How Fred Gwynne Went From World War 2 Submarine Chaser To Beloved Actor On ‘The Munsters’

Published May 29, 2023
Updated May 31, 2023

After he served as a radioman aboard the USS Manville in the Pacific, Fred Gwynne launched an acting career that spanned five decades.

Fred Gwynne

IMDb/CBS TelevisionFrederick Hubbard Gwynne was known for his lanky figure and long facial features, but the Harvard-educated actor once dreamed of becoming a painter.

Fred Gwynne is most commonly known for his film and television roles — particularly his role as the Frankenstein Herman Munster on the series The Munsters. But before he was gracing television screens across the nation as the ghoulish-yet-kind funeral director and father, Gwynne served in the United States Navy during World War II as a radio operator on board the submarine chaser USS Manville (PC-581).

After the war, Gwynne attended Harvard University and reached a level of notoriety drawing cartoons for The Harvard Lampoon, the school’s humor magazine. Gwynne later became the publication’s president.

It was following his graduation from Harvard, however, that Gwynne’s name would become known across the country. He performed in several Broadway shows in the early 1950s and made an uncredited appearance in the film, On the Waterfront in 1954, but the role that propelled the six-foot-five actor to stardom was the comedy series Car 54, Where Are You? which ran from 1961 to 1963.

A year later, Gwynne was cast in The Munsters, where his elongated features truly allowed him to embody the role of Herman Munster.

Over the course of 42 years, he would appear in numerous film and television roles, culminating in his final performance as Judge Chamberlain Haller in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny, just one year before Fred Gwynne’s death.

Fred Gwynne’s Early Life And Military Career

Frederick Hubbard Gwynne was born on July 10, 1926, in New York City, though he spent most of his childhood traveling throughout the United States. His father, Frederick Walker Gwynne, was a successful stockbroker who frequently had to travel. His mother, Dorothy Ficken Gwynne, had also found success as a comic artist, mostly known for her humorous character “Sunny Jim.”

Sunny Jim Comic

Public DomainA comic featuring the character “Sunny Jim” from the 1930s.

Gwynne spent most of his time as a child living in primarily South Carolina, Florida, and Colorado.

Then, as the Second World War raged on in Europe and the United States entered the fray, Gwynne enlisted with the United States Navy. He served as a radioman aboard the sub-chaser USS Manville, and though there is little record of Gwynne’s individual career, there are records that identify where the Manville was stationed.

For example, per Navy records, the Manville first launched on July 8, 1942, and was given the designation USS PC-581 on October 9 of that same year under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mark E. Deanett.

USS Manville

Public DomainThe USS Manville, on which Gwynne served as a radioman.

According to History Central, the Manville mostly served as a patrol and escort vehicle in late 1942 and early 1943 before being sent to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1943 — two years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There, it was assigned to the Hawaiian Sea frontier before joining the Fifth Amphibious Force in preparation for the invasion of Saipan, the largest of the Mariana Islands in June of 1944.

Shortly after, the Manville took part in the invasion of Tinian on July 24, 1944, then returned to Saipan to continue its patrol-escort operations. During this time, the Manville rescued two survivors of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator crash as well as captured two Japanese soldiers who were attempting to flee Tinian by floating in a cardboard carton on top of an automobile tire.

Fred Gwynne In The Navy

RedditFred Gwynne, right, and two other Navy sailors enjoy a drink.

In total, the Manville survived 18 enemy air raids during its service in the Mariana Islands before once again returning to Pearl Harbor on March 2, 1945. In September of that year, World War II officially came to an end.

Fred Gwynne’s Postwar Education And Early Acting Roles

With the war now over, Gwynne returned to the United States and pursued higher education. As The New York Times reported, Gwynne had been studying portrait-painting before enlisting with the Navy and resumed this pursuit after returning home.

He first attended the New York Phoenix School of Design, then enrolled at Harvard University where he created cartoons for the Lampoon. Additionally, Gwynne acted in Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club, a social club that also serves as a patron of the arts and advocates for satire and discourse as tools to change the world.

Fred Gwynne And Al Lewis With Fans

RedditAl Lewis and Fred Gwynne (left) interacting with fans.

Not long after he graduated, Gwynne joined the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Brattle Theater Repertory Company before inevitably making his Broadway debut in 1952, in which he appeared in Mrs. McThing alongside Helen Hayes.

In 1954, Gwynne made the leap into film acting when he appeared in an uncredited role in the Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront. This small role, however, didn’t make Gwynne a household name. Rather, according to his Masterworks Broadway biography, it was a 1955 featured appearance on The Phil Silvers Show that marked the beginning of Gwynne’s television stardom.

The Munsters And Fred Gwynne’s Death

Gwynne continued to make television appearances, winning roles in several notable television plays, throughout the latter half of the 1950s. Then, in 1961, he landed a role in the TV comedy Car 54, Where Are You? playing Officer Francis Muldoon. The show only aired for two seasons, but during that time Gwynne established himself as a talented comedic personality capable of leading a show.

So, in 1964, as The Munsters was in its early stages of production, it was clear that Gwynne would be the perfect choice to lead the show as Herman Munster, the parodical Frankenstein, funeral caretaker, and family ghoul.

The show ran for 72 episodes, but unfortunately, Gwynne’s well-loved portrayal of Herman Munster came as a double-edged sword: Gwynne had difficulty landing roles for a time after The Munsters. People simply struggled to see him as anyone else.

As he once told The New York Times, “I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try not to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.”

The Munsters

CBS TelevisionThe cast of the Munsters featuring Fred Gwynne (left) as the family’s patriarch, Herman.

That’s not to say The Munsters was the death of Gwynne’s career, though. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he continued to appear on Broadway and played smaller roles in more than 40 other films and television shows, including Pet Sematary and his final role in My Cousin Vinny in 1992.

In addition, he wrote and illustrated ten children’s books and read for 79 episodes of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

Fred Gwynne died on July 2, 1993, just over a week shy of his 67th birthday.

After learning about the life and career of Fred Gwynne, read about the surprising military career of actor Christopher Lee. Then, learn the truth about the rumors surrounding Mr. Rogers’ military career.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Matt Crabtree
Matt Crabtree is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. A writer and editor based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Matt has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Utah State University and a passion for idiosyncratic news and stories that offer unique perspectives on the world, film, politics, and more.
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Harvey, Austin. "How Fred Gwynne Went From World War 2 Submarine Chaser To Beloved Actor On ‘The Munsters’.", May 29, 2023, Accessed June 13, 2024.