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by By Dusti Lewars
The 1960’s were a magical time on television.
Vampires, genies, and witches claimed leading roles on prime time shows. TV viewers eagerly ventured into “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” realms where reality warped into something foreign, strange. And a slick spaceship staffed by humans and aliens boldly took its audience to where no man had gone before.
Into this era, two families emerged from Middle Class Suburbia. The first, made up of a Frankenstein husband and an exotic vampiric bride, ventured onscreen in early 1964. “The Munsters”, based on traditional Universal Studios monsters, was silly, familiar, good-humored…but quickly overshadowed by their gothic kin that followed, the definitely human, daringly sexy, mysteriously spooky Addams.
But what could inspire a show as bizarre as “The Addams Family”?
A raven-haired woman waits in the doorway of a decaying mansion. Before her stands a vacuum cleaner salesman; behind her, a bearded Boris-Karloff-looking butler.
The year is 1937. The image, a pen and ink cartoon, gracing the pages of The New Yorker magazine. The illustrator is New Jersey-born artist Charles Addams.
Not a particularly promising introduction. It’s not even one of Charles’ best-known cartoons. But a true lady is unforgettable, and so it was with the femme fatale that was to become Morticia.
In the 5 years since his work had started being published in The New Yorker, Charles had become known for his sometimes whimsical, frequently disturbing cartoons. But it was with the creation of “the Family” that a common theme began to develop in his artwork. First came the mistress of the manor, accompanied by the family servant; then, the husband, grandmother, children, and the Thing.
Inspiration for “the Family” came from what Charles knew. The image of Morticia reflected his ideal woman. Uncle Fester was a self-portrait of sorts. Lurch was created from traditional butler images; Grandmama, by Charles’ own grandmother. Gomez, Thing, and the children were pure fantasy. As for the family home – well, it depends on whom you ask. Some say that two houses in his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey, served as muse. Others point to his grandmother’s Victorian mansion. Still others believe that a building on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, is the true model for Charles’ art.
Charles’ cartoons continued to appear in The New Yorker for the better part of 50 years, giving his own unique perspective on Christmas, childcare, marriage, and suburbia living. Collections of these cartoons were published in anthologies, and it was here, in 1964, that ex-NBC executive David Levy discovered “the Family”. Levy moved quickly, setting up a meeting with Charles to pitch the idea of taking “the Family” to television. Besides Charles’ agreement, though, he also needed character names, and within a few days the artist provided a list of suggestions to Levy. This was the first and last time Charles would have any input into the TV series. Most of his names were kept – though out of a choice of Repelli or Gomez for the father character, the latter won out, and when it came to the little boy, the name of Pubert was rejected in favor of Pugsley, for fear that Pubert sounded vaguely like a dirty word. And of course, their creator’s last name worked perfectly for “the Family” – and the Addams family was truly born.
The show was pitched to various networks, with no takers, until “The Munsters” was picked up by CBS. Levy stormed back into the offices at ABC, angered by the signing of what he considered to be a fourth-rate “Addams Family.”
Days later, ABC announced that “The Addams Family” was coming to the air.
The birth of a show isn’t an easy process. Different angles were discussed: Should the butler be the focus of the storylines? Should the show be somber or wacky? Who should play which role?
This, above all, was probably the most important and difficult aspect of the show’s creation. Imagine if John Astin had indeed been cast as Lurch, as was originally suggested! What if Jackie Coogan had accepted the studio’s initial rejection of his audition for the part of Uncle Fester? And if Carolyn Jones hadn’t been able to shake her hesitancy of accepting the offer to play Morticia – it scarcely bears thinking about!
When the flurry of casting was over, the results were pretty much perfect. And the public agreed – from the initial wild approval of the 15 minute pilot to the 2 year run of the show to the movies, revival show, and cartoons that were to follow, the look set by the original cast has altered little over the 40 years that the Addams family has been seen on screens of various sizes.
But wait – the original show only lasted 2 years?
Though the show had a very strong following, occasionally even beating top-rated shows such as “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater,” the fact was that “The Munsters” was beginning to lose ratings, and ABC executives feared that “The Addams Family” would soon be following. The cancellation came as a surprise to all. The rush to the TV set to salvage souvenirs of the show evidences the strong following the show had attracted. To this day, very few of these items have been located; we know that one of Thing’s boxes was taken by Ted Cassidy (the actor who played both Lurch and Thing) and was bequeathed to Jackie Coogan’s son when Cassidy passed away; the one and only Uncle Fester costume was taken home by Coogan and eventually bought at auction by a fan. The only prop that’s survived and been used from the original show was the polar bear that lurked in the mansion’s foyer; this bear reappeared in the 1992 Addams family movie. All else remains missing.
So why is the Addams family still so appealing? Despite a failed reunion show in 1977, interest persists in bringing the Family back to life. Most fans know three movies were made in the 1990’s; not as many may know that there have also been 2 cartoon series, various games (including a wildly successful pinball machine) and, as recently as 1998, a new version of the weekly series aired on cable and ran for two years.
Why revisit this particular show?
When one compares “The Addams Family” to almost any other sitcom – even its contemporary, “The Munsters” – there are some very basic differences. The most obvious is the house. The mansion is an amazing creation in and of itself, decorated in a museum-like style that remains unique even today. It reflects the character of those who live there – people who are human and different and completely accepting of what makes each other different. For example, Morticia cares for and coos over her African Strangler plant – she loves it for what it is, nurtures it, and encourages it, just as she does her children and her husband.
The relationship between husband and wife in this show is uniquely passionate and open. Insecurity is discussed and dismissed. The possibility of a ménage a trois is flirted with. Sexuality is blatantly demonstrated. One would be hard pressed to find as red-hot a marriage as the one that is experienced by Morticia and Gomez!
Then there’s the relationship between parents and children. Never are the parents made to look stupid; never are the children belittled or argued with. Even when daughter Wednesday runs away, she signs her note, “Love, Wednesday.” There are family problems to be resolved – but never does the viewer feel like there’s one-upmanship going on here. Always, love shines through.
That love isn’t reserved just for family members. There is a recurring theme of caring for strangers as well that’s refreshing and welcoming – even when said stranger doesn’t return that acceptance.
Ultimately, the Addams family is a wonderful bit of fantasy, an ideal that remains worthy of being sought out. And for those of us with a love for Halloween, finding these kinds of people in a haunted house comes as no surprise at all.