Sunday, February 05, 2006

Al Lewis - April 30, 1910-February 3, 2006

One of the most amazing figures in TV history was Al "Grandpa" Lewis. Very few other actors parlayed a character on a show that lasted only two years into both a career and a persona, but once Al Lewis found Grandpa Munster in The Munsters he was set for life.

Al Lewis was born in Woolcott New York, but his family moved to Brooklyn as a child and he was a New Yorker from that point on. He worked as a hot dog vendor at Ebbetts Field and, in the 1920s, as a cricus performer before returning to college. He graduated from Columbia in 1941 with a PhD in Child Psychology. He returned to acting in 1949, working in Burlesque and the last days of vaudeville. His first TV role was in an episode of a series called Decoy, and he appeared in a number of dramas over the years. However it was his work in comedies that really caught people's attention. He appeared in a couple of episodes of The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sergeant Bilko).

Still it was Car 54 Where Are You? that brought him to general notice. Although the role of Officer Leo Schnauser was a supporting part to the main characters of Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). He would later portray Leo Schnauser in the 1994 film remake of Car 54 Where Are You? The relationship with Gwynne continued when the two were cast in The Munsters. Gwynne played the Frankenstein-like Herman Munster while Lewis played the cigar smoking mad scientist vampire known as Grandpa. Grandpa was - allegedly - the smart one in the relationship. Of the character of Grandpa, Lewis once said "The role of Grandpa is not complicated because you're wearing odd makeup or bizarre costumes. That's not what complicates a role. What makes Grandpa a little odd is the fact that he had no prototype. When I approached this role, I knew that whatever I was doing was original. So no director could say to me, 'Listen, remember how he did it, this is how I want it done.' I worked very hard creating that character. I made those lines work. The walk and the posture all fit the character. As to the character itself, you might say that Grandpa was a kind of Dracula-type Major Hoople."

Car 54 Where Are You? and The Munsters were Al Lewis's only regular TV roles. The two series lasted a total of four years. He would continue to act for many years - his last credit was in 2002 as Father Hanlon in a movie called Night Terror - but all of his later TV appearances were guest appearances. Yet over the years he remained a familiar figure who came to look like Grandpa, with his bushy sideburns and receding hairline. He actively promoted this image. At one point he owned a Greenwich Village restaurant called "Grandpa's" and he'd make personal appearances at the drop of a cigar. This attachment to the "Grandpa" character caused something of a rift between him and Fred Gwynne for a number of years because the Harvard educated Gwynne desperately want to put The Munsters behind him and be regarded as a serious actor.

In later years Al Lewis's political activities caught public attention when in 1998, at age 88, he ran for Governor of New York on the Green Party ticket against George Pataki - he won 52,000 votes which was enough to earn the Greens a line on the state ballot for the next four years. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise - Lewis's involvement in political causes went back to at least 1927 when he was involved in the unsuccessful efforts to gain clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti. For a number of years he hosted a politically oriented radio show in WBAI-FM, a non-commerical listener supported radio station in New York. He once said about his politics that "if anything I consider myself an anarchist." During the 1990s he was a frequent guest on Howard Stern's radio show and Stern once had to censor Lewis when Al led on an obscene chant directed at the FCC.

Besides politics Lewis - who was 6'1" but looked shorter (probably because he was usually seen alongside Fred Gwynne who was 6'5" and wore special boots as Herman which made him taller) - was passionate about basketball and for many years was a basketball scout for Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics.

In June 2003, Al Lewis underwent his third angioplasty. Complications occurred and his right leg below the knee and the toes on his left foot were amputated, and he spent the next month in a coma. Al Lewis passed away on Friday but his death was announced by WBAI-FM program director Bernard White during the time slot which had been home to Lewis's radio show. White said of Lewis, "To say that we will miss his generous, cantankerous, engaging spirit is a profound understatement." Indeed.

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