting for breath," Gwynne says. "I still find my energy level is pretty far down."
At the suggestion of co-star Al Lewis, Gwynne hired a masseur (who also works for film-star Julie Andrews) to make weekly visits to his home. "I never had a rubdown before," the 39-year-old actor says. "I was so tight the first time he massage me I just felt like dancing afterwards. I felt absolutely fantastic."
The unusual rigors of his role have freed Gwynne from making most of the monotonous personal appearances ordinarily logged by actors plugging a new show. Only twice has he impersonated Herman Munster in public view. Last Thanksgiving Day, he and Lewis reclined in the back of the show's black, $20,000 Munster Koach as it rolled down Manhattan streets in Macy's annual parade. Much to Gwynne's chagrin, this was his fourth Macy's parade in succession. But this time he came properly fortified for the chill and the children. He waved to throngs on both sides of Broadway with one hand while talking replenishing slugs from a bottle of whisky concealed in a paper bag that he clutched in his other hand. "I had to get bombed so I could say hello to the little kiddies for 40 blocks," he explains. "By the time I got to Macy's at 34th Street, I wanted to adopt every child. That was my last parade. Four years is too much."
Gwynne had selected The Munsters from one of three pilot shows offered him late in 1963. "I sort of smelled something that I liked," he says. "There was some sort of fascination when I read the script and knew that I would be different, even physically. I like the point of view, a little bit of the satire of the old movie monsters. There was an element of parody in the early episodes which ended when the original writers left. Now it's more one-line, which I don't agree with. Situation comedy. Formula. But I really can't complain. When you do business, you do it for as much money as you can get. When you do art, the money is not that important."
Gwynne had never before worked as a mercenary in dollar-conscious Hollywood. "It was rather strange, after being in New York all those years," he explains. "After making myself up for so long, suddenly I had my private makeup man and a fancy private dressing room. It was like ALice in Wonderland. I sensed an aura of what Hollywood used to be."
Gwynne is still overwhelmed by his proximity to film idols. He admits having to adjust to the idea of eating alongside Jimmy Stewart in the Universal commissary. Following an apperance on The Danny Kaye Show, he was invited for supper at Kaye's home. Kaye himself cooked a Chinese meal. Watching a hero do his own cooking confused Gwynne, but not as much as another moment at a Hollywood event a month later. "Groucho Marx walked into the room," Gwynne recalls. "It was just too much for me. I couldn't accept that we'd ever be in the same room. I couldn't even speak to him."
Although Gwynne lives in California, he still leases a $100-a-month rent-controlled Manhattan apartment on 85th Street and Broadway. It houses many of his own paintings and wood sculptures. "That apartment," he says, "sort of gives me the feeling that I have one little root."
Gwynne moved to New York in 1953, fresh out of Harvard University, with a choice of two careers: Some of his cartoons in the Harvard Lampoon had been reprinted in Flair magazine, but he also had been a member of the Hasty Pudding Society and later part of the Cambridge Brattle Theatre, where he acted in Shakespearean productions.
It was during his attendance 10 years before at Groton, the same exclusive prep school that graduated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that Gwynne first tried acting. He had a speech affliction and thought dramatics would help. "I tired out and didn't make it the first year," he recalls. "I think that's why I've always wanted to go into acting, because I didn't make it when I wanted to." A year later, at age 13, he was finally accepted in the dramatic society. But to this day he occasionally stammers.
While trying to make it as an actor in New York, he took a job as a copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to support himself. For five years, he wrote newspaper, magazine, radio and television blurbs for the Ford Motor Company. At one point, he brainstormed a nation-wide campaign consisting of full-page advertisements which would have read: "Ford Is Not Advertising This Year," and nothing more. Gwynne reasoned that with the savings in ad costs, Ford could cut the price of its cars. The plan was rejected.
His understanding J. Walter Thompson boss, however, did sanction Gwynne's moonlighting on TV. His schedule was juggled so he could perform on weekends, at vacation time, on accumulated sick leave and even during working hours if agency chores were finished. "I told my agent how many times I could do a TV show during a year, and she hit me like clockwork," Gwynne recalls.
One day, in 1960, Gwynne decided there were no more Fords in his future. A children's book that he had written and illustrated, "Best in Show," had been published in hard cover. His canvases were being acclaimed at Westchester County art shows. The day he resigned, to devote full time to painting, Gwynne was cleaning out his office when his agent called with news that he had won a major part in the Broadway musical "Irma la Douce." From that day, his acting career burgeoned and his artistic ambitions faded.
A year later, he had emerged as the permissive patrolman, Francis Muldoon, in television's Car 54, Where Are You? Then came The Munsters, which brought Gwynne a sort of immortality, though dozens of merchandising gimmicks conceived by Universal executives. They report enormous sales of 6-inch-high Herman Munster hand puppets, Herman Munster dashboard dolls, child-size Munster Koaches, even ball-point pens with Herman's face on their clips. One of the best sellers is a $10 talking Herman doll. By pulling a string in the doll's back, children can hear Gwynne recite such nifty one-liner as: "You must come over and meet my mummy."
"I supposedly have a royalty arrangement on the dolls," he says. "But I had a royalty on Car 54, too. I got a check recently for 27 cents."
Following a long day's shooting recently, Gwynne stood before a dressing-room mirror and dramatically tore off the disguise that will likely remain his hallmark for many years. He hunched over a washbasin and removed the layers of makeup. "Even though I talk about the makeup and swear about being in the chair for so long, I like the fact of wearing it," Gwynne said, toweling off his face. "Maybe it's just as simple as a little girl putting things on her face. Once the makeup is on, you're already playing a role. You don't have to fight much to get into it."
He pulled on his cable-knit sweater and turned for the door, his shoulders slumped with fatigue. "My biggest problem these days is fighting the boredom," he said. "A performer tends to get slightly bored, once the character is set. I keep thinking of things to do to stay alert. I'm looking forward to the day when I can make up my makeup man."