After unleashing his ghoulish creation as a series of one panel gag cartoons in the pages of THE NEW YORKER magazine, artist Charles Addams paid a dear price for seeing his creations come to life on TV during the early 1960s.
Born in 1912, young Addams had a peculiar proclivity for drawing and one of his earliest jobs was cleaning up photos of corpses in the pulp magazine TRUE DETECTIVE. He removed the bloody gore so that the gruesome death pix could be published. “A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were,” he later recalled.
He first found success with a gag cartoon in the NEW YORKER published in 1932 and his off-kilter brand of bizarre humor ran in the mag until his death, inspiring generations of artists. The cartoons were collected in book form and became best sellers. But the creepy characters did not have a collaborative name until the edition ADDAMS’ EVILS – a pun on Adam and Eve.
In 1962, producer David Levy who had been responsible for TV hits DR. KILDARE and BONANAZA was looking for a new property when he spied a collection of Addams’ cartoons in a Fifth Avenue bookstore. He suddenly realized that the Grand Guignol zanies would make a great TV show.
“Addams never conceived of them as a family,” Levy said. “He never called them that. They were all just foils for his humor. They were … simply his outrageous comment on society. I knew in a situation comedy they would become America’s most beloved family.” Not only were they macabre figures but Levy’s concept was to show them “tender and loving with a husband and wife who really have a romantic liaison and children who love them.” It was a new breed of FATHER KNOWS BEST for the beatnik generation.
Levy quickly signed up Addams and began fleshing out the characters’ personalities based on his previously delineated character design. The father who looked like a south of the border Peter Lorre became Gomez, the head of the horror household, his Vampira-looking wife, Morticia and their children Wednesday and Pugsley. Rounding out the kooky carnival of souls was lightbulb-lovin’ Uncle Fester, Morticia’s decrepit mother Gran’mama, their towering butler of few words, Lurch, and a disembodied hand in a box, Thing.
He first pitched the concept to CBS, but they said no and promptly got to work on their own high concept sitcom, THE MUNSTERS, from the producers of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. After a troubled ADDAMS FAMILY pilot was shot at Filmways, Addams and Levy sold it to ABC. It first aired in 1964 and ran for two seasons, garnering solid ratings.
But before the ink was even dry on the deal there were issues far removed from Gomez’s penchant for Tish’s French. Addams had given the TV and movie rights to the cartoon characters to his divorced second wife, Barbara Barb. Described as a practicing lawyer, Barb reportedly “combined Morticia-like looks with diabolical legal scheming” and had even tricked Addams into signing a life insurance policy without his knowing it! A new deal had to be struck with her to ensure the show would even air. “What their deal was, I never did know,” Levy divulged but every deal afterwards included her.
With a stellar cast including a delightful John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as the sexy Morticia, THE ADDAMS FAMILY was a ratings hit. The show’s depiction of an utterly unconventional lifestyle broke down the last remaining boundaries of the OZZIE & HARRIET conservative family TV era. While THE MUNSTERS dealt with clichéd sitcom tropes THE ADDAMS FAMILY didn’t give a hoot. They were outré and damn proud of it!
TV was soon BEWITCHED, bothered (I DREAM OF JEANIE) and bewildered (MY FAVORITE MARTIAN) with fantasy-themed comedies, but THE ADDAMS FAMILY demolished their less imaginative competition. Not only were they weird and loving it, a big part of their ghoulish appeal came from the finger snapping sing-a-long theme song composed by Vic Mizzy.
While THE ADDAMS FAMILY headed the 1960s TV monster invasion, now they are celebrated as pop culture icons – spawning feature films THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) and ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993), TV reunions, animated series, and a Broadway musical. The ADDAMS phenomena shows no signs of ever slowing down after fifty years. Now, the weirdest of the weird is perceived as the “new normal” and THE ADDAMS FAMILY is as American as The Alamo, apple pie and ARSENIC & OLD LACE.
Sadly, Charles Addams departed this dimension in 1988 at the grand old age of 76. Cremated, his ashes were placed in his estate’s pet cemetery which he had dubbed “The Swamp”. He is survived by his family.