The real Uncle Fester: was Charles Addams the sickest joke in Hollywood?

John Astin, Jackie Coogan and Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family - Getty
John Astin, Jackie Coogan and Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family - Getty

Cartoonist Charles Samuel Addams gave his character Wednesday six toes on one foot – and a taste for the macabre. She was a teenager who reflected some of his own morbid, mischievous traits. As a young boy, Addams frequently went to the basement of his New Jersey home, climbed inside the dumbwaiter and stealthily hauled himself up to his Grandma Spear’s bedroom floor before leaping out as she went to open the serving doors on the hatch. “I’d scare the wits out of her,” he later recalled about the woman who became the model for the good humoured witch Granny Frump in The Addams Family.

Addams described Wednesday as “a solemn child, prim in dress and, on the whole, pretty lost” and although Tim Burton also recognised in her the soul of “a classic outcast”, the director has reinvented her as a spiky, empowered 21st-century protagonist in his new Netflix comedy-horror series Wednesday. Addams who was born on January 7 1912, often remarked drolly that “I am one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood”.

His contended upbringing in Westfield, where both his father Charles Huey and mother Grace encouraged a love of drawing. They did little to deter him from being “a bit of a rascal”, however. At eight, the boy known locally as Chill was caught breaking into a house on Dudley Avenue and drawing skeletons all over the walls. His parents paid a fine for criminal damages. “It wasn’t really an arrest but I liked to think of it as one,” Addams recalled.

Although he later abandoned an autobiography (provisionally titled Memoir of a Prepuberty Wasp), numerous tales of his love of grisly humour came out in reminiscences over the years. He once quipped that “the only exciting thing that ever happened to me in childhood” was when the family dentist hanged himself in a swamp near Surprise Lake. Addams would add as a punchline that the poor man had been driven to it after struggling to fix his bad teeth.

Addams channeled his irreverence and love of the grotesque into his famous Addams Family characters: parents Gomez and Morticia, children Wednesday and The Boy Pugsley, Granny Frump, Lurch, the Butler, Uncle Fester, The Thing and Cousin Itt. Asked how he picked up such a rich taste for the bizarre, Addams replied: “that’s like asking a bird how he learned to sing”.

Alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia and Luis Guzmán as Gomez, Burton cast the 19-year-old Jenny Ortega as the death-obsessed Wednesday. Ortega, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican ancestry, said that “Wednesday is technically a Latina character” and expressed her delight at representing that background, as well as “delivering an emotional arc for a socially awkward character that doesn’t really have any emotion”.

When Addams first began drawing his famously weird family in the early 1930s, none of them had names. In 1963, when Filmways TV Productions commissioned a show based on his cartoons, a Manhattan-based company called Aboriginals, Ltd decided to market stuffed fabric dolls based on the cast, and Addams was finally forced to find names for them all. He picked Morticia for the mother and actor John Astin helped him select the name Gomez.

Naming the children proved trickier. When Addams went for a drink at P.J. Clarke’s bar in Manhattan with the actress-poet Joan Blake, he told her about the problems of finding the right choice for the family daughter (who was 13 originally). Blake thought of the 19th-century nursery rhyme Monday’s Child. “He made me laugh and told me that the Addams Family was being made into a television show, and that he had no name for the pallid little girl with the deadpan expression and signature pigtails,” she recalled in 2018. “I said, ‘Wednesday… Wednesday’s child is full of woe.’”

The first girl who portrayed this famous “child of woe” on screen sadly lived up to the melancholy tag. Lisa Loring, who was part of The Addams Family series that ran for 64 episodes from 1964 to 1966, was just 10 when she lost her 34-year-mother to chronic alcoholism. The child star fell pregnant at 15, marrying and divorcing within a year. She had three further divorces – including one split from a husband who clandestinely starred in porn films. Loring was later treated in rehab for addiction and self-harm.

Charles Addams with Joan Fontaine in 1962 - Bettmann
Charles Addams with Joan Fontaine in 1962 - Bettmann

Addams originally wanted Wednesday’s brother to be called Pubert, but the television censors blocked his choice on the grounds of “decency”. Addams, who thought of the boy as “an angry little W.C. Fields”, eventually named him Pugsley, after a stream in the Bronx. Isaac Ordonez plays him in Wednesday, which also features George Burcea as Lurch – a cartoon character Addams originally based on horror actor Boris Karloff – and Victor Dorobantu as the disembodied hand Thing.

