"Yeah, I met The Beatles ... Ain't no big fuckin' deal." - Al 'Grandpa Munster' Lewis
There are two surefire ways to start a fight in America: you can call someone a socialist or you can call someone a liar. Al Lewis, known to millions of television viewers as Grandpa Munster, was both. Had Al Lewis ever written an autobiography, it most certainly would have been marketed as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Lewis was an outspoken progressive, a chronic cigar smoker and a life-long social activist. He was also an expletive-laced teller of tall tales, embellishing every facet of his life with a steady stream of ludicrous proclamations. He was an actor onstage and off, constantly amplifying his own legend. He would always strive to be larger-than-life and generally achieved the objective. "Charles Manson babysat my kids," he once bragged. "He didn't chop no heads off. He was very nice with me."
LEWIS THE MAN - LEWIS THE MYTH
Al Lewis dropped out of school when he was sixteen and hit the road. "He would disappear for months on end," remembers his brother. "Later on I found out he had gone to work in a circus." Al Lewis spoke about this period of his life with a typical mix of honesty and deceit. "I worked every single entertainment medium, including some that don't exist ... I was about twelve years old ... I worked the circus, the carnival, I had my own medicine show ... I made it in a bathtub. [Good for] whatever ailed you. I probably kept your grandfather alive. That's why you're here ... [the medicine was called] The Professor [at other times] Little Alfie ... Made it in the bathtub the night before, bottled it, put a label on it and sold it the following day in town - all through the South ... I worked in various circuses. Cole Brothers, Clyde Beatty, Barnum and Bailey. I started out as a roustabout, cleaning up ... then I worked myself up into a clown and did a trick unicycle act." Grandpa had a series of stock jokes he used during interviews. One described his circus job. "Elephants are vegetarians and leave a lot to be desired. I was the guy who was shoveling the 'lot to be desired."
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. Lewis said it was his mother's influence that made him an unabashed socialist. "My mother was an immigrant woman, a peasant woman, struggled all her life, worked in the garment center. [She] understood what the struggle was about. My mother couldn't read or write, but she had more sense than many a graduate from Harvard ... You become aware. It hits you in the stomach and then a cop hits you on the head. You become aware ... I remember my mother used to [march] for the Scottsboro boys ... we struggled to free them. I remember participating in demonstrations [for] Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, the so-called bombing of the Preparedness Day Parade. And then during the depression, people were getting evicted ... We used to come along and break the lock and put the furniture back in again. We would storm the Home Relief Centers [on behalf of people who] didn't get a check for eight dollars or something and get hit on the head." He said the National Maritime Union sent him to Fayette, North Carolina to organize the Food, Agricultural and Tobacco Workers Union. "You [had your work cut out for you] organizing in the South," he said. "Even John L. Lewis, who organized the United Mine Workers. He didn't get very many Southern mine workers ... You'd get shot at ... the poor people there who had no jobs. They were hired by the boss. They'd hand them a gun. 'You see this son of a bitch? Blow his head off.' You know who [John L. Lewis]'s organizers were? Communists from the North ... Many of them got blown away. Just step off the train, they blow your head off. You don't know what fear is."
From there, he explained, he entered the world of radio, furnishing uncredited bit parts on various programs. His nineteen forties radio work has never surfaced. Asked what shows he worked on he answered, "All kinds. You name it. WGN ... Went to WFW ... came to New York did about eighteen years of radio." He once made the specious claim that he had been a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. Al also placed himself in Italy when he told a Syracuse newspaper "I lived in Rome and didn't speak the language. I was there for the heyday of realism: Fellini, Rosellini, the biggies. When their films became successful and popular they were shipped here. I did what they call dubbing. The most tedious work [was] having to match lip movements. Richard Basehart was there, Anthony Quinn was there." Basehart and Quinn were there but Al Lewis was not. Neither was he in Washington, as he claimed, the night the American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for treason, were executed. Grandpa stumbled through a series of falsehoods in an interview with Democracy Now for reasons known only to him.
Amy Goodman: [Car 54 Where Are You] was after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Goodman: I think you were on Car 54 Where Are You [in] 1960-61.
Lewis: Oh, uh, sixty to sixty-two. Oh yeah! That was after, that was after. The night ... I was very active in that ... as were many others. Y'know, I mean you live! You gotta move forward. The night they were executed which uh... uh, I was in DC, uh, marching around the White House. And, uh, the two kids were there. Manny Block was there...
Goodman: Robbie and Michael.
Goodman: Robbie and Michael... the two sons of...
Lewis: Yeah, they were there. And uh, Manuel Block and the lady who assisted him ... and some people were resisting...
