If Al Lewis had been an imaginary figure from the world of fiction, and not an actual living human being, it’s likely that few would have found him believable. His disputed age, his early days in the circus, and his over-the-top persona all contributed to a life that few fiction writers would have dared to conjure. But Lewis did live—and lived loudly and exuberantly for over 80 years.
It was 15 years ago that Al Lewis died, succumbing to heart-related disease at the age of 82. Even in his early eighties, Lewis had found a way to remain relevant. He somehow retained his place in popular culture, as part of a cast of characters surrounding radio shock jock Howard Stern, and even dabbled in the political world with a short-lived run for the governorship of New York. These adventures kept Lewis in the spotlight, even though his peak years as a cast member of “The Munsters” had seemingly been left far behind.
A product of early 20th century America, Lewis was born in New York City under the name of Abraham Meister, but there has long been dispute as to his actual date of birth. For years, Lewis told reporters that he was born in 1910, which would have made him 96 at the time of his death. But when he first applied to have a social security number, likely in the 1940s or fifties, he filled out an application that listed his birth date as 1923. Most researchers and historians regard 1923 as the more likely of the birthdates, but the lack of a birth certificate continues to cast a degree of mystery over the start of Lewis’ life.
What is known is that Lewis grew up very poor on the mean streets of Brooklyn. His father died when he was very young, leaving him and his brothers to be raised by their mother. As a child he became a voracious reader, curious to learn about the world around him. As he moved into his teenage years, he became the head of the household and took on a series of odd jobs, including that of a circus roustabout who toiled under the big top.
As he juggled circus duty with other responsibilities, Lewis still found a way to attend school, including three years at New York City’s Thomas Jefferson High School. Lewis claimed that he later attended Oswego State Teachers College (now known as the SUNY Oswego), but that seems unlikely given that he dropped out of high school after his junior year. Lewis also insisted that he attended graduate school at the esteemed Columbia University, where he allegedly obtained a PhD in psychology, but records at the university show no evidence of him even attending Columbia.
While his formative years remain heavily in dispute, a higher level of clarity comes into the picture by the late 1930s. In his late teens, Lewis returned to the world of the circus, becoming a carnival barker. Lewis’ circus performance included a classic routine: the peddling of a medical elixir. During the summers, he found time for additional work at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where he sold peanuts during Dodgers games. Those ventures were interrupted in the 1940s, when World War II consumed America. Lewis joined the Merchant Marines, and saw service on a battleship. He often told a story about his ship being torpedoed, nearly resulting in his drowning.
After the war, Lewis found work as a waiter at a resort hotel in upstate New York. Each week, the workers at the hotel were required to put on a play; Lewis took part in the plays, and loved the experience, especially the applause that came from the hotel guests. It was at that point that Lewis knew he wanted to become an actor.
Lewis initially found work in both burlesque and vaudeville shows, which still existed at the time but were nearing the end of their popular runs. From there, Lewis graduated to Broadway; he starred in at least three Broadway productions, proving his ability to handle both dramatic and comedic roles.
In the midst of his Broadway run, Lewis received his first break in film: a small role in a horror movie called Lust of the Vampire, an Italian production based in part on a screenplay written by a young Mario Bava. It was a tiny, uncredited role, one in which Lewis played what was termed “an assistant,” but the film played to solid reviews in Italy before coming to the states several years later.
More substantial roles would await Lewis in the burgeoning industry of television. Beginning in 1959, he took on a recurring role in a now-forgotten show called “Naked City”, a crime drama that used a semi-documentarian approach. He also made guest spots in shows like Route 66. But then came the major break that Lewis needed; in 1961, he was offered a guest appearance on “Car 54, Where Are You?”, a show about the antics of bumbling cops in the Bronx. His appearance went over so well that the producers offered him the regular role of Officer Leo Schnauser. Although the show lasted for only two seasons, it received critical acclaim, earning four Emmy nominations and one Emmy win.
It was on “Car 54” that Lewis met one of the show’s stars, a tall, imposing actor who had attended Harvard: Fred Gwynne. Although the two young actors came from completely opposite backgrounds, they became fast friends. The on-air chemistry and general rapport between the two led to CBS casting both of them in their newly planned comedy, “The Munsters”. The producers of the show made Gwynne the lead, portraying Herman, the Frankenstein-like father of a friendly but macabre family. Lewis took on a supporting role as Grandpa, the vampire father to Herman’s wife, Lily, and the elder statesman of the bizarre household. Grandpa was truly an elder—a vampire who was 378 years old.
Though Grandpa’s real name was rarely uttered on the show, it was actually “Sam Dracula;” in other words, he was actually playing the original Count Dracula, but was far less sinister than the vampire of film and literature. Early episodes of “The Munsters” played on Dracula’s lust for blood by having Grandpa comically attempt to bite the hand of strangers he was meeting for the first time. But as the show proceeded, the portrayal became much lighter and more reliant on slapstick comedy, with special emphasis on his chronic attempts at magic, which were designed to help the family but usually ended in disaster.
Lewis and Gwynne became the centerpieces to the show, even more than Yvonne De Carlo, a longtime movie star who played Lily. (At the time, De Carlo was far more famous than either Lewis and Gwynne, but that would soon change.) Lewis’ brilliant comedic touch, laced with sarcasm and bite, and his continuing chemistry with Gwynne, helped make the show a success.
