“Hey, whose Grandpa didn’t tell some tales?” asked the headline on a New York Times obituary in February 2006 for television actor Al Lewis, best known for playing the vampire-ish Grandpa on “The Munsters,” the 1960s CBS comedy.
It was a lighthearted and deservedly cheery send off for a brilliant character actor, political activist and restauranteur whose contributions to our lives ranged from a million escapist TV laughs to bold radical street activism.
The headline was also a colossal understatement. Al Lewis told more than just “some” tales like the embellished fish stories everybody’s grandfather leaves us with. In fact, the same obit story listed him as age uncertain. That’s because the birth year once had been publicly misstated by Lewis, who was born in either 1910 or 1923 as Alexander Meister. Or Albert Meister. In New York City. Or 287 miles from there in Wolcott, a small town in far upstate Wayne County, N.Y.
That town near Lake Ontario entered the Al Lewis narrative late in his life when a reporter asked him why no birth certificate in NYC could be located to clear up the matter of the actual year in which he was born. Lewis then explained that his mother had briefly lived in Wolcott to work in a factory.
Sealing Al Lewis’ stature as the greatest man of mystery is that no birth record for any A. Meister can be found in Wayne County, said imdb.com, a public figure biography site.
Imdb said that days after Al Lewis’ death, one of his three sons announced that Lewis had in fact been born on April 30, 1923, not 1910 as the actor had claimed.
“Why the deception?” asked the web site Everything2.com. “It could’ve been part of his tryouts for ‘The Munsters.’ If he was born in ’23, he was actually a year younger than Yvonne DeCarlo, who was supposed to be his daughter. But by claiming to be 13 years older, perhaps he felt he’d seem more grandfatherly to the show’s producers.
“At any rate,” Eveyrthing2 continued, “it seems likely that Lewis told a bunch of stories about his youth, either to support his claims about his birthdate or just for the joy of telling stories.”
Al Lewis’ lifelong penchant for fudging brought anything but joy to historians and journalists, who often had to retract or revamp information they had confidently published about one of the television era’s most beloved and eclectic entertainers.
In fact, that New York Times obituary was the second one within days the nation’s newspaper of record published on Al Lewis, the latter correcting the first’s careless inclusion of already discredited information. The Times obituarist Dan Barry wrote that almost every claim Lewis made about his early life – his birth date and place of birth, his wartime adventures in the merchant marine, his education – was unverifiable and possibly false.
Among others were that Lewis had faced danger touring the maliciously anti-union Southeast to help John L. Lewis organize workers, rallied outside the White House in support of condemned immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, performed as a clown in a traveling circus, sold hot dogs at Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, and in the mid-1960s hired Charles Manson to babysit his three children (he recalled Manson as trustworthy and caring).
Regarding Al Lewis’ educational resume, the imdb.com site added: “Although he claimed to have a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University, the university has no record of it, under his stage name or his real name.”
Lewis’ reliability began being questioned in the early 2000s after his wife of two decades, Karen Lewis, found documents while preparing for her ostensibly 93-year-old husband’s hospitalization for an angioplasty which showed he was in fact just 80. That was the first she knew of any age discrepancy, but the Times quoted her as saying the finding didn’t affect her feelings about him.
A reporter soon examined the actor’s commonly reported story that he had served as a paralegal in the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a landmark civil rights case involving nine black Alabama teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women.
A 1923 birth would have made Lewis eight during the trial (or college age if he were born in 1910). At whatever stage of life, Lewis said he learned of the Scottsboro Boys’ plight after his mother attended a rally for their freedom.
His mother, if one trusts the following Al Lewis recollection on the web site Everything2.com, “worked in the garment trades. My mother was an indomitable spirit. My grandfather had no sons. He had six daughters. They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change. My mother being the oldest daughter, they saved their money, and when she was about 16 they sent her to the United States, not knowing a word of English. She went to work in the garment center, worked her back and rear-end off and brought over to the United States her five sisters and two parents. I remember going on picket lines with my mother. My mother wouldn’t back down to anyone.”
