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Some familial surnames are so much a part of the American landscape that it’s difficult to discuss the country’s history, its highs and lows or its complex and often contradictory legacy without mentioning them. The Roosevelt family. The Kennedy family. The Addams family.
Consider the relevance and the cultural reach of the latter. Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Lurch and the rest have been around, in various incarnations, for eight decades. Created in the 1930s by the legendary cartoonist, Charles Addams (see below), the endearingly macabre family and assorted friends, neighbors and things have appeared in magazines (most notably The New Yorker), books, movies, on Broadway and, of course in a short-lived but fondly remembered 1960s TV series. A later, not-terrible animated series ran for a few seasons as a Saturday morning cartoon in the mid-Seventies.
Here, on the 50th anniversary of the broadcast premiere of the original TV series—it debuted on ABC on Sept. 18, 1964—LIFE.com takes a look back at the auditions for the show; some of the actors and actresses who ended up in the cast; and a number of others (largely unidentified in LIFE’s archives) who gave it their best shot, but evidently weren’t quite what producers had in mind.
In an article titled, “TV’s Year of the Monster,” meanwhile, in the Aug. 21, 1964, issue of LIFE, the magazine referenced The Addams Family as well as Bewitched and The Munsters in its preview of the networks’ fall lineups:
Finally, it’s worth noting that while Charles Addams himself was often depicted as a perverse and perhaps even sinister character straight out of one of his own cartoons, that persona was largely for show. As one of his obituaries pointed out when he died in 1988, at the age of 76, “a colleague at The New Yorker once described Addams as ‘an urbane, relaxed, congenial man of great civility. He doesn’t eat babies.'”
“He doesn’t eat babies.” What higher praise for any man?
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.