As Lewis himself said in an interview with the Archive of American Television, the key to “The Munsters” involved the chemistry between the cast members. “We liked each other off camera,” Lewis said. “Although it was obvious that the show was written for Fred and I – that was obvious – we all helped each other, and we did it on camera with that passion and enthusiasm.”
Of all the characters on the show, Lewis emerged as arguably the funniest, though Gwynne certainly carried his share of the weight. Lewis had a way of delivering a punch line, sometimes deadpan and sometimes wacky, that almost always hit the mark. Playing Grandpa to the hilt, Lewis found the signature role of his career. And it was a role that came naturally. “When he rehearsed and read [the scripts] on Monday and Tuesday, and when he was in makeup on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, there was no difference,” said co-star Butch Patrick. “And that’s why that character was so good—because he was playing himself.”
Although “The Munsters” lasted only two seasons before being cancelled by CBS, the show stamped Lewis as a star. He then appeared in the feature film, “Munster, Go Home!”, which seemed to mark the finality of his tenure as Grandpa. And yet, even with the show having become defunct, his familiar count-like image became a staple of numerous pieces of merchandise, everything from magazines to lunch boxes. Like the rest of the loveable Munsters characters, Grandpa Munster was fully ensconced as part of American popular culture.
While Lewis’ name remained prominent in the late 1960s, his personal life took a turn for the worse when his wife Marge became involved in a car accident. She survived the incident, but suffered serious injuries, including the loss of an eye. Lewis halted his career completely so that he could oversee her care and rehabilitation, with help from their three young sons.
With medical bills mounting, Lewis needed to get back to work, a problem exacerbated by the fact that he had become typecast as Grandpa. He found a few small roles in TV, including “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” and the successful made-for-TV movie, The Night Strangler, which featured Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak. But Lewis realized that such opportunities were limited because theatergoers still viewed him as one of “The Munsters”. So Lewis decided to embrace his Grandpa persona; he made numerous personal appearances while wearing his Munsters regalia. He even became a regular part of a theme park at Universal Studios, where he played Grandpa over the course of two summers.
When asked about the difficulties in being typecast, Lewis refused to complain, at least publicly. “Why would I mind?” Lewis said. “It pays my mortgage.”
Unfortunately, Lewis’ home life was beginning to suffer in the early 1970s. His relationship with his wife Marge had become strained, leading to frequent arguments and eventually separation and divorce, leaving Lewis heartbroken. Thankfully, Lewis found a new companion in 1979; while starring in a play, he met Karen Ingenthron, an actress and author who would become his second wife. They would remain married until the end of Al’s life.
On the screen, Lewis’ career received a boost that complimented the change in his personal life. He delivered one of his best performances, and it came in a non-horror, non-Munsters role. Appearing in the uproariously funny Kurt Russell film, Used Cars, Lewis played Hanging Judge Harrison, a quirky and temperamental judge with a predilection for guilty verdicts, and a justice with little patience for those appearing in his court. To add to his sinister reputation, the judge ran his courtroom while brandishing a miniature guillotine from his place on the bench! It was the perfect role for Lewis, given his ability to dish out sarcastic humor in a bludgeoning manner.
The 1980s brought Lewis into a more prominent spotlight, thanks in part to his two-year run as a horror host. Signing on with Superstation TBS, Lewis hosted “Super Scary Saturday” by introducing a different horror film each week. Away from TV, Lewis fulfilled a dream when he opened his new restaurant, called “Grampa’s.” There Lewis took on the role of the ultimate raconteur, greeting his guests, signing autographs and posing for photographs, all the while spinning stories from his incredible life.
Not long after, Lewis became friends with Howard Stern, whose radio show had exploded into nationwide popularity. Lewis made frequent appearances on the Stern show, where his unpredictable behavior fit in perfectly with the morning show format. At an infamous rally that Stern staged in an effort to protest federal regulations, he brought Lewis on stage and was shocked when the aging actor cursed out the FCC repeatedly in front of thousands of screaming fans.
As outrageous as Lewis could be, he also had a serious side—including a strong interest in politics. Long a fighter against racism and a supporter of both black and Latin Americans, Lewis hosted a radio show where he offered his political views. And then, much to his surprise, the Green Party asked him to run for New York State Governor. Some observers felt that Lewis was being used by the Green Party, but he took his campaign seriously and traveled the state as part of a barebones, grassroots campaign. Lewis lost the election, but his efforts gained the Green Party a permanent place on the state ballot.
In his last few years, Lewis settled into retirement in New York City, where he remained a recognizable figure even as his health declined. In 2003, he underwent an angioplasty, but the procedure took on complications that resulted in the amputation of his lower right leg and the toes on his right foot. Three years later, Lewis died at the age of 83.
It was a remarkable life that lasted eight decades, but one that seemed much longer given its remarkable eventfulness, its many twists and turns, and its larger-than-life veneer. No one could have scripted such a story. From circus performer to Grandpa Munster to major political candidate, Al Lewis lived a life like no one could have imagined.
Be sure to check out more horror content from Bruce on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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