Nothing suspicious about that classic early 1900s immigrant working class bio.
Also perfectly plausible is the 6-foot-1 Lewis’ description of his playing basketball in his youth in New York City and later serving as a non-hired scout for NBA teams – but was he the very best scout in the game?
When Lewis boasted to independent radio station WFMU’s blog that, “you can call Marty Blake, the chief scout for the NBA, he lives outside Atlanta, and ask him who is the most knowledgeable man of roundball you have ever met. Without hesitation, he will tell you, Al Lewis.”
So Kliph Nesteroff, the author of WFMU blog entry “The Myths and Politics of Grandpa Munster,” ran that claim past Blake, who concurred: “He (Lewis) knew everything there was to know about basketball from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.”
However, Nesteroff also wrote: “Lewis liked to say he worked on the defense committee of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. If there were any semblance of truth to this, it would have occurred when he was no more than five years old…. Neither was he in Washington, as he claimed, the night the American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for treason, were executed.”
It IS known that Al Lewis, living out his left-wing values, donated his time and most of his earnings from the two-year run of The Munsters to charities, particularly a program helping teenage runaways, who were proliferating in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. But the admiration one feels upon hearing of this altruism quickly turns to skepticism, when Lewis identifies one of those kids he brought under his wing:
“That’s how I met Charlie Manson. He babysat my three kids…. He sat for four or five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat.”
Back in the real world of documented facts, Lewis ran for governor of New York as the Green Party candidate in 1998, opposing Republican incumbent George Pataki. Like a precursor of Bernie Sanders and with an accent to match, Lewis toured the Empire State fervently condemning health insurance companies, polluting industries, U.S. wars, and corporate tax breaks which made the poor overtaxed. At age 88 (or 75?), he won 52,533 votes, above the 50,000-vote threshold for receiving automatic ballot placement in the subsequent election. Lewis decided not to make another run, however, citing long odds of being elected as a Green.
He sought to be listed on the 1998 ballot as “Grandpa Al Lewis” to gain momentum from his TV recognition. A state judge turned down the request.
Before The Munsters premiered in 1964, Lewis played New York City police officer Leo Schnauser in the comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” from 1961 to ’63. Real police in his hometown loved the character and Lewis did public appearances on their behalf. Relations 40 years later between police and radical candidate Al Lewis were cooler when the Green gubernatorial hopeful criticized police use of force practices as racist.
Everyone, however, was warm toward “Grandpa,” and Lewis’ most memorable TV character was how he was often addressed by political supporters, TV fans and customers at Grampa’s Bella Gente Italian, a Greenwich Village restaurant he founded and where his regular presence was a draw. Lewis would greet customers entering, chatting with them, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
One unlikely sounding distinction by Al Lewis that was in fact documented before millions is that he was once censored by Howard Stern. You read right, censored by Howard Stern, America’s chief poddy mouth of the air.
Lewis, who discussed political issues with iron fervor, but free of obscenities on his own Saturday radio show in the early 2000s on New York City’s WBAI, once joined Stern in an outdoor rally against the FCC’s frequent fining of Stern and others for regular use of words banned on airwaves. Not realizing that his microphone was tied into a live broadcast of Stern’s show as well as the rally’s public address system, Grandpa told the crowd: “We’re here because we all have a purpose… And that purpose is to say ‘Fuck the FCC! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!’ ”
An uncharacteristically mortified Stern frantically slapped his hand on the mic to try to keep his fines from piling even higher.
“I really thought [he’d] lost his mind,” Stern said on the WFMU blog. “As far as I was concerned, my career was over because we’re on the radio live.”
For once, there was no doubting Al Lewis meant what he said.
Brian Arbenz loved Grandpa on The Munsters — and the radical left positions he took while running for office.