I’ve got a horrible cold, my daughter has an ear infection, Kendall is under the weather, and I'm dealing with several crushing deadlines, but I have to take a moment to comment on the passing of one of the iconic figures from my youth—Lily Munster! I was sad to learn last night that actress Yvonne De Carlo died earlier this week at the age of 84.
I had just turned five when “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” debuted within a week of each other in September 1964. Was it just a coincidence that two such ghoulish and unusual sitcoms started production at the same time? I think not, and with the massive changes that were about to rock American society, the two shows’ departure from traditionally wholesome TV families now seems quite prescient. Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet, and the “Father Knows Best” crew just weren’t cutting it anymore. President Kennedy had been assassinated ten months earlier, the Vietnam War was ramping up in a big way, and the cultural norms which had seemed so secure in this country were poised for major upheaval. Enter “The Munsters,” featuring a Frankenstein-like patriarch played by Fred Gwynne, his delightfully macabre wife played by Yvonne De Carlo, their Dracula wannabe son Eddie (Butch Patrick), and Al Lewis’s Grandpa who could turn into a bat at a moment’s notice. Cousin Marilyn was played by pretty, blond Pat Priest, and the joke was that she was considered the freak by the rest of the family. Didn’t we all feel like Marilyn Munsters in our own families? I know I did.
“The Addams Family” was based on the great “New Yorker” cartoons by Charles Addams. John Astin’s creepy Gomez romanced his unearthly wife Morticia (Carolyn Jones). The couple provided questionable parenting to their spawn Wednesday and Pugsley while their mansion boasted an array of wacky residents from scary Uncle Fester (played by former child star Jackie Coogan), Cousin Itt (a giant mass of hair), Thing (a disembodied hand), and butler Lurch (“You raaaaaang?”).
We ate these shows up. 1964 produced a spate of other-worldly TV sitcoms including “Bewitched,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “My Living Doll,” starring everyone’s favorite sex kitten robot, Julie Newmar. This leap into the supernatural was a trend that would only last a few years but in the mid-1960s we were desperate for alternatives to the staid Eisenhower-era family dynamic. At least in appearance. We weren’t quite ready for family values that were truly counterculture and the funny thing about these shows is that for all their ghoulishness, the families were every bit as wholesome as the Cleavers or the Nelsons.
I think the characters of Lily Munster and Morticia Addams were like a Rorschach Test for boys growing up during the Johnson years. Which one did you prefer? My feelings were a bit complex. While I had a major crush on the late Carolyn Jones’s Morticia who exuded raw sexuality with every word she uttered (not to mention the mania she caused Gomez—and viewers—whenever she spoke French), I probably had more fantasies about Yvonne De Carlo’s Lily. The 44-year-old actress was more zaftig, more angst-ridden, more easily annoyed than Jones’s stunning, spider-like Morticia. Regardless of her Transylvanian heritage, Lily Munster was really a typical Jewish mother while Morticia Addams was the quintessential shiksa. Morticia barely had time for her bratty offspring, she was too busy mooning after her dashing husband. Lily provided comfort and loving support to everyone in her household, from Eddie to Herman to their fire-breathing pet named Spot who lived underneath the stairs. How could I not be attracted to that? Oy, was I working out all my Oedipal fantasies via 1960s sitcom characters?
I was also a fan of Yvonne De Carlo’s earlier work. She sailed into Hollywood in the early 1940s as part of the Dorothy Lamour Wave of Exotic Beauties and was often cast as provocative native girls or Polynesian temptresses. Her early movies included such gems as “Song of Scheherazade,” “Slave Girl,” “Casbah,” “Salome Where She Danced,” and “The Gal Who Took the West.” De Carlo was more famous back then for her off-screen romps with powerful men including Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, and Prince Aly Khan.
In 1953, De Carlo got a big break co-starring with Alec Guinness in the A-List British comedy, “The Captain’s Paradise.” In this great film, Guinness plays a Mediterranean ferryboat captain who is having his cake and eating it too. When he’s in Gibraltar he is married to a lovely, domestic, proper English wife (played by the brilliant Celia Johnson) but when he is in Tangiers his wife is the hot-blooded De Carlo. By the way, for all the attempts by studio PR people to build up De Carlo’s “exotic” past, she was actually born Peggy Middleton in Vancouver, British Columbia.
De Carlo’s most memorable screen credit is probably Charlton Heston’s wife Sephora in the 1956 blockbuster, “The Ten Commandments.” It was a fairly thankless role, especially since hubby spent half the film mooning after that Egyptian bitch Nefretiri played by Anne Baxter, but it gave the struggling De Carlo the Hollywood street cred she longed for.
Following a major dip in her career after “The Munsters” exit from prime time, De Carlo scored big on Broadway in 1971 by originating the role of Carlotta Campion in “Follies.” It was Yvonne De Carlo who introduced the world to Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” With all the nosedives De Carlo’s career took over the years, and all the freaky stuff she saw in Hollywood, I can only imagine how meaningful these words were to her as she blurted them out night after night at the Winter Garden Theatre:
Black sable one day.
Next day it goes into hock,
But I'm here.
Top billing Monday,
Tuesday you're touring in stock,
But I'm here.
First you're another
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career
I'm almost through my memoirs.
And I'm here.
I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?
Wow! What a looker you were."
Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis.
Whatever happened to her?"
Good times and bum times,
I've seen 'em all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Except now she isn't. Farewell, Lily Munster.