They're creepy and they're kooky, Mysterious and spooky, They're all together ooky, The Addams family...
The Addams Family reviewed by Daniel Tessier
The Addams Family has a long history. Cartoonist Charles Addams began publishing one-panel cartoons in The New Yorker in 1938, featuring a family of nameless eccentrics enjoying macabre situations. He continued to provide these, on and off, until his death in 1988. Over 150 cartoons appeared in the paper, and more remaining unpublished until a compendium, The Addams Family: An Evilution, was published in 2010.
Filmways Television acquired the screen rights to the Addams cartoons in 1964. Screenwriter David Levy acted as showrunner, working with Donald Saltzman and Addams himself to adapt the concept, expanding to fill thirty-minute episodes. The Addams Family became a good-natured satire on twentieth century American culture, and became one of the most repeated US sitcoms, both at home and overseas. Two seasons, running to sixty-four episodes in total, were broadcast in the US between 1964 and ’66, airing a year later in the UK, and in Italy and Spain before the decade was out. Further European broadcasts continued into the seventies and eighties.
Perhaps the most recognisable aspect of the series is the irresistibly catchy opening theme. The theme, and all the music for the series, was written and arranged by veteran Hollywood composer Vic Mizzy (Captain Nice, Green Acres). The finger clicking motif that became iconic was an ad lib by Mizzy when he first presented the composition, and worked so well that it was kept in for the broadcast theme, although for the closing titles some of the snaps were replaced by other ridiculous sound effects. It's impossible to imagine The Addams Family without the iconic tune, and early attempts to ditch it during the film revival were quickly vetoed.
The central idea of The Addams Family is simple, hilarious and rather beautiful. A large, old money family of misfits who delight in the strange, gruesome and sinister, but are otherwise a perfect example of a successful nuclear family. They are, in so many respects, exactly what the average American family was expected to aspire to, with wealth, property and prosperity, and above all, happiness. The most important thing about the Addamses is their devotion to each other: they are fiercely loyal and loving. To the outside world, they’re a disturbing bunch of spooks, but to the Addamses, theirs is a normal, happy life, and since they seem so truly happy, who are we to argue?
Of course, the characters had to be fleshed out from simple gags, and most vitally, needed names. The heads of the family became Gomez and Morticia Addams, perhaps the pinnacle of married romance in popular culture. Gomez, of Spanish descent as evidenced by his name, was portrayed by John Astin. It was Astin himself who settled on the name Gomez, having chosen over the alternative Rapelli. After a few years of minor film roles and one-off appearances in series such as Maverick and The Twilight Zone, Astin got his break as one of the two leads in the 1962 sitcom I’m Dickens...He’s Fenster (Astin was Dickens, while Fenster was Marty Ingels). The Addams Family followed, becoming Astin’s signature role.
A retired lawyer, Gomez filled his days with stocktrading (gleefully losing thousands) and playing with his train set (excitedly causing crashes). Astin based some of the character on Groucho Marx, particularly his habit of smoking Havana cigars – he even had asbestos lined pockets so that Astin could drop lit cigars into them. Gomez had a passion for life, but most powerfully for his wife. In spite of returning to the role multiple times, Astin's performance as Gomez has been somewhat eclipsed by that of Raul Julia in the, admittedly excellent, nineties films The Addams Family and Addams Family Values. While he isn't the debonair and irresistible character that Julia played, neither is he the grotesque figure of the original cartoons. Astin's Gomez is a charming eccentric. Astin went on to become a director with shows such as ChiPS, McMillan and Wife and Murder, She Wrote to his credit.
Morticia was played by Carolyn Jones, a far more established actor. Having won an Academy Award for 1957’s The Bachelor Party and a Golden Globe for Best TV Star for her role as quadruplets in an episode of Burke’s Law, Jones was a famous face on both the big and small screens. A mysterious and captivating figure, Morticia is the demure and controlled centre of the household, harder to perturb than her excitable husband. In her sleek black hobble dress, Jones cut an alluring figure as Morticia, very much the archetypal aristocratic goth. Morticia's main interests was gardening, particularly her carnivorous plant Cleopatra, and her thorny, which she preferred to decapitate for display. Morticia also had a habit of speaking French, which would drive Gomez wild; in fact, it didn't even have to be French, so long as it sounded sufficiently exotic.
