Charles Addams was known for his eccentric cartoons, which were all characterized by a sinister sense of humor. He was a household name in the pages of the influential magazine The New Yorker from the mid 1930s throughout the 1980s. His most famous creation is 'The Addams Family', a horror family whose popularity was so great, that they inspired several TV series and movies. The artist had a fascination for the macabre his entire life. Urban legends even state that Addams slept in a coffin, drank martinis with eyeballs in them, collected torture instruments and received chopped-off fingers in the mail from fans.
Charles Samuel Addams, or "Chill" as his friends called him, was born in Westfield, New Jersey, where the Addams' lived on Summit Avenue. They moved several times before taking up permanent residence on Elm Street in 1920. Charles attended public school in Westfield and was fond of visiting the Presbyterian Cemetery on Mountain Ave. When he was a youngster, he was caught by the police breaking into a house on Dudley Avenue. On the second floor of the garage behind the main house there was a chalk drawing of a skeleton which is believed to have been drawn by Charles Addams. The house on Dudley, and the one on Elm Street, are said to be the inspiration for the famous 'Addams Family House'.
Addams graduated in 1929 from Westfield High School. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, then studied at Grand Central School of Art in New York City. One of his first jobs was retouching the blood out of pictures of corpses for True Detective magazine in 1933. He always wanted to work for The New Yorker and he had his first drawing published as early as 1932. He started submitting cartoons regularly in 1935, and was quickly part of the essential contributors, along with Peter Arno, Gluyas Williams and Helen Rokinson. He signed his work "Chas Adams" because it looked better than "Charles Addams". His first submission was titled 'I Forgot My Skates', and showed an ice skater apologizing to his teammates. In 1940 he submitted the classic cartoon 'Downhill Skier', which showed an impossible situation of a skier passing a tree. This particular gag has become so iconic that it has been plagiarized and referenced by numerous other cartoonists since. Both Andy White and Jef Mallett have used the same gag in one of their own cartoons once, but paid homage to Addams as their source of inspiration within the same drawing. The skiing cartoon got Addams an offer to come on board full-time at New York's premiere magazine. However, Addams' true claim to fame came with his wash drawings that delved into grim territory. Many of his cartoons took place at night and were set in or around dark mansions, castles, graveyards and swamps. They revolved around murder, torture instruments, ghosts and monsters.
In most of his cartoons, Addams didn't use recurring characters. In a mere 150 of his production of over 1,300 cartoons, Addams portrayed a rich family, whose members seem to come straight out of a horror movie. Although the characters remained nameless in the original cartoons, his 'Addams Family' made a huge impact since their first appearance in 1938. They got their names when ABC broadcasted a popular sitcom based on Addams' characters between 1964 and 1966. Father Gomez, mother Morticia, daughter Wednesday, son Pugsley, Uncle Fester and Grandmama all have the appearance of ogres and witches. Their Cousin Itt is a dwarf-like creature fully covered with hair. They live in a huge ghostly mansion, where they are served by Lurch, a giant butler resembling the Frankenstein Monster, and Thing, a walking hand. Their activities are also far from ordinary. The family enjoys stormy weather, use torture instruments for recreational purposes and have spiders, bats and snakes as pets. But despite their strange hobbies, they are generally harmless.
The farcical humor of the original cartoons made 'The Addams Family' very suitable for the sitcom format. The TV series was a huge hit, largely because its black comedy made it stand out from all the other more conventional family shows on US television at the time. The catchy finger snappin' theme song by Vic Mizzy is one of the most memorable TV tunes in history. Scripts were written by producer Nat Perrin, who also scripted several Marx Brothers comedies in the past. The role of Uncle Fester was performed by former child star Jackie Coogan, best known as the child in Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1920). The series was also unique in its use of special effects, exotic animals and absurd gags. A similar show called 'The Munsters' (1964-1966) was broadcast by CBS during almost the exact same time period, so the similarities can be attributed to coincidence.
More spin-offs of 'The Addams Family' followed, including a 1977 Halloween TV special, two animated TV series by Hanna-Barbera in 1973 and 1992, another sitcom in 1998-1999 and a 2009 musical. The series was successfully adapted to the silver screen by Barry Sonnenfeld with the movies 'The Addams Family' (1991) and 'The Addams Family Values' (1993), in which Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci and Christopher Lloyd had starring roles. A forgettable direct-to-video sequel with a different cast,'Addams Family Reunion' was made in 1998. The 1970s comic strips about 'The Addams Family', published by Gold Key Comics, were not drawn by Addams himself, but by Bill Ziegler.
Charles Addams continued drawing cartoons for The New Yorker until his death in 1988. While he created many of his own gags, some were supplied by colleagues of him like Arnie Levin, Sam Gross and Mick Stevens. He also made a syndicated cartoon feature called 'Out of this World' in 1956. Addams' work was collected in books like 'Drawn and Quartered' (1942), 'Monster Rally' (1950), 'Black Maria' (1960) and 'Favorite Haunts' (1976). The cartoonist received a special Edgar Award in 1961 for his entire body of work. He was the first non-novelist to receive this honour. Addams also provided animated opening titles and the posters for the horror film comedies 'The Old Dark House' (1963) by William Castle and 'Murder by Death' (1976) by Robert Moore and designed the album cover of Dean Glitter's record 'Ghost Ballads' (1957).
One of his close friends was film director Alfred Hitchcock, who referred to Addams' cartoons in the auction scene in his film 'North By Northwest' (1957). Other celebrity fans of Addams are Gahan Wilson, Bill Plympton, Roz Chast and Matt Groening. Chast drew a two-page comic strip homage to Addams in 1997, published in The New Yorker. For those interested in the man's life Linda H. Davis' 'Chas Addams: A Cartoonist's Life' (2006), published by Random Books is a must-read.