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Yvonne De Carlo, 84; wife on TV's `The Munsters'

January 11, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Yvonne De Carlo, a sultry actress who played Moses' wife in the 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments" but achieved wider fame as the vampirish wife and mother in "The Munsters" on television, has died. She was 84.

De Carlo died from complications of old age Monday at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, said her son, Bruce R. Morgan.

"She was one of the legendary glamour queens of the '40s and '50s," said Kevin Burns, a film and television producer who was a longtime friend. "But she surprised everybody by becoming an accomplished actress."

On "The Munsters" she was still allowed to be siren-like as Lily, the wife of the bumbling Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne, in the horror-spoof that originally aired from 1964 to 1966 on CBS.

Gwynne and fellow cast member Al Lewis, who played Grandpa, were accomplished stage actors who were initially "appalled that Yvonne, who they thought of as a beauty queen" could carry her weight in the series, said Burns, who made a documentary for A&E on De Carlo.

"Al told me that they thought she was going to put on a lot of airs, but all of a sudden there was this moment when they realized she was really good, and they developed this camaraderie," he said.

Even though the part was "a comedown for her, she loved the makeup, and the role" that allowed her to preside over the largely monstrous-looking but sweet and relatively normal clan, Burns said.

She based her performance of Lily on Zasu Pitts, the silent-screen actress who had a flair for comedy, Morgan said.

Midway through the run of "The Munsters," De Carlo took delivery on a Jaguar that she had custom-fitted with coffin rails on top, spider web hubcaps and a Dracula crest on the side.

She thought it would be "fun" to drive around, she told The Times in 1965.

By the time De Carlo became a Munster, she had already been cast in about 100 feature films, many of them "sword and sandal" movies that exploited her looks and figure in harem dress. She also often appeared in westerns.

Her breakthrough came in the title role in "Salome, Where She Danced," a 1945 film about an exotic dancer trying to become a Mata Hari-type spy. Critics savaged the film but the box-office hit made her a star, according to "Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide."

She followed it with the routine western "Frontier Gal" (1945) and "Song of Scheherazade" (1947), in which she played a dancing girl who supposedly inspired the composer Rimsky-Korsakov.

After Cecil B. DeMille saw her portraying "a saintly type of woman" in "Sombrero," a 1953 musical melodrama, he was "very much impressed," De Carlo told The Times in 1956.

He "promptly said: 'You're it,' " and cast her as Moses' wife, Sephora, allowing her to break away from the screen-siren roles.

She held her own against some of the industry's top leading men, including Clark Gable in "Band of Angels" (1957) and Alec Guinness in "The Captain's Paradise" (1953).

On stage, she sang an operatic role in "Die Fledermaus" in 1951 at the Hollywood Bowl. Twenty years later, she appeared in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies" on Broadway, singing the now-classic standard, "I'm Still Here."

"He wrote it for me," De Carlo told The Times in 1995. "Just for me!"

She was born Margaret Yvonne Middleton on Sept. 1, 1922, in Vancouver, Canada. Her father abandoned the family when she was 2.

As a teen, she came to Los Angeles with her mother to try to make it in Hollywood. She found steady work in nightclubs and met the bandleader Artie Shaw at the Hollywood club Florentine Gardens.

"He said, 'Kid, you have to get out of this place,' " Burns said. "Shaw staked her for her living expenses while she went to the studios to do extra work."

With her pin-up looks came a parade of paramours. Her 1987 book, "Yvonne: An Autobiography" lists 22 lovers, including Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Billy Wilder, Aly Khan and an Iranian prince, the Associated Press reported.

When it came time to marry, she chose Bob Morgan, a well-regarded stuntman "who was a very common guy in terms of his standing in society," said her son, who is her only survivor.

While doing a stunt for "How the West Was Won" (1962), Bob Morgan was thrown under a train. He lost a leg and was blinded in one eye, and De Carlo retreated from acting to take care of him. They later divorced.

In 1981, she left Los Angeles and moved to the hills above Solvang in Santa Barbara County, where she lived until relatively recently. Her elder son, Michael, died at 40 in 1997.

Long before she played Lily Munster, "she loved horror movies," her son said. "She used to yell 'spooky movie,' and we'd run to watch them with her."

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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