Goodman: Why were you in Washington?
Lewis: People would walk by... use all kinds of... attempting to start a fight. Police would come in and bust heads. Someone had a radio. And that is a moment that has never left me.
Goodman: We're talking to Al Lewis and we're going to come back with him and find out how he rode shotgun in W.E.B. Dubois' car in the funeral procession for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ...
His actual political involvement during the late forties and early fifties is vague and contradictory. Despite this, there is no doubt he held the same political beliefs as the giants he claimed to know intimately. Lewis was often combative with journalists that dared press him for details. Once he was well known as Grandpa Munster, he uniformly added an extra thirteen years to his age in order to live-up to the persona.
Lewis: I'm not a politician. I've been a performer all my life. But I'm a very political person and have been that way fifty, sixty years. [I was involved with] topical events of the day like the attempt to stop the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the imprisonment of Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, the trial and imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys...
Craig Seeman: What role did you play? You were pretty young at that time. Were you simply...
Lewis: Was I pretty young? You were pretty young! I'm not responsible for that! Nobody encouraged your father to (laughs).
Seeman: Your role, you must have been a fairly young man, right? Late teens early twenties?
Lewis: Well, I was born in 1910. So, if you have problem with that ...
Seeman: No, that's...
Lewis: In the thirties I was, uh, you know, in my twenties.
LEWIS THE ACTOR - LEWIS THE SITCOM STAR
Lewis' legitimate showbiz career started in the mid-fifties. He attended the Paul Mann Actor's Workshop where he met classmate Sidney Poitier. He found work in a handful of Broadway productions1and had television cameos on The Phil Silvers Show, Decoy and The United States Steel Hour. Nat Hiken was the talented comedy scribe who created The Phil Silvers Show. When the series ended in 1959, Phil Silvers returned to Broadway and starred in a musical called Do Re Mi. Hiken attended one evening only to discover that Al Lewis was also in the play. Lewis showcased a range that Hiken had not previously known about. He immediately wanted to use him in a new sitcom he had conceived called Car 54 Where Are You. Hiken had lined up corrosive nightclub comic Joe E. Ross to star in the show with Harvard Lampoon editor Fred Gwynne. "Nat [Hiken] was the creator of Sgt Bilko, Car 54, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Martha Raye Show, just one after another and he was a genius. A comic genius in writing," praised Lewis. Car 54 Where Are You revolved around a bumbling, often mundane, New York police precinct that percolated with inflamed passions, bruised egos and crippling insecurities. At home, the police officers bickered with their horrid wives. Lewis initially played incidental characters until Hiken wrote him a permanent role as Officer Leo Schnauser. Wrestler turned comedian Hank Garrett played Officer Nicholson on the show. He fondly remembers a smoke break. "When I was doing Car 54, Where Are You, Al Lewis and I were on location in the Bronx. We were sitting in front of a building, smoking, when a large black Chrysler came to a screeching stop. The driver flew out of the car, came charging at us screaming, 'Are you two cops out of your minds? I've got a deputy chief inspector in my car and he's going to hang you guys!' Al replied, 'Tell him he's a pain in the ass and stop bothering cops on break."
Garrett had the time of his life working with Al each day. "People wrote thousands of letters," he remembers. "They loved him. He was so popular ... He was fun, fun, fun. A fun guy to be with. His stories were amazing. Most of them weren't true." The popularity of Schnauser brought Lewis adoration from real New York police officers. He was often paid to entertain at law enforcement events and remained beloved by the NYPD for decades. Lewis came to believe the police were the enemy during the Great Depression, but softened his stance once he was taken into their fold. He would often remind his fellow progressives that many police officers were working stiffs. Then again, he never lost an underlining distrust for cops that he had held since his youth. "The police are here to protect property," he once said. "They're not here to protect the public! So, what the fuck? If they could get away with it, they'd beat the shit out of you." He championed the police department when they fought a bitter labor dispute with the mayor of Manhattan years later. "New York City has forty thousand police officers ... ninety-five percent ... they're working [stiffs] ... It's a job ... they're getting screwed by the mayor with the rotten contract ... now ninety-five percent of them are square working Joes who do their job. You and I may not agree, but that's their job. If five percent of them [run errant] ... you know what five percent of forty thousand is? Two thousand! That means there are two thousand maniacs running around! Same thing in a prison, not every guard is [bad]. But there are those sadistic people. This is a concern ... [The NYPD] have been screwed by that piece of crap mayor. I call him Benito Giuliani. The only thing he hasn't done is build a balcony."
