The Munsters ensured that names like Herman, Lily, Eddie and Marilyn lived on in television history. They were a not-so-typical average American family who lived in an old mansion and drove a modified hearse. While the characters were memorable and wholesome, Grandpa was unforgettable. We saved the best for last as we present Al Lewis in the finale of our “Let’s Meet The Munsters” series.
Al Lewis was born Al Meister to a Jewish family in New York on April 30, 1923 (although Lewis himself said 1910). Lewis spoke highly of his mother in a 1998 interview with Walt Shepperd:
“My mother was a worker, 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 sixteen 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.”
Lewis attended Thomas Jefferson High School but left in his junior year. He claims to have attended Oswego State Teachers College (SUNY Oswego) and obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia but there are no official records to support these claims.
Al Lewis’s acting career began by working in theater and vaudeville. After making guest appearances on such shows as Decoy and The Phil Silvers Show, Lewis would land the role of Al Spencer the Auto Body man for a few episodes before being re-cast more famously as Officer Leo Schnauser in Car 54, Where Are You? which ran from 1961-63. He would be joined by Fred Gwynne who he would re-unite with on The Munsters. The show was re-made into a 1994 movie where Lewis returned to play Officer Schnauser once more. When Car 54 ended in 1963, Lewis and Gwynne were asked to star in a test pilot episode for The Munsters. They would become the only two actors from that original test pilot to star throughout the show’s entire run. Yvonne De Carlo, Butch Patrick and Pat Priest would join right before the series aired. As Grandpa, Lewis would perform experiments that would literally blow up in his face and talk Herman into doing something that tended to go very wrong very fast. Lewis embraced his role as Grandpa throughout his post-Munsters and post-acting life.
In 1967, he appeared as Zalto the Wizard in an episode of Lost In Space. In 1960 he starred in his first movie playing Machine Gun Manny in Pretty Boy Floyd. He had small roles in such movies as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and They Might Be Giants but would always go back to being Grandpa when necessary. He became a regular guest on The Howard Stern Show, had an Atari character loosely based off of Grandpa, opened an Italian restaurant, “Grampa’s Bella Gente” on Bleecker St, New York in 1980 and a comedy club called “Grandpa’s” in Staten island, NY. He tried to run for governor of New York in 1998 under “Grandpa Al Lewis” but was rejected. However, he did get enough votes to ensure the Green party’s presence on ballots for the next four years.
Al Lewis was married twice and had three sons from his first marriage. He lived out his life on Roosevelt Island, NY and in 2003 suffered from post-angioplasty complications which resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee and all of the toes on his left foot. He passed away on February 3, 2006 at the age of 82. While Al Lewis may not be with us, Grandpa Munster will be around for a very, very long time.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)