Yvonne De Carlo: Lily Munster Was A Movie Star Before TV
Left: Yvonne De Carlo as Lily Munster in 'The Munsters.' Right: De Carlo in 'Slave Girl.' Sources: IMDB; Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.
Yvonne De Carlo was Lily Munster to kids who grew up watching The Munsters on TV in the 1960s, but her spooky sitcom success followed a career on the big screen in such hits as Salome, Where She Danced (1945), Slave Girl (1947), and The Ten Commandments (1956). Long before she turned the concept of the nuclear family upside down with her career defining role in The Munsters, which premiered in 1964, she was a legitimate movie star, but in spite of her early success, De Carlo was broke and in her 40s by the time she took the role Lily, which just shows that no matter how old you are success could always just around the corner.
Yvonne had a long way to go before becoming Lily Munster
Born in Vancouver to parents weren't necessarily ready to have a baby in the house, Yvonne "Peggy" Middleton barely remembers her father. She writes that she doesn't have very many memories of him, and by the time she was three he was gone for good. She said:
My own assumption is that he died before he had the chance to discover that his Baby Peggy had become a Hollywood actress, or I think he would have tried to contact me.
Left to their own devices, Yvonne and her mother moved around Vancouver, sometimes staying in empty apartments and other times staying with her grandparents, the De Carlos. Unlike most parents, Yvonne's mother wanted her to get into show business so she made sure that the girl was taking singing and dancing lessons from a young age. This kind of show-biz bootcamp came in handy down the road for the young actress.
Her mother played a huge role in her career
When Yvonne turned 18, she and her mother made a pilgrimage to Hollywood where she took home the second place trophy in the Miss Venice beauty contest and fifth in that year's Miss California competition. Those wins were enough to inspire her to look for work, so she and her mother pounded the pavement throughout Los Angeles. After a rousing audition at the Florentine Gardens, De Carlo became a name on the local circuit. Unfortunately for the young starlet her immigration papers were out of whack (or non-existent) so she was deported back to Canada.
The Yvonne De Carlo story could have ended there, but she was such a hot commodity at the time that Nils Granlund, the Florentine's manager at the time, sponsored her return to the country and promised the government that he'd keep her employed. Granlund kept his promise and by 1941 her dancing was earning rave reviews in the Los Angeles Times. As great as that was, De Carlo didn't just want to be a stage performer. She wanted to act.
Paramount's screen test queen
De Carlo's wish came true in 1942 when she was hooked up with the brass at Paramount. According to her memoir, De Carlo screen tested for every Paramount movie between 1942 and 1944. In spite of only appearing in minor roles in films like For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Let's Face It (1943), she hadn't attained any kind of on screen notoriety outside of being "the test queen at Paramount." Like most young actresses at the time, De Carlo was shopped out to independent studios for parts in small films, but when it came to the big time she was consistently hired for minor roles, or many cases cut out of films altogether. That changed when she went to Universal.
It only took one year at Universal for things to turn around for De Carlo. Following a rigorous series of auditions she was hired to portray Salome, the beautiful and sensual dancer accused of being a spy who flees Europe for America. The film was a massive success despite being panned by critics. After years of struggling, De Carlo was finally a star. Salome opened the door for De Carlo and she spent the next decade making a meal out of any role she was offered.
Between 1945 and 1958 De Carlo worked nonstop. She's in westerns, she's in straight comedies, she's in noir films - during this era her range was fully on display and it's that prowess in front of the camera that Cecile B. Demille saw when he hired her to play Moses' wife in The Ten Commandments. If there's any role that firmly plants her as a star in the golden age of Hollywood it's Sephora. Hundreds of women read for the part, but it was De Carlo's "saintly" energy that earned her the role in this classic film.
Retirement didn't suit De Carlo
After capping off a decade of stardom, De Carlo more or less retired from acting for a while. She married stuntman Bob Morgan on on November 21, 1955, and she found the domestic life to be monotonous if no downright stifling. In 1956, she told the Spokesman- Review:
My life was so completely changed. I was accustomed to throwing something into suitcases of trunks and taking off on a whim. It seems strange to be anchored.
She and Bob lived on her ranch in Coldwater Canyon where she looked over five acres of land and a stable of horses, and everything would have been peachy keen had Bob not been permanently crippled following an on set accident in How the West Was Won in 1963. De Carlo and her husband sued MGM, but in order to pay off legal fees De Carlo had to take whatever work she could find.
Aside from a supporting role in McLintock!, De Carlo's work at this time was taken more out of necessity than love. She appeared in night club acts and even on the touring companies of Broadway Plays, but one job she took for the money turned her life around completely.
The Munsters made her a household name (again)
The Munsters may have only run for two seasons between 1964 and 1966, but this spooky take on a "normal" family took on a life of its own almost immediately. The show was immensely popular, and in spite of De Carlo's trepidation about the role it wound up providing her an entirely new fanbase. According to James Bawden, a former TV columnist, and the author of a series of interviews with some of Hollywood's hottest hitmakers, De Carlo was anything but enthused about playing a monster.
Bawden says that the first time De Carlo saw herself in full makeup she was devastated. Ten years prior to The Munsters she'd been a huge movie star, but now she was slumming it on TV. Bawden explained:
She said when they put her in the green makeup, she burst into tears. She said, ‘So it’s come to this?’ She also said, ‘I couldn’t believe it, this has become my biggest hit. Everywhere I go, kids would be pointing at me and asking if I really was Lily Munster.’
So why take the role if it was so shameful? De Carlo was extremely open about her money troubles throughout her life, she says that she took the role for money but it turned out to be so much more important than she realized. She said:
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.
No matter the reason that she took the role, De Carlo was a glamorous ghoul.
TV success looked good on De Carlo
Following the success of The Munsters, De Carlo was hot again. She spent the '60s and '70s appearing on TV shows like The Mark of Zorro and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. while popping up in a ton of B-movies (Satan's Cheerleaders, Silent Scream, Arizona Bushwackers, etc). She continued to appear as Lily Munster into the '80s until the role was taken over by Lee Meriwether.
These two very different portions of De Carlo's life - the film star and the TV star - aren't so much a dichotomy as they are proof that hard work pays off. She studied acting, singing, and dancing from a young age, what else was she supposed to do but get to work?
De Carlo and her husband divorced in 1973, and after handing over the reigns of Lily Munster she moved to a ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, entering in a semi-retirement, although she did pop up in the oddest places in the '90s.
Her final years were spent in solitude
Following a stroke in the late '90s, De Carlo became a permanent resident of the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, in Woodland Hills, California. By the final years of her life she'd embraced her role as a pop culture icon and decided to live quietly. She passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, but she'll live on in the hearts of those who love the golden age of Hollywood, and everyone who felt at a little more at home with The Munsters.
Tags: The Munsters | TV In The 1960s | Yvonne De Carlo
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