While Gomez and Morticia are the stars of the show, the rest of the household is even more peculiar. Viewers familiar with the more recent adaptations might be confused by the details of the Addamses, as their relationships and characters were often rather different to the more modern versions. Gomez and Morticia had two children, Wednesday and Pugsley.
Unlike in later versions, Wednesday is the younger of the two here. Hardly filled with woe, the youngest Addams was a rather sweet and positive girl, who enjoyed keeping exotic pets such as lizards and tarantulas. Wednesday was played by Lisa Loring, aged only six when the series began. Loring had led an unusual life already, having been born in the Marshall Islands (then a US-run UNTrust Territory), before her naval officer parents divorced and she moved to Hawaii with her mother. They then moved onto Los Angeles, where Loring began modelling and acting at the tender age of three.
Pugsley was a little overweight but very energetic, and enthusiastic tearaway who enjoyed explosives, dangerous inventions, and stealing road signs. Originally, Charles Addams wanted to name him Pubert, but this was vetoed (Pubert would finally see the light of the silver screen in 1993's Addams Family Values, as the newborn third child of Gomez and Morticia). The rather spookily-named Ken Weatherwax, having grown up in a showbiz family, had been appearing in TV commercials before getting the role of Pugsley. He and Loring became good friends over the course of their time on the series and subsequent appearances, and remained close into their later lives.
The perennially popular Uncle Fester often stole the show. He was played by Jackie Coogan, one of Hollywood's first child stars, who had grown up to be a successful actor and comedian, famous for lead roles in Cowboy G-Men and prolific guest roles on television before he landed the role of Fester. Coogan's performance was bizarre and wonderful: hunched in posture, speaking in a loud and high-pitched squawk, and commonly with a wide, mad grin on his face. Dressed invariably in a huge fur overcoat, Fester was somehow more eccentric than the rest of his family. He had an inexplicable ability to conduct and generate electricity – often demonstrated by illuminating a light bulb in his mouth – enjoyed deadly weaponry, and would often relax on a bed of nails, or with his head clamped in a vice. Fester here is Morticia's maternal uncle – brother of her mother, Hester Frump – whereas in all other versions, he is Gomez's brother. Then again, perhaps he's both – you just know the Addamses would like to keep it in the family. Fester was especially close to Pugsley and Wednesday, and in spite of his strange demeanour and alarming habits, was generally rather gentle and caring.
The final regular family member was Grandmama Addams, portrayed by the vaudeville actor Blossom Rock (aka Marie Blake and Edith MacDonald). After forty years in the business, Rock got her most famous role in Grandmama, an aged witch who enjoys potions, spells and knife-throwing. In the original cartoons, Grandmama is suggested to be Morticia's mother; however, in the series, she is Gomez's, distinctly different to Granny Frump (played by the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton). Grandmama's relationship to the rest of the family varied back and forth over the years, leading to a memorable line from Gomez to Morticia in the 2010 Broadway musical - “I thought she was your mother!”
The household had additional members in the form of the butler Lurch, and the Thing. The statuesque and imposing Ted Cassidy (Star Trek, I Dream of Jeannie, The Incredible Hulk) portrayed Lurch, the harpsichord-playing, feather-dusting servant. Initially intended to be mute, Cassidy's ad-libbed line “You rang?” in his sonorous voice was an immediate delight and became his catchphrase. Cassidy would even appear as Lurch outside the show altogether, making a celebrated cameo on Batman in 1966. Cassidy also “played” Thing, the inexplicably handy household helper. While later portrayals make it clear that Thing is a disembodied hand, in his earliest appearances it's hinted the hand is merely the extremity of something otherwise unseen. Popping out from whichever box or cubby was convenient, Thing would occasionally be understudied by Jack Voglin when he appeared in the same scene as Lurch.
While that rounds out the regulars, there were other members of the extended Addams family who would sometimes appear. Felix Silla and Roger Arroyo played everyone's favourite, Cousin Itt, the gibberish-speaking pile of hair. Hazel Shermet, a prolific actress and comedian best known for radio sitcom Duffy's Tavern, played Morticia's cousin Melancholia, who was repeatedly jilted at the altar by successive fiancés. Morticia's flighty and flowery older sister Ophelia, once betrothed to Gomez, was played by Carolyn Jones, wearing a blonde wig to distinguish her from Morticia.
