With the recent announcement that X-Men and Superman Returns director Brian Singer and Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller are developing an updated version of the ’60’s sitcom The Munsters, re-envisioned as a “visually spectacular hour-long drama,” the Internet was inundated with people screaming that “Hollywood has no creativity” and all the other typical outcries whenever a beloved childhood favorite is remade. What most people don’t realize is that this isn’t the first, second, or even third time that The Munsters has been “rebooted.” Four different casts have played the family composed of Universal Studios movie monsters, so this new project will be the sixth iteration, including an animated version. Even among the original cast, there were multiple actors playing some of the roles as well as various incarnations of the show, including the TV series, a reunion TV movie, and even a theatrical feature film.
Despite the fact that The Munsters is a part of our collective consciousness, the black and white series starring Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo only lasted two seasons, from 1964-66 with a total of 70 episodes (41 for season 1, 33 for season 2). By the second season, it was unable to break into the top 30 of the Nielson ratings, which was pretty bad during a time when there were less than 100 TV shows on the air. Like other low-rated shows from the ’60’s like Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island, it found new life in syndication with a growing fan base. Most of the people who look back at this series with nostalgia saw it for the first time in reruns and have no idea of its history.
The original pilot, which was filmed in color, reunited Gwynne with his Car 54, Where Are You? co-star Al Lewis as Herman Munster (literally a creation brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein in Germany) and his father-in-law Dracula (though called Grandpa). Lewis’s characterization was pretty much the same, but Gwynn played a much more dour Herman who was not as heavily padded as he later became. The only other cast member to make it into the actual series was Beverly Owen as the outcast niece Marilyn (who was a platinum-blonde beauty, but was considered homely to this family of freaks and who, of course, was named after Marilyn Monroe); however, after 13 episodes of the series, Owen asked to be let out of her contract in order to get married and move to New York and was replaced by Pat Priest. Instead of Lily, Herman’s wife was known as Phoebe and was played by Joan Marshall, who bore a strong resemblance to Carolyn Williams as Morticia Addams; thus the character was re-worked and De Carlo was hired. Wolf boy Eddie was portrayed as an obnoxious feral kid by Nate “Happy” Derman, but the network rightly thought it would be an improvement to have him actually be likeable. Enter Butch Patrick.
Even though the show ended its run in May, 1966, a feature film was released in the theaters in July of the same year entitled Munster, Go Home! It was about the monster family traveling to England to inherit an English estate (even though it was established in the TV series that Herman was from Germany). The two big draws for the movie were that it was in color and it introduced the Drag-u-la drag racing car. The entire cast returned except for Pat Priest. Marilyn, now played by Debbie Watson, inexplicably had auburn hair (Beverly Owen had to wear a blonde wig to cover her own dark hair) and was suddenly a teenager instead of a 20-something. The movie did not do well, so that was the last we saw of the Munster clan for 15 years.
In the meantime, the Munsters showed up as a Saturday morning cartoon as part of the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie in 1973. The one-hour movie of the week for kids featured animated versions of The Brady Bunch, Gidget, Lassie, and the kids from Bewitched, among others. One such movie was The Mini-Munsters, which found Eddie and his cousins Igor and Lucretia in a rock band. The only cast member from the live action show to do a voice was Al Lewis as Grandpa.
1981’s TV movie The Munsters’ Revenge was an attempted pilot for a new series that went nowhere. Gwynne, De Carlo, and Lewis returned in their iconic roles, but Marylin was again recast–this time with Jo McDonnell. At 30, she was the oldest Marilyn to date. However, the producers apparently didn’t want Eddie to grow up, as they recast him with 13-year-old K.C. Martel (who a year later appeared in E.T.). The storyline dealt with wax replicas of Herman and Grandpa running amok. It makes the plot to Munster, Go Home! sound nearly Shakespearean. For better or for worse, that was the last time the original cast–even part of it–portrayed the Munsters.
