Historian of Horror: They Really are a Scree-um…

It was the spring of 1969. I was in fifth grade, and the school I attended was having some sort of carnival. There were games with cheap trinkets for prizes, a cakewalk, and a rummage sale. That’s where I found it – the 1965 novelization of The Addams Family television show, written by Jack Sharkey. I think they were asking a nickel for it. I grabbed it up, of course. I’d been a devoted fan of the show during its initial run from September 18, 1964, to April 8, 1966, because, well, of course, I was. 

That’s more than can be said of the creator of the characters and their milieu. Charles Addams thought the creepy old Second Empire house in which the Addamses resided wasn’t creepy enough. It was too clean, too well-maintained. Lurch was simply too good a butler, apparently.

As well, Gomez and Morticia and family were, in Charlie’s considered opinion, much too nice. In the single panel cartoons he’d been creating for The New Yorker since the late thirties, his creatures were most definitely not at all nice in any recognizable sense of the word. They were mean-spirited, malicious, and gleefully vicious. Moreover, their house was supposed to resemble nothing so much as a crumbling wreck, and Lurch ought to be closer to Frankenstein’s Monster than to Mr. Belvedere. The family from the television show impressed him as being more Ozzie and Harriet than Sawney Bean. Quick, go ask your grandparents who Ozzie and Harriet were. We’ll wait. Sawney Bean you’ll probably have to Google. At least until I get around to scribing one of these essays on that particular family’s nefarious misdeeds. 

All that didn’t stop Charlie from cashing the checks he got from ABC, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to give the impression that he was sorry that the program only lasted for those sixty-four episodes. I, of course, was, but there is a resilience at that age that I envy in my declining years. Not even in concert with the nearly concurrent cancellation of The Munsters was I as devastated as I now, in retrospect, think I ought to have been. There were, to be sure, still a fair number of other psychotronic shows on American television in those days, and no reason to think that the regular broadcast of supernatural-spooky-adventure-packed programming would end.

But it did. By the time I acquired Sharkey’s book, the TV landscape was shifting towards serious detective and spy dramas, non-confrontational counter-culture humor variety shows, and news programming in prime time. Get Smart was out, Mission: Impossible was in. The much-too-edgy-for-the-CBS-censors Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was out, the funny but never really controversial Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was in. The Addams Family was out, and 60 Minutes was in.

At least we still had The Beatles. Wait, what?!?!?!?

Oh, well.

As I mentioned in the last installment, John Astin selected Gomez as the name of the character he would play, the half-mad, lustful pater familias. He had most recently co-starred with Marty Ingles in a sitcom about a pair of incompetent carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. I have a vague recollection of having seen it once or twice. I don’t recall having been impressed, but I was five years old. What did I know?

The object of Gomez’ hammed-up affections was played by Carolyn Jones, who had a more impressive horror pedigree than her TV husband. She appeared in two of the most significant horror films of the 1950s, the 3-D extravaganza House of Wax with Vincent Price in 1953, and the first adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in 1956. 

Uncle Fester was Jackie Coogan, a silent-era child star who discovered upon reaching maturity that all the money he’d earned acting alongside Charlie Chaplin and other major film stars of that era had been squandered by his parents. A law to prevent that was passed and was in fact called The Jackie Coogan Law. Forty-three years after achieving fame in The Kid, he shaved off what little hair he had left and stuck a trick lightbulb in his mouth on weekly television. 

Grandmama Frump was the delightfully named Blossom Rock, sister of the leading cinematic soprano from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Jeanette MacDonald. I don’t recall Grandmama belting out any operatic arias, but I bet she could have, between concocting her famous still-writhing dinners. Yummy! Blossom had a long career as a character actress in dozens of films, including I Married a Witch (1942), Gildersleeve’s Ghost (based on the radio show, 1944), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and She Devil (1957).

The kids were Lisa Loring as Wednesday and Ken Weatherwax as Pugsley. Charlie might have had a point about them. They were cute and sweet, and wholly unlike their counterparts. Lisa grew up to be a lovely soap opera star. Ken quit acting to work behind the camera. 