The Addams Family parodied sixties white American culture with aplomb, poking fun at the concept of normality. Nat Perrin (Helzapoppin', Death Valley Days) was assigned as producer and head writer, adding the final touches to every script. A lifelong friend and collaborator of Groucho Marx, Perrin brought a healthy dose of the Marx Brothers' style of screwball humour and madcap energy. Each week, the Addamses would be caught up in some unlikely escapade, often involving one of neighbours or a professional associate who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. More often than not is was Arthur Henson, Gomez's insurance provider and the city commissioner, who was pulled into events, as played by Parley Baer (The Andy Griffith Show, The Young and the Restless). Throughout it all, the Addamses would be genial, welcoming and generous, and left bemused by their guests' nervousness and hurried exits. Their home, a gothic mansion incongruously sitting in small town America (at 0001 Cemetery Lane), scared visitors more than anything. Replete with all manner of bizarre collector's items and exhibits, it was an excellent work of set design.
The series had a huge impact on American pop culture, influencing cinema and television through the twentieth century and, arguably, being one of the main inspirations for the goth subculture. After a couple of false starts – the variety show The Addams Family Funhouse, and a guest appearance on Scooby Doo, both in the early 70s – the show was revived in 1977 as an animated cartoon, with an almost entirely new cast (Felix Silla continued to voice Itt). The same year saw most of the original cast return for a one-off TV film special, Halloween with the New Addams Family, with only Blossom Rock unable to take part, her health having deteriorated shortly after the original series had completed shooting. In this iteration, Grandmama was played by Jane Rose (Phyllis, Heartbreak House).
However, in more recent years much of the original series' impact has been overshadowed by its own cinematic successors. In 1991, The Addams Family relaunched the Addamses into the mainstream, and was deservedly a hit. Joining Raul Julia were Anjelica Huston as Morticia, Christina Ricci as Wednesday, Jimmy Workman as Pugsley, Christopher Lloyds as Fester, Judith Malina as Grandmama and Carel Struycken as Lurch. For many today, these are the definitive portrayals, and they cast a long shadow. The 1993 sequel, The Addams Family Values, which brought in Carol Kane as Grandmama and also starred Joan Cusack, didn't do as well but was in many ways the superior film.
The success of the first film meant that a television revival was inevitable. First, in 1992, came a new animated series, with Astin returning to the role of Gomez for the first time since 1977. The live action series The New Addams Family followed in 1998, with Glen Taranto as Gomez and Ellie Harvie as Morticia. Once again, Astin was involved, now playing Gomez's father, Grandpapa Addams. Many of the episodes were directly adapted from the original series' scripts. That year also saw a direct-to-video film, Addams Family Reunion, notable for big name stars Tim Curry and Daryl Hannah playing Gomez and Morticia, but not for much else. A Broadway musical adaptation starred Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in 2010, and was revived for the UK some years later.
More recently there have been two animated movies, in 2019 and 2021, with a star-studded voice cast including Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard, and in 2022 the Netflix series Wednesday. Taking the concept in a new direction, and focusing on Wednesday, for long the most popular Addams since Ricci's standout performances in the nineties films, the new show starring Jenna Ortega has been a huge hit and once again made the Addamses one of the most talked-about fictional families. Luis Guzman appears as Gomez, more in-keeping with his cartoon roots, while Catherine Zeta Jones makes for a striking Morticia.
It's likely that the Addamses will continue to appear in new adaptations across media in the years to come. However, were it not for the success of that first TV series, none of these newer versions would have been possible. Fortunately, the modern world of instant-access media means that viewers can easily find their way from new successes to the shows that inspired them. A dedicated YouTube channel is currently showing episodes on rotation, allowing people born fifty years after the original broadcast to watch the Addamses adventures on demand. The Addams Family remains a timeless classic that deserves to live forever.
The Addams Family: The Complete Series (1964) [DVD] 
Brand: MGM HOME ENTERTAINMENT
4.8 out of 5 stars 707 ratings
Published on February 17th, 2023. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.