When the Harvard educated, classically trained stage actor Fred Gwynne heard that Yvonne De Carlo was to be his co-star in The Munsters he balked. Al Lewis, a showbiz veteran since the days of vaudeville, had the exact same reaction. The co-stars and friends went straight to the producers to complain, “She’ll never fit in. She’s a movie star!”
She was born Margaret (Peggy) Yvonne Middleton in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 1, 1922. “I was named Margaret Yvonne. Margaret because my mother was very fond of one of the derivatives of the name. She was fascinated at the time by the movie star Baby Peggy and I suppose she wanted a Baby Peggy of her own.” Peggy Middleton would later use her middle name, Yvonne coupled with her mother’s maiden name, De Carlo in her pursuit of a professional career in the movies. As Yvonne De Carlo the young woman would become one of filmdom’s great beauties, she would appear opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest stars, date some of the most famous men in the world and become a pop culture icon.
Yvonne De Carlo was raised by a single mother who dreamed of stardom and puritanical grandparents. Her father, a handsome, charismatic con man, ran from the law when Peggy was 3 and never returned. Hoping to shape a future star in the image of her own dreams, Peggy’s mother signed her up for dancing lessons early. Peggy, however, always wanted to be a singer and was blessed with a strong voice and a lively personality, both of which would serve her well throughout her life. After several years of ballet lessons Peggy’s mother announced that they were going to Hollywood for a chance at stardom. Her formal education was erratic at best, but Peggy continued to dance uninterrupted although she shifted from ballet to other forms of dance that fit her build much better. The first trip to Hollywood proved unsuccessful, but at the age of 17 Peggy became Yvonne De Carlo dancing in Vancouver nightclubs. Already a stand-out beauty, Yvonne returned to Hollywood with her mother and at the age of 18 and won the Miss Venice Beach beauty contest, which gave her the confidence for nightclub work in Hollywood and eventually opened the door to the movies.
Paramount Pictures signed De Carlo to a contract in August 1942. While there she appeared in bit parts in about 20 movies, which included uncredited roles in several notable productions like Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire and David Butler’s Road to Morocco, in which she played Dorothy Lamour’s handmaiden. Both of those were released in 1942. As great as the movie parts were, however, they weren’t getting her any real attention. What got her attention were the USO shows she was a part of, which made her a favorite pin-up of the boys in uniform and she loved singing for them.
In 1944 Paramount let Yvonne De Carlo go, but producer Walter Wanger cast her in Charles Lamont’s Salome, Where She Danced (1945), which led to a $350 a week contract with Universal. The role of Salome catapulted De Carlo to stardom making her another one of those overnight successes after years of hard work and perseverance. Still, she’d made it…
“Yvonne De Carlo, a comparative newcomer, is starred in the title role. Miss De Carlo has an agreeable mezzo-soprano singing voice, all the “looks” one girl could ask for, and, moreover, she dances with a sensuousness which must have caused the Hays office some anguish.” – Bosley Crowther, NYT, May 3, 1945.
Moderately billed as “the most beautiful woman in the world” by Universal for Salome, questions about her looks were sure to surface. When asked in 1945, “Who else is beautiful like you in Hollywood,” she replied, “That’s a heck of a question to ask a lady! But if you insist – Merle Oberon and Hedy Lamarr.”
Before she knew it Yvonne De Carlo was Universal’s hottest property and the studio demanded she never be seen in public as anything less than a star. That was a demand De Carlo could meet easily. She was beautiful, confident, exotic, mysterious and excelled at getting the attention of the press. In fact, no studio could have asked for a more perfect personification of “movie star.” She relished the role and enjoyed every minute of it. It’s no surprise that billionaire producer Howard Hughes pursued her as he did many famous beauties of the golden age. The two dated for a time – until Yvonne mentioned marriage. She also had a serious relationship with Robert Stack who remained an admirer of hers his entire life. Although I’d like to I can’t name all of the men Yvonne De Carlo dated here because according to what she wrote in her autobiography, Yvonne: An Autobiography she went out with many men including Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor and Billy Wilder. And, as she noted in a TV interview following the book’s release, “There were a few truck drivers in there too.”