There was no initial cast listing for Cousin Itt, Wednesday’s hair-covered relative, played in the 1960s by the late Felix Silla. “All the guys on the set smoked,” Silla said in 2014. “They just dropped their butts and stepped on them. The producers worried that I might step on a smouldering cigarette and go up in flames so they gave me flame-retardant synthetic hair.”

All these oddball characters resonated with the public and celebrities alike. Salvador Dali told Astin he was a fan of the show, while Alfred Hitchcock collected Addams’s drawings (which first appeared in the New Yorker when the cartoonist was 21) and reportedly based the look of the Bates house in Psycho on the Addams Family’s dilapidated mansion, a place of cobwebs, bats and broken balusters, inspired by a building the artist saw in New Jersey as a child.

Addams once opened his Midtown Manhattan apartment to find “a fat little man standing there”. “I’ve just come to see you in your natural bailiwick,” said Hitchcock, who later added a line to North by Northwest in which Cary Grant’s character Mr Kaplan drawls, “now, that’s a picture only Charles Addams could draw.”

The original Addams Family, in 1964 - Getty
The original Addams Family, in 1964 - Getty

The popularity of the television series, which aired on CBS, was cemented by its iconic music, the finger-snapping infused The Addams Family Theme, written by Vic Mizzy, a Hollywood composer who had written songs for Doris Day, Dean Martin and jazz legend Billie Holiday. The inventive Mizzy dreamed up the word “ooky” to rhyme with “spooky” in the catchy opening:

They’re creepy and they’re kooky.
Mysterious and spooky.
They’re altogether ooky,
The Addams Family

The repeat showings of the show earned Mizzy a fortune, after his shrewd decision to keep the publishing rights, and he used to joke, “what does two finger snaps get you? A palace in Bel Air”. The first Netflix trailer for Burton’s series featured Wednesday snapping her fingers. Mizzy was more financially astute than Addams, who took a fixed salary for the show, with no clause for residuals. “This was a mistake made by the big, old, fat law firm I let represent me,” Addams told the LA Times. The leading actors, including Astin, were also bitter about missing out on a lot of money for re-runs that lasted decades.

Although Addams’s cartoons showed ghoulish characters who were often badly dressed, his own taste was for dapper Brooks Brothers suits, Saks ties and Italian leather boots. He was a member of the Vintage Sports Car Club and loved smoking cigars as, over the years, he raced 1927 Amilcar, 1933 Aston Martin and 1960 Bentley. Addams based his cartoon ‘Uncle Fester prepares to go racing with Morticia in an old Mercedes’ on his prized 1927 Mercedes.

When he eventually had riches, he purchased a prized 1926 Bugatti Type 35C Grand Prix racer, gleefully pointing out that it was the same model in which Isadora Duncan was killed, when her scarf was caught in the spokes of a wheel. Addams also reportedly enjoyed winding up a neighbour by revving the fume-pouring Bugatti outside his house on a Sunday morning. “The neighbour would run outside and yell, ‘you bastard, Addams!’” noted biographer Linda H. Davis.

“He was a most genteel, civilised, gracious, charming, witty, normal person… with one exception. He did have a taste for unusual things,” added Davis in A Cartoonist’s Life. “He decorated his apartment with real, working medieval crossbows and had a most unusual coffee table, made from a Civil War embalming table. They called it a drying out table in those days and Addams loved to point out a sinister stain in the place where the kidneys would have been.” Addams joked that the 16th century was his favourite period, possessed with a romance that appealed because “everyone was beheaded and they had a lot of plagues”.

It is telling that his first job, for which he earned $15 a week, was working for True Detective magazine, where he was employed to re-touch photographs of murder victims, taking out the blood and gore. “A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were,” he said. In one of his most celebrated cartoons, a group of innocent Christmas carol singers stand before the front door of a spooky Victorian house while, on the roof high above, Gomes and Morticia seem to egg on Lurch as he prepares to pour a vat of boiling oil on the festive group. Through the skilful use of artistic perspective, it is easier to identify with the family rather than the carollers. In any case, you don’t see the carnage happen. Addams’s humour always lay in the threat of violence rather than the realisation. And there is never blood or gore.