Seven years after that TV movie, a new version of the sitcom, The Munsters Today, hit the air. The concept is that one of Grandpa’s experiments in the ’60’s goes awry and freezes the family for 20 years. This show is literally a sequel to the original (apparently ignoring The Munster’s Revenge), though now the characters are played by new actors. The cast is as follows: John Schuck as Herman, Lee Meriwether as Lily, Howard Morton as Grandpa, Jason Marsden as Eddie, and Hilary Van Dyke as a teenaged Marilyn (replacing Mary Ellen Dunbar in the pilot, “Still Munsters After All These Years,” who played the character as a ditz instead of sensible like all the previous Marilyns). This show included elements from the original like speeding up the film for comedic effect–it just forgot the comedy. It was insipid beyond imagination, even worse than most of the bad sitcoms of the ’80’s. However, it lasted for three seasons in syndication with a total of 72 aired episodes, one season and two episodes more than the first series. Guest stars included such gifted thespians as Kaye Ballard, Billy Barty, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ruth Buzzi, Dustin Diamond, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Pat Morita. One episode dealt with Eddie going through puberty (a word unheard of on ’60’s TV). This show is so painful to watch that you need a shot of morphine before enduring it. Try it…if you dare.
And still, this was not the end of the Munsters. Two TV movies were made in the ’90’s, both with completely different casts (with the exception of Mary Woronov as someone called Mrs. Dimwitty). Here Come the Munsters in 1995 did not follow continuity and instead created an origin story where the family was being persecuted in Transylvania (instead of Germany or England) and came to the U.S. to help Marilyn, whose father is apparently Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and has gone missing. The cast features Edward Hermann as Herman, Veronica Hamel as Lily, Robert Morse as Grandpa, Mathew Botuchis as Eddie, and Christine Taylor as Marilyn (marking her second film in the same year where she plays a character from an old sitcom after portraying Marcia in The Brady Bunch Movie). The surviving original cast members (Gwynne passed away in 1993) all had cameos, and at least tried to honor the original series while being an entertaining stand-alone film in its own right (Eddie was shown changing into a werewolf, for instance). Despite having an exceptionally good cast and having been produced by John Landis of An American Werewolf in London and “Thriller” fame, it only received 4.5 out of 10 from IMDb users.
That movie must have gotten a good enough reception for the FOX network to order a follow-up. The result was The Munster’s Scary Little Christmas (which probably wanted to sound like the popular A Very Brady Christmas from eight years prior). Even though it had the same producers as its predecessor, this was an obvious attempt to cash in on a known property. Yet again, a new cast was introduced as the familiar characters: Sam McMurray as Herman, Ann Magnuson as Lily, Sandy Baron as Grandpa, Elaine Hendrix as Marilyn, and Bug Hall as Eddie (following his turn as Alfalfa in The Little Rascals). The story involves Eddie longing for Christmas in Transylvania, which brings up two questions: do monsters celebrate Christmas, and what are Transylvanian Christmases like? And yes, Santa is actually a character in the movie. This entry was apparently one too many, as it was the last we’ve seen of the Munsters…until now.
Can the Bryan duo pull off a dramatic take on this silly series? The last time a sitcom was turned into an hour-long drama was 1990’s The Bradys, which featured an alcoholic Marcia, Cindy sleeping with her boss, and Bobby paralyzed in a car race. For some reason people didn’t respond to this, so to fix it, the producers added a laugh track. In this new incarnation, will Herman suffer through digging up fresh corpses to find replacement body parts? Will Grandpa drain the blood from unsuspecting victims? Will Eddy eat fellow classmates when the moon is full? Will the plots be more involved than Marilyn’s boyfriends running away in fear upon seeing the rest of her family? Like Dark Shadows (a ’60’s soap opera remade in the ’80’s as an hour-long drama that only lasted a single season and will soon be a Tim Burton film), there are opportunities for dramatic elements to be found among a family of monsters, as long as tongue is firmly in cheek. There is potential here, if done right.
copyright © 2012 FilmVerse
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