In 1947 Yvonne made a splash with her seductive dancing in Walter Reisch’s Song of Scheherazade and appeared in Jules Dassin‘s highly regarded noir, Brute Force starring Burt Lancaster. De Carlo followed those with numerous pictures, mostly of the sword and sand variety that required little to no acting ability. That changed in 1949, however, when she made Criss Cross directed by Robert Siodmak starring opposite Lancaster and Dan Duryea. Yvonne considered this her first dramatic role and she delivered the goods in memorable fashion matching Lancaster’s considerable energy, which is no easy feat. Unfortunately, solid reviews as the dangerous dish in Siodmak’s picture didn’t yield better parts for her. De Carlo complained to Universal in 1950, but the studio refused to put her in more dramatic pictures so she didn’t renew her contract choosing independence instead. By the way, I’ll never understand why Universal never put De Carlo in a horror picture. She would have been fantastic as a villain.
Between 1950 and 1955 Yvonne De Carlo made nearly 20 pictures and dabbled in television. Formula Westerns were a specialty for her during that span, but none made a splash with the exception of Norman Foster‘s Sombrero (1953), which inadvertently led to the biggest movie of De Carlo’s career, “I had done a picture at Metro titled Sombrero, which wasn’t much of a hit. But I had portrayed a saintly type of woman similar to what DeMille had in mind for Sephora. He saw the picture, was very impressed, and promptly said, “You’re it.” The Cecil B. DeMille movie Yvonne referred to is, of course, The Ten Commandments wherein she plays Moses’ wife Sephora opposite Charlton Heston. The Ten Commandments was released amid a frenzy of publicity in 1956. De Carlo had been a movie star for years by this point, but DeMille’s picture took her to another plane. At the premiere Yvonne said, “Thanks to Mr. DeMille, I can get in some Class A pictures.”
The following year De Carlo starred opposite none other than Clark Gable in Raoul Walsh‘s Band of Angels. Unfortunately, that movie’s reception was warm at best leaving Yvonne no choice but to return to the B adventure pictures that had been her bread and butter. By the end of the 1950s, however, fantasies were on the way out making way for more serious fare. De Carlo found her niche on a nightclub stage once again and in television as a guest on many of the popular series of the time. She made a notable picture in 1963 thanks to John Wayne who hired her for Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock! opposite him and Maureen O’Hara. The movie was produced by Wayne’s Batjac Productions for United Artists. De Carlo is fun to watch as the attractive widow hired by Wayne’s character, McLintock as his cook and housekeeper. I particularly enjoy the scenes in which we see Maureen and Yvonne together – two classic, saucy beauties playing rivals. Anyway, despite the movie’s solid reviews and its impressive showing at the box office, Yvonne’s movie career saw no upswing. Her next big role would be on TV as an average wife and mother who resides at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
Let me backtrack a bit to set the stage for Mockingbird Lane – In 1955 Yvonne married actor and stunt man, Bob Morgan. By all accounts it was instant attraction that brought the two together. The couple had two sons and the marriage lasted until their 1974 divorce, but the troubles had started much earlier. Bob had difficulties with Yvonne’s fame in comparison to his own. Regardless, the two tried to work things out and when Bob suffered a serious accident while working a stunt on How the West Was Won in 1961, Yvonne stopped working to help with his recovery. Morgan battled for his life and eventually lost a leg as a result of that accident, which happened when he was run over by a train. The accident and recovery left the Morgans in serious debt. It was under these difficult emotional and financial circumstances that John Wayne offered Yvonne De Carlo the role in McLintock! and the reason why she accepted the role of Lily Munster.
1964 began dismally for Yvonne De Carlo. For the first time in three decades she had no movie prospects and was deeply in debt. When her old studio, Universal, called with an offer for her to star in a situation comedy about a family of monsters living in the suburbs she accepted. At first Yvonne was skeptical about taking the job, but her agents and her bank account forced her to accept.
The Munsters debuted on September 24, 1964 with Yvonne De Carlo as the matriarch of an average family working toward the American dream – who just happen to be monsters. Alongside Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster, Al Lewis as Grandpa, Butch Patrick as Eddie and Pat Priest as Marilyn (she replaced Beverly Owen who played the character for the first 15 episodes of the series), Yvonne’s Lily charmed the pants off adults and children alike. The Munsters, which combined familiar, suburban sitcom comedy with memorable characters from Universal’s horror heyday, was a monster hit quelling De Carlo’s concerns about the show immediately. Not only did she enjoy working with the other cast members, she also loved the premise, the writing and the fun. It took Gwynn and Lewis no time at all to realize they’d been wrong about Yvonne De Carlo. She showed up to work with no movie star attitude whatsoever. A hard worker and a dedicated artist, Yvonne was marvelous as Lily and had comedic timing as good as anybody they’d ever worked with.