He did push the limits of taste, though. The New Yorker rejected a draft cartoon that showed a woman in a maternity room looking at her husband and telling the nurse, “I’m worried about Albert. He eats his young”. The cartoonist’s aberrant side was perhaps most apparent in his 1959 book Dear Dead Days: A Family album, described by publishers Putnam & Sons as “an outrageous assault on nostalgia”. The book contains pictures of cowboy corpses, images of train wrecks and car crashes, illustrations of ghastly medical implements, maudlin Victorian-era etchings, human freaks, rat catchers, nudes and natural disasters.

John Astin as Gomez Addams in the 1960s TV series - Getty
John Astin as Gomez Addams in the 1960s TV series - Getty

Deformity seemed to fascinate Addams, who would suggest to friends and acquaintances that they visit the Ringling Brothers’ circus freak show in Sarasota, Florida, to enjoy a view of “nature’s oddities”. The cartoonist’s friend Walker McKinney said Addams was simply fascinated by “the aberrations of life”. And, at the heart of it all, was his obsession with death, one he explored through Wednesday’s character. In his twenties, Addams wrote to his 22-year-old girlfriend Jewell Valentine Bunnell saying, “I think the fondness we have in common for cemeteries is one of the many reasons I love you.”

The elusive search for happiness was a theme of many of his 1,600 plus cartoons (reproduced in 13 anthology collections), most now held by The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation. Only about three per cent were Addams Family related and all were signed ‘Chas Addams’, because, he explained, “it’s just a matter of design as it looks better than writing out Charles”. One of his most famous illustrations is the lady skier whose single downhill tracks lead to a tree and then, puzzlingly, continue in perfect parallel lines on either side of a tree, baffling an onlooker; or the poignant ‘Unicorns’, where two such fabled creatures stand on a rock in the rain, forlornly watching Noah’s Ark sail away in the distance. Addams always thought outside the box.

Addams, who was honoured with a Google Doodle on his centenary in 2012, was also ahead of his time in lampooning corporate greed, financial scammers and polluters. Social hypocrisy was also a regular target for a man who liked subverting suburban norms. “I was always aware of the sinister family situations behind those Victorian facades in Westfield,” he explained.

One of my favourite cartoons involving Wednesday is one in which the sad-looking child appeals to her mother for help with Pugsley, and Morticia replies: “Well, don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.” Another classic showed an extremely unsightly looking man waiting outside a delivery room as a cheery nurse tells him, “Congratulations, it’s a baby!” Although children and babies feature in lots of his cartoons, Addams never wanted his own Wednesday or Pugsley. He did, however, end up wedding three Morticia lookalikes, genially admitting to People magazine, “I married women who looked like Morticia. She’s my ideal.”

Charles Addams with his first wife Barbara - the inspiration for Morticia - in 1955 - AP
Charles Addams with his first wife Barbara - the inspiration for Morticia - in 1955 - AP

His first wife, Barbara Jean, was widely rumoured to have been the inspiration for the dark-haired slim Morticia, whom Addams described as “low-voiced and rarely smiling”. Addams was photographed drawing Barbara for Life magazine, a still in which she appeared to be modelling for Morticia. In fact, Addams had first drawn the unnamed dark-haired woman in the 1930s, years before he met his first wife. At the time of the Life shot, he was serving in the Signal Corps Photographic Centre on Park Avenue, animating films about syphilis or prosthetic devices for the Army.

He called his Addams Family matriarch a “ruined beauty” adding that “her costume is always the same: the form-fitting black gown, tattered or cut to ribbons at the elbows and feet”. Barbara Jean did not like the comparisons and after they divorced in 1951 – when Addams reneged on a promise to adopt a child, saying “I am my own child” – she changed to a pageboy haircut and wore it that way until her death in 2007.

In 1954, Addams wed lawyer Estelle Barbara Barb. Their brief, two-year marriage was tumultuous and the cartoonist, then still getting by as a freelancer, grew suspicious when she asked him to take out a $100,000 life insurance policy. Addams secretly consulted a lawyer, who later humorously revealed how he had “called his client’s attention” to the movie Double Indemnity, in which Barbara Stanwyck played a woman plotting her husband’s murder. Barb, known to Addams’s friends as “the bad Barbara”, ended up controlling Addams’s television and film franchises after persuading him to sign over legal rights.

Addams finally found a life partner who shared his taste for the offbeat in his third wife, Marilyn Matthews Miller, known as Tee. They married in a pet cemetery, exchanging vows on a burial plot holding the remains of five dogs and a turtle, watched by his dog Alice B Cur. The bride wore a black dress and carried a black feather fan, remarking afterwards, “he thought it would be nice and cheerful.”

Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams - Getty
Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams - Getty

With Tee, Addams apparently gave up on his life as a renowned philanderer. In his thirties and forties, he kept a notebook recording his numerous conquests (“Veronica Lake, 1770 Inn”) and reportedly had affairs with actresses Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine, celebrity journalist Megan Marshack and Jacqueline Kennedy, before her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. The Davis biography says that he revealed to friends Kennedy’s private confession about how she felt during the assassination of her President husband JFK, saying: “Do you know she had his brains in her lap?”

Their relationship was fraught. He called Kennedy “the moodiest woman I’ve ever met”, adding that “one minute she is very sweet and tender, and the next minute she is an iceberg.” He did apparently propose to her, which she rejected with the words, “Well, I couldn’t marry you. What would we talk about at the end of the day, cartoons?”

Addams always maintained it was “too difficult” to talk publicly about his work. He once responded to a priest’s question about what he believed in with the answer, “Mother Nature”. Pressed in a television interview about his philosophy of life, he replied: “My only philosophy is to have no philosophy. I let the work speak for itself.” He would readily answer queries from fans, occasionally answering on letterheaded paper inscribed ‘The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives’. He told his cartoonist friend James Thurber that he received lots of correspondence, “most of the letters are from criminals and subhumans who want to sell ideas. Some of the worst come from a minister in Georgia”.

All his work displayed a gloriously sardonic nature, yet under the biting wit he occasionally exposed his own anxieties and neuroses. Late in life, Addams admitted he was stricken with claustrophobia – “I wouldn’t let anyone know that I suffered from claustrophobia. I did and didn’t like being underground,” he revealed – and was also acutely scared of snakes: giant pythons are a recurring theme of his work.

The cast of Addams Family Values - The Kobal Collection
The cast of Addams Family Values - The Kobal Collection

Addams made regular wisecracks about his appearance – he stood six feet one, had a bulbous nose, large ears, craggy features, dark eyebrows and a thin-lipped mouth that never showed his teeth – and when girlfriend Axie Whitney did a sculpture of his head, he told her, “the eyes aren’t squinty enough”. He was frequently mistaken for Walter Matthau (and once for President Lyndon Johnson) and Brendan Gill, a long-time colleague at the New Yorker, revealed that “in drawing characters of diabolical mien, he has often fallen back on making scary faces at himself in the mirror”.

According to Addams, Wednesday’s looks are “wan and delicate” and, with her extra toe always hidden by flat black shoes, she cuts a charming figure compared to other caricatures such as Uncle Fester, so brilliantly played by Christopher Lloyd in the movies. Fester, according to his creator, “had eyes that are pig-like and deeply imbedded, circled unhealthily in black – no teeth and absolutely hairless”. Addams joked that he looked like Uncle Fester, “only with more hair”. There have been rumours that Fester will be played by Johnny Depp in the Netflix show.

Addams loved people-watching and would often stand outside the Plaza Hotel, taking in faces and body language and using strangers as the models for the odd-looking clerks and “purposeful charladies” who populate his work. “After five minutes of looking at people there,” he said, “even my oddest drawings begin to look mild by comparison.”

In later years, Addams and Tee would travel round in a Dodge Sportsman Trans-Van, a camper van known as ‘The Heap’ in which he kept a stuffed Grackle and Partridge, taking trips from his country residence in Sagaponack, an estate he dubbed ‘The Swamp’. On September 29 1988, after travelling back to his Manhattan home, he suffered a heart attack inside his new Audi, just after parking it outside his apartment. He died in the emergency room at St. Clare’s Hospital and Health Centre, aged 76. “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go,” Tee told the New York Times, a comment he might have enjoyed for its unintentional humour. He was cremated and his ashes buried in the pet cemetery of The Swamp.

Addams said he simply wished to be remembered as a “good cartoonist” but he was more than that. He had an unrivalled ability to create memorably dark, outlandish, original and unconventional characters. He was an undoubted eccentric, maybe even one with a heart of pure embalming fluid when it came to ghoulish humour, but he tapped into the tradition of American Gothic to create his own brilliantly comic world of the bizarre. The world of Chas Addams is something a new generation will hopefully see for themselves in the modern antics of Wednesday and her kooky, ooky and mysteriously spooky family.