Fred Gwynne ’51

Fred Gwynne ’51

Fred Gwynne ’51 (1926-1993) At 6’5″, the towering, charismatic Frederick Hubbard Gwynne was best known for his roles as Officer Francis Muldoon in the TV sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” (1961–63), and the bolt-necked, soft-hearted Herman Munster in “The Munsters” (1964–66). He was equally skilled in the graphic arts, writing and illustrating children’s books, including A Chocolate Moose for Dinner. The son of a Wall Street broker, Fred made his acting debut at Groton, then studied drawing with R.S. Merryman at Harvard while being active in dramatics, the Kroks, and the Crimson. After a post-graduation stint with a Shakespearean company in Cambridge, Fred headed to New York, where he appeared in the sitcom “Sergeant Bilko” and in the Oscar-winning film, “On the Waterfront.” In 1961, while costarring in the Broadway musical Irma La Douce, he was cast in “Car 54” — and shortly after that show’s demise landed Herman Munster. After 3 hours in makeup, he donned 40 pounds of padding, and by day’s end had sweated off 10 pounds. In the 1970s and ’80s, he returned to Broadway in powerful dramatic roles (Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and an elderly Klansman in Texas Trilogy) and acted in the films “The Cotton Club” (1984) and “Shadows and Fog” (1992). Fred lost a battle with pancreatic cancer at age 66, shortly after completing his critically acclaimed role of the judge in “My Cousin Vinnie” (1992).

Personal tributes:

Frank Cabot ’49: I could write a book about Fred. We were friends from our teens, singing mates throughout school and college, and on through his life. He had the best voice in the Kroks and was a terrific stage presence. He also had a girl in Duxbury, MA (where he’d spent a summer as a lifeguard), whose father, Foster Trainer, rigged his fishing boat so that it had a piano in the stern — and he arranged “Big Chief Battle Axe,” “Winter Nights,” and “So Long Oolong” for us. Fred could have equally well sculpted, painted, or sung for a career. The commercial success he derived from his TV roles was offset by the type-casting consequences, which limited the acting parts available to him for years so that his full potential was only visible in a few instances, such as his cameo role as the judge in “My Cousin Vinnie.” Happily for him he was sought after for voice-overs, enabling him to buy a farm in rural Maryland, which he enjoyed immensely.

Peter M. Hewitt ’50: Fred was tall, lantern-jawed, terribly funny — wrote for the Lampoon — and had great big heart. He rowed #7 behind me on the Adams House crew and had us all in tears of laughter much of the time. (Maybe that’s why we didn’t win more races.)

Len Easter ’73: At a Krok anniversary in the ’70s I felt excited to be in the same room with Fred. Many Kroks had gone on to law, business, and medicine — he continued to be a performer. As I played piano that evening, he sat down and sang every song I managed to fake. Years later, while attending law school in NYC, I ran into him in Greenwich Village, where he’d just moved into a loft. He was so tall that he literally stood above everyone. He recognized me immediately from that Krok evening. We found a nearby restaurant/bar and I played — and he sang — again, just as we left off so many years ago. That’s how I remember him — standing tall above everyone — and singing.

Doug Heite ’75: At the Krok Fortieth, I introduced myself (and Jan, my intended) to Mr. Gwynne. Although I’m a bass, his speaking voice was deeper than I can sing. When a woman interrupted and monopolized him, he introduced me as his nephew and excused himself. Later he apologized for his ruse but said she’d been following him all night. As a thank you, he gave my future wife his signature on a cocktail napkin (shaped into the profile of Herman Munster). Jan was thrilled — until we left in the rain, and the signature became an ink blot! The memory is still there, though, still popping up fondly when we think back to our early courtship.