Television writers Chris Hayward and Allan Burns were working on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in 1963 when they came up with the idea for a new show. This show would feature characters inspired by the Universal Studio monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The monsters would believe they are normal people, interacting in modern society.
This idea wasn’t in fact new at all. 20 years earlier, Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett had pitched a similar series of animated shorts to Universal. It was essentially the same as what Hayward and Burns had come up with. The idea for these shorts never went anywhere at Universal. However, the pitch by Hayward and Burns did, and the studio decided to move forward.
Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher were brought in to produce the show. These two veterans had previously worked together on Leave it to Beaver as well as on Amos and Andy. This dated back to the pre-television radio days.
Ed Haas and Norm Liebman were hired to write a pilot episode for the series. During this early pre-production development period, there was debate as to whether or not the series should be animated or live-action. Once the choice was made to move forward with it being live-action another decision needed to be made; to shoot it in color or in black and white. Color won out.
“My Fair Munster” Pilot Episodes
Fred Gwynn and Al Lewis (Car 54, Where Are You?), were cast as Frankenstein-based Herman and Dracula-themed Grandpa. Joan Marshall (The Twilight Zone) was cast as Herman’s wife Phoebe. Her character’s appearance was inspired by Plan 9 From Outer Space actress Vampira. Nate Derman (The Joey Bishop Show) played Eddie, their son who was a werewolf boy. Rounding out the cast was Beverly Owen as Marilyn, the normal-looking niece of the Munster clan.
In late 1963, the 14-minute pilot, “My Fair Munster” was filmed at Universal’s backlot on the same street at Leave it to Beaver. Interior filming took place on the set built for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Norman Abbott directed the pilot.
When the pilot was shown to Universal brass it received lukewarm reviews. Changes were requested for a second pilot episode. Foremost, it was to be filmed in black and white. This would serve as a cost-cutting measure, and to evoke the feel of those Universal monster movies from years before.
The suits weren’t keen on the look of Phoebe, who was similar visually to Morticia Adams on The Adams Family. They also didn’t care for Derman’s obnoxious portrayal of Eddie. Derman and Marshall were replaced with Butch Patrick and Yvonne De Carlo (now named “Lily”). Lastly, the character makeup was changed so as to accommodate black and white filming, and to make the characters appear less frightening to viewers.
In early 1964, a second pilot based on the same script was produced with these changes. It was shown to the networks and picked up by CBS for the 1964 fall season. “My Fair Munster” would end up being filmed a third time. It was the second episode to be broadcast, and aired on October 1, 1964.
When The Munsters was picked up with a series order, the interiors were moved from the Psycho house to soundstage 30 on the Universal Lot. Other movies and shows shot on this soundstage included Leave it To Beaver, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Rockford Files.
There were numerous sound effects and voices used throughout the series. The voice of the Raven was provided primarily by Mel Blanc. If he was unavailable, veteran actor Robert Francis Hastings stepped in. The roar of the Munsters pet Spot (who lived under the stairs), was a reused sound effect from The Deadly Mantis. His head was recycled from The Land Unknown.
Tom Daniel, the man behind the creation of The Munster Koach, was paid $200 by the show’s producers to design the Munster’s family car. The production team then called American custom car builder George Barris, an American designer and builder who created the car at his workshop, Barris Kustoms, in just 21 days.
The price tag for the Koach was $21,000 (over $175,300 adjusted for inflation). This iconic ride appeared in 20 episodes during the show’s run. Barris also built the Drag-u-la, Grandpa’s wheels, out of an actual coffin. Daniel designed this vehicle as well.
Beverly Owen only appeared in the initial 13 episodes of The Munsters. She left the show when she married future Sesame Street director, Jon Stone. She would be replaced by Pat Priest who was hired not for her acting abilities, but because she reportedly fit the costumes made for Owen perfectly. Thus, preventing an unwanted new expense.
Reception and Legacy
Prior to its premiere, an episode of The Munsters was shown to CBS brass. They hated it, thinking it was beneath the standards of “The Tiffany Network”. There was discussion about whether or not to even air it. Since so much time and money had been spent on it, they reluctantly agreed to broadcast it.
The Munsters was first broadcast on September 24, 1964. It came in overall at #18 in the Nielsen ratings, which tied another CBS sitcom, Gilligan’s Island. It performed considerably worse the following year, coming in at #61 according to Nielsen. Due to this poor performance, the show was canceled.
Several Munster movies were made over the years. Munster, Go Home! was released in 1996 and featured all of the cast from the series with the exception of Pat Priest. In 1981, Lewis, De Carlo, and Gwynn appeared in The Munsters’ Revenge. In 1973 an animated movie The Mini-Munsters aired on ABC. The only original cast member to be involved was Lewis, who provided the voice of Grandpa.
A pair of reboot series were developed and aired with an entirely new cast. The Munsters Today ran in syndication from 1988 to 1992. Mockingbird Lane, an edgier 21st-century version, had its pilot episode air on NBC in 2012.
The Munsters continues to be a fan-favorite series with several projects being announced over the years, though none have materialized as of this writing. The most recent was a Rob Zombie movie version announced in 2021.