Lurch was the six-foot-nine-inch Ted Cassidy, who later lent his ultra-deep voice to a number of Saturday morning cartoons. Like Rondo Hatten, he suffered from acromegaly, although in his case the disease manifested itself in altitude rather than hideousness. Ted was also the main portrayer of Thing T. Thing, the disembodied hand that was always ready to, um, help out around the house. An assistant director pinch-hit when Lurch and Thing were in the same scene. Thing was created for the show, although there was a 1954 cartoon in The New Yorker with a pair of disembodied hands changing the record on a phonograph. 

Cousin Itt was created for the second and final season of the show. Felix Silla, who at three-feet-eleven-inches was in great demand for roles suited to his stature for the next forty-five years, donned the long blond wig. In later incarnations, the second ‘t’ seems to have been used inconsistently. This disparity has caused numerous online arguments and more than a few bar fights, one is inclined to suspect. 

The family showed up on television again in 1973 as a Saturday morning animated program, with only Cassidy and Coogan returning to provide the voices of Lurch and Fester. Academy Award-winning actress Jody Foster was the voice of Pugsley. Think about that next time you watch The Silence of the Lambs. The show only lasted sixteen episodes.

Most of the original cast returned in 1977 for a TV movie, Halloween with the New Addams Family. Blossom Rock had suffered a stroke not long after the original series ended and was unable to participate. She passed away the next year at the age of eighty-two.

Ted Cassidy underwent heart surgery for a condition related to his acromegaly in 1979 but did not survive the operation. He was only forty-six. Carolyn Jones died of colon cancer in 1983, at the age of fifty-three. Jackie Coogan was sixty-nine when he passed away from heart failure in 1984, and Ken Weatherwax died of a heart attack in 2014. He was fifty-nine. Felix Silla was eighty-four when he passed on in April of 2021. Only John Astin, at ninety, and Lisa Loring are left. She’s six months older than I am and looks a lot better than I do. Astin was the only one of the original cast to participate in a second animated series, in 1992

The 1991 big-budget adaptation starring Raul Julia, Angelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd spawned a sequel, Addams Family Values, in 1993. Of all the reboots and re-imaginings, I think this brace of movies might have met or even exceeded Addams’ expectations. Alas, Raul Julia’s death from a stroke a year later ended the possibility of any further misadventures. 

None of the original show or feature film casts were around for the 1998 revival series produced in Canada and shown on Fox in the United States. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen any of the sixty-five episodes. A direct-to-video movie, The Addams Family Reunion, starring Tim Curry and Daryl Hanna, was released the same year. Carel Struycken returned as Lurch, having played the role in the two feature films. A 2010 Broadway musical and a pair of animated features in 2019 and 2021 complete the family’s saga to the present time, other than for a much-too-short series of not-even-remotely-officially-sanctioned-by-the-Charles-Addams-Estate YouTube videos starring Melissa Hunter as the Adult Wednesday Addams. Very funny stuff.

I wonder what Charlie would think about all that? Whatever his thoughts on the other goodies briefly described above, I suspect he’d be okay with Adult Wednesday Addams. Don’t you?

I no longer have that slim paperback book I bought at the school rummage sale in 1969. Somewhere along the way, I sold it or traded it, or lost it. I did recently find another copy on eBay. It cost me a bit more than a nickel. Not the fifty-four bucks Abebooks wants for theirs, but enough to buy a large-sized Big Mac meal and have some change left over for the Ronald McDonald House. It was worth the expenditure. I plan to hang on to this one. My wife says I really need to lay off the Big Macs, anyhow.

Many thanks to Linda H. Davis for the information in this and the previous episode. Her 2006 book, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, has been an invaluable resource, along with the several collections of his cartoons I have in my collection. Highly recommended.

Coming up in our next installment, I’ll be examining the almost sixty-year adolescence of Riverdale High School’s perpetual student and resident teenage witch, Sabrina. It ought to be fun. Until then, oh ye questors after the quirky and the questionable…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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