He spent only two years as a star of the CBS sitcom "The Munsters" (1964-1966) but Butch Patrick remained 50 years later identified almost exclusively with the role of pointy-eared "were-boy" Eddie Munster. The oldest child of a family broken by divorce, Patrick discovered in show business a structure denied him as a boy growing up in a single parent household. Spotted by a talent agent when he was only seven, Patrick was slotted into a lucrative run of TV commercials and guest spots on popular weekly series. He made his film debut in 1961 and racked up a handful of film appearances opposite such marquee headliners as Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster and Sidney Poitier, but became an instant celebrity after joining the cast of "The Munsters." After a short-lived turn as a teen idol in the mid-Seventies, Patrick vanished from the limelight, his career derailed by age and a descent into drug use. A decade later, Butch Patrick emerged as a bona fide pop culture icon, a staple of the nostalgia convention circuit, and one of the last surviving links to the Golden Age of Television.
Butch Patrick was born Patrick Alan Lilley in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 2, 1953. After the divorce of his parents when he was still a toddler, Patrick and his sister Michele were raised by their mother, Patty; he would not see his father again until he was eight years old. Patty Lilley eventually remarried, blending her family with that of Ken Hunt, a sometimes radio newsman and outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels expansion team. When he was seven, Patrick accompanied his mother and four-year-old sister to an open audition for child models. Impressed with his look and precocious personality, a talent agent snapped a few photos. Interviews with producers swiftly followed, as did small roles in a TV commercial for Kellogg's cereal and a role in a feature film. At only eight years old, Butch Patrick was a working actor.
Patrick made his film debut in "The Two Little Bears," starring Eddie Albert, Jane Wyatt and diminutive pop singer Brenda Lee, who contributed two songs to the soundtrack. The children's fantasy, about two young brothers who consult a gypsy fortune teller in order to transform themselves into bears, also marked the film debut of radio and TV comic Soupy Sales. When the film premiered in November 1961, the child actor cast as Patrick's onscreen brother was so upset to find himself billed below his co-star that he pushed Patrick into a banister, knocking out a tooth. Patrick was reluctant to return to acting after this incident but the volume of offers was too great to refuse. In very short order, he was racking up appearances on such acclaimed weekly series as "The Detectives" (ABC, 1959-1962) with Robert Taylor and "Ben Casey" (ABC, 1961-66) with Vince Edwards. In "The Night They Shot Santa Claus," which kicked off the fourth season of "The Untouchables" (ABC, 1959-1963), Patrick played a Chicago orphan who witnesses the Christmas Eve rub-out of a man in a Kris Kringle suit.
The sale of Ken Hunt's contract by the Los Angeles Angels to the Washington Senators prompted a move east for Butch Patrick's blended family. To remain eligible for work in Hollywood, the young actor split his time between a Los Angeles-based aunt and uncle, and his family in Washington. He appeared in a walk-on in "Hand of Death" (1962), starring John Agar as a scientist transformed by nerve gas into a monster. Although Patrick's contribution to the film lasted less than a minute and was entirely without dialogue, promotional photographs and the film's theatrical poster featured his image prominently. Patrick also had uncredited roles in the Stanley Kramer-produced "Pressure Point" (1962), starring Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin, and "A Child is Waiting," an early film for director John Cassavetes. In "One Man's Way" (1964), he was the young son of crusading minister Norman Vincent Peale, played in the biographical feature by Don Murray.
In 1964, Butch Patrick attained pop culture immortality when he was cast as the youngest child of "The Munsters" (CBS, 1964-68), a middle-class family of monsters trying to assimilate in modern day America. With his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit and widow's peak, Eddie Munster was a daring character for primetime television at the time; he made pointy ears fashionable two years before Mr. Spock of "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). The role had nearly gone to another child actor. Before he was cast as Will Robinson on "Lost in Space" (CBS, 1965-68), Billy Mumy was offered the role of Eddie Munster. The then 11-year-old's parents declined the offer, not wanting their son to have to work under heavy makeup. Eddie Munster had been played by yet another actor in an earlier CBS pilot for "The Munsters;" while Nate Derman had etched Eddie as a resentful, borderline sociopathic problem child, Patrick brought to the character a boy-next-door sweetness not greatly different from the protagonists of "Leave It to Beaver" (CBS, 1957-1963) or "Dennis the Menace" (CBS, 1959-1963).
