A running joke on “The Munsters” was family niece Marilyn Munster, the “ugly duckling” in one of the wackiest TV sit-coms of the 1960s.
But there was nothing unattractive about the actresses who played the Marilyn character - Beverley Owen for almost half the first season, Pat Priest who took over for the remainder of the series, or Debbie Watson, a surprise replacement for Priest in the 1966 film “Munster, Go Home!”
“I was devastated not to be in the film,” said Priest, from her home near Boise, Idaho. “We were on the set filming the end of the season and the producers sent one of their guys down to tell me. I was 29 and my contract was up for renewal, so I think they wanted a younger actress and didn’t want to pay me more.”
Although fellow cast members Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster) and Al Lewis (Grandpa) “went to bat for me,” CBS chose Watson.
“That’s just the way it goes in this business,” said Priest.
While her role throughout “The Munsters” series was often small, Priest has always been upbeat about the experience.
“Occasionally, there was a show built around me, but I usually didn’t have a lot of lines and I just accepted that,” she said. “On a positive note, I could learn my three or four lines on the freeway on my way to the studio!”
Nevertheless, Priest still has fond memories of working on the show, although there was a brief early encounter with Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster).
“She was a major movie star from the 40s and 50s,” explained Priest. “My first day on the set the two of us were in a scene together and the director asked me to move forward into the light. Yvonne turned to me and said, ‘Let’s get something straight right now young lady, don’t you ever upstage me.’ Man, I jumped back and didn’t care if I spent the rest of the series in the dark! However, we eventually got along well and often had lunch together. But Fred and Al would always tease her about being a diva!”
Gwynne and Lewis had previously starred in “Car 54, Where Are You?” and Priest says it was clear the pair had experience together.
“They played off one another so beautifully, were best friends, and their families were all very close,” she said. “But interestingly, while the rest of us would later meet at TV conventions and autograph shows, Fred didn’t want anything to do with ‘The Munsters.’ He preferred to be known as a fine actor, not just identified with the Munster character and would never sign autographs or be interviewed about the show. He wouldn’t even stand beside Al to have his picture taken even though they remained good friends.”
After “The Munsters,” Priest continued in commercials and took on mostly small acting roles, although she did co-star with Elvis Presley in “Easy Come, Easy Go” in 1967.
“Elvis was great, but what’s a shame is that all the time we would sit together chatting in director’s chairs between the scenes, I never did ask him for an autograph or to sign my script!” she said, laughing.
But Elvis did sell her his 1965 black Eldorado Cadillac convertible for $3,000 which she drove for a few years before trading in.
“That could have been one of my retirement plans,” she added. “My (second) husband said he wished he’d known me then because we would have that car up on blocks in a storage unit today!”
Priest looks back on her acting career as a wonderful experience.
“I’ve done everything I wanted to do and gone everywhere I wanted to go,” she adds. “I’m 83 now and whatever happens in the future is all just pluses.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.