During a show retrospective, Pat Priest mentioned De Carlo’s style, how she’d use her hands to make Lily unique and her own. I didn’t realize how much that had to do with my enjoyment of the character until I heard Priest say the words. I rewatched a few episodes and sure enough Yvonne’s dance training is evident in every movement including the expressive hand gestures. Lily Munster is stylish and glamorous despite her 100-plus years and despite spending the day doing the cooking and cleaning. Or rather, uncleaning since she has to add cobwebs and dust instead of removing them. Every day when Herman gets home from work the house is in disorder and he’s welcomed with a warm embrace. Lily also manages to keep the romantic fires burning in her marriage as well as she and Herman are as much in love as the first day they met – right after he was created, I believe. When Lily strokes Herman’s cheeks and whispers, “you know, they just don’t make men like you anymore” you know she means it. But this woman is no pushover. When the occasion calls for it Lily is also the disciplinarian who keeps the peace between Herman and Grandpa who are prone to act like petulant children on occasion. As a mother she’s tops too. Donna Reed and June Cleaver have absolutely nothing on her.
All of that is believable thanks to De Carlo’s talent, which allowed for playing the instances of broad comedy and the warm moments with serious intent and gusto. From the original show opening, which features Lily at the entrance of the family home seeing everyone off for the day, Yvonne sets the tone and grounds the series.
The popularity of The Munsters hit the stratosphere almost immediately after its release. Universal took full advantage by producing everything from lunch boxes to puppets to models with the character’s images on them. There was The Official Munsters Magazine, an official Munsters Comic Book series and anything else you could think of. The Munsters were everywhere and the actors were sent on publicity tours all over the country. Yvonne De Carlo loved the renewed attention, “It meant security. It gave me a new, young audience I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It made me “hot” again, which I wasn’t for a while.” She also enjoyed walking around the Universal lot in full Lily make-up, which took a painstaking three hours a day and included a 20-plus pound wig.
It’s hard to believe The Munsters only lasted two seasons, its popularity waned as quickly as it had spiked. In order to try to revitalize interest Universal hired the same cast, with the exception of Pat Priest who was replaced by Debbie Watson, for a feature titled Munster, Go Home! in 1966. The movie, which represents the first time the Munsters appear in color, was not a box-office success and signaled the apparent end of the beloved family, but Gwynn, Lewis and De Carlo were summoned once again for a TV movie, The Munsters’ Revenge in 1981. While it was fun to revisit with the Munsters at that point, both movies failed to capture the charm of the original series.
I think The Munsters touched so many people, kids especially, because the actors played them seriously, as if they really were a regular family. In fact, the show’s comedy stems from the them thinking they are normal people and regular neighbors. The fact that they are monsters and the comedy that results from that are almost incidental. That is, as far as most of the story lines are concerned. I believe it was the ability of Gwynne and De Carlo (in particular) to find the right balance between heart and parody that makes The Munsters fresh and enjoyable today, decades and several generations after its initial broadcast.
Yvonne continued to work in movies and television through 1995. She never reached the same popularity as The Munsters in either medium, but she had a stage triumph in 1971 wowing audiences and critics as Carlotta Campion in Stephen Sondheim‘s Follies. Yvonne belted out Sondheim’s show-stopping number, “I’m Still Here,” which became not only her anthem, but that of numerous aging super stars through the years. The memorable number was written specifically for Yvonne De Carlo by Stephen Sondheim, which in itself speaks volumes about her singing talent.
Yvonne De Carlo died on January 8, 2007 at the age of 84. As I looked back through her life and career for this tribute the one thing that kept coming to mind was guts. She was a gutsy lady, a fighter who, like a few other Hollywood greats who started their trek toward stardom early, had several lives worth of responsibility on her shoulders. Yet, she persevered. Yvonne De Carlo will always be remembered first and foremost as Lily Munster, which is ok in my book, but she was also a movie star and she fit both roles perfectly. As a result Yvonne left behind many memorable moments on film and on television – and millions of devoted fans.
“Particularly I loved Yvonne De Carlo – she was my favorite actress. I used to dream I was Yvonne De Carlo.” – Sophia Loren