During lulls between shooting his scenes, Patrick would explore the Universal backlot, making friends of the men in the makeup department, discovering the empty shell of the "Psycho" (1960) house, and cajoling his "Munsters" castmates Fred Gwynne, Yvonne DeCarlo and Al Lewis into tossing a softball. A tutor was retained to ensure that the child actor would not slip behind in his studies. Patrick scored his ballplayer stepfather a bit role in the 1965 episode "Herman the Rookie," which also featured Los Angeles Dodgers coach Leo Durocher as himself. During the series run, Universal introduced tram tours of the studio, hoping to transform its backlot into a theme park on par with nearby Disneyland. Filming was routinely halted during this time to allow the cast of "The Munsters" to meet and greet fans, to pose for pictures and to sign autographs. The series even provided Patrick with his first date, when his TV sister Beverly Owen took him to see Walt Disney's "Mary Poppins" at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
In addition to appearing as Eddie for two seasons on "The Munsters," Patrick reprised the character in a feature film spin-off, "Munster, Go Home" (1966). Set in England but filmed on the Universal back lot and on the sprawling Paramount Ranch in the hills of Agoura, the full color release failed to find its audience and the series was not renewed for a third season. As was the industry standard in those days, Patrick's contract with Universal did not entitle him to residuals should the series ever run in syndication and his weekly salary never rose above $650. Without a steady income, he returned to work in episodes of "I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-1970), "The Monkees" (1966-68) and "Family Affair" (CBS, 1966-1971), as well as played the title character in the Walt Disney Studios telefilm "The Young Loner" (1968).
Patrick had a small role as a blind child in the Warner Bros. release "80 Steps to Jonah" (1969), a vehicle for singer Wayne Newton, and traveled to South America for a featured role in Hall Bartlett's "The Sandpit Generals" (1972). Based on the 1937 novel by Jorge Amado, the film follows the struggle of Brazilian orphans in the slums of Bahia. Completed in 1969, the project was withheld from release until 1972, at which time it was given a limited distribution by American International Pictures as "The Wild Pack." Patrick was the only live performer in Chuck Jones' "The Haunted Tollbooth" (1970), an animated adaptation of the novel by Norman Juster. He had another starring role on a weekly series with "Lidsville" (ABC, 1971-1973), an attempt by puppeteer producers Sid and Marty Krofft to repeat the success of their "H.R. Pufnstuff" (1969-1971). During this time, Patrick grew his hair long and enjoyed a brief tenure as a teen idol, putting him for a time in the company of David Cassidy, Davy Jones and Donny Osmond.
After 17 episodes of "Lidsville," Patrick returned to the jobbing life of an actor on a handful of network and Saturday morning series before disappearing from the limelight in 1974 at the age of 21. Plagued by personal and legal problems related to drug use, Patrick soon depleted his earnings from 15 years as a professional actor. In 1983, he received a sliver of national attention for the novelty single "Whatever Happened to Eddie?" recorded by Patrick and his band Eddie and the Monsters. The single was a direct inspiration for MTV's "The Basement Tapes," a weekly contest program for unsigned rock bands. In 1989, Patrick declared himself drug-free in a People magazine profile, which put the spotlight on his substance abuse issues in the years following the cancellation of "The Munsters" and a brief sideline as a Hollywood drug supplier.
Long a staple of the nostalgia convention circuit, Patrick paid homage to Eddie Munster in a voiceover for a 1999 episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) and penned an affectionate postscript for the 2006 overview The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane. A long-time bachelor, Patrick announced in July of 2010 that he was set to wed former NFL cheerleader Donna McCall, who had as a child written him a fan letter back in 1964. As quickly as the engagement was announced, however, it was retracted; in November, the 57-year-old Patrick admitted himself into a private rehabilitation facility in New Jersey to deal with a 40-year addiction to alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
By Richard Harland Smith