Lewis couldn't really remember how he got into television. "I don't know. Somebody called me. You go from one [gig] to the other... I'm a hustler, you know what I mean? People uptown they know me. I'm a hustler!" Nat Hiken's final project was a motion picture called The Love God in which Don Knotts played a dapper pornographer. The original germination as Hiken had conceived it had Al Lewis in the Knotts role. Lewis was going to play a homely garment manufacturer, struggling to keep tabs on his hot wife played by Sophia Loren. For whatever reason, it morphed into the very different Knotts film. Comedian and activist Randy Credico said of his good friend's acting ability, "Al was not a baggy pants comic. [He was] a great actor. One take ... He's one of those guys. You give him the script, he does it. They used to call him one-take Al ... The guy had an incredible memory." At the conclusion of Car 54 Lewis would do guest shots on The Naked City and Route 66, before taking on his perennial role as Grandpa Munster on a sitcom he never bothered to watch. "I never thought about [The Munsters]," he said. "I never saw the show ... It was a corny family show." Fred Gwynne who portrayed Herman Munster once said, "The Munsters is really [just] The Donna Reed Show with monsters."
The role of Grandpa Munster was originally offered to vaudevillian Bert Lahr.2 Lahr declined the offer, as did John Carradine who had been offered the part of Herman. Neither Al Lewis nor Fred Gwynne were pleased with the casting of Yvonne DeCarlo as the female lead. Series writer/producer Joe Connelly dealt with what he felt was incessant and obnoxious complaining. "We had to put up with a lot of shit from those two." Gwynne and Lewis felt that they had to "put up with a lot of shit" from family matriarch Lily Munster. "Yvonne played better-than-thou for a while," said Gwynne. "She stayed in her wagon while we were outside ... waiting for her." In his book about The Munsters, Stephen Cox wrote "DeCarlo was holding up production with her constant adjustments to make-up, hair, and nails ... She began dictating which scenes would be shot, all from the vantage of her convenience. Gwynne and Lewis became enraged as production would halt at times and the crew would be waiting. Finally Al Lewis had taken enough and pulled aside the beauty queen and confronted her about her demanding attitude." The late Abe Haberman was DeCarlo's make-up man. "Yvonne was a little difficult for other people," he said. "She fired five hairdressers. She hated the green make-up and wanted more beautifying make-up, but the network refused." Pat Priest who played Marilyn Munster avoided the on-set drama and simply engaged in the fun. "I remember Fred and Al joking with me constantly. It got to where I couldn't believe anything they said ... They lied to me always ... As a matter of fact, they lied about their ages ... just recently ... I found out the truth." Stephen Cox adds, "Al Lewis - supposed to be Lily's father - was a year younger than DeCarlo." Initially the make-up department had Lewis fitted with a nose extension. Make-up artist Karl Silvera said, "I'll never forget it as long as I live ... [Hunt Stromberg] from the front office told me we weren't going to use the nose anymore because 'He looks too Jewish.' I couldn't believe they were serious."
Al Lewis embraced the role at the time, but retained bitterness when it led to typecasting. Fred Gwynne on the other hand seemed to hold the gig in contempt from the start. He resented the amount of time it took for his make-up to be applied and he did not like dealing with the droves of children that adored him. November 1964, Fred and Al were roped into riding in the "Munster Koach" during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Silvera was there. "Oh, God, the Macy's parade. I was in the Koach handling the loudspeaker and radio system that was playing the Munster [theme] song. Fred had brought along a bottle with him, wrapped in a paper bag, and he got [hammered] ... Al was mad at him. Fred was cussing at people. I just kept the music up [loud] so nobody could hear him. We turned the corner there at Macy's and there was the media box with, I think it was Betty White and Lorne Greene up there describing the parade. Fred looks up at the camera and yells 'Fuck you!' I thought Betty White and Lorne Greene were gonna fall off the platform..."
The Munsters was an incredibly popular sitcom, yet it was canceled after only two seasons. Nobody understood the reason for its termination at the time. Series producer Joe Connelly later explained the reason for the show's end. "The actors were a pain in the ass. Fred and Al objected to anything. Fred hated the make-up and caused a lot of trouble about it on the set. We could not stand Fred Gwynne. The sponsor had it and we had it. Bob [Mosher] and I had just had it." The end of the series did not upset Lewis. He felt it had a good run and it had paid him well. Rather than spend his money on a series of luxury items, Lewis put it toward a variety of charity causes. "In California in [the late sixties] the estimate was that there were at least half a million runaways from the age of eight on, drifting to California. Every Friday I used to have about fifty [to] sixty kids who would wait for me on Sunset Boulevard and I'd take them all to dinner. All runaways. That's how I met Charlie Manson. He wanted to be in the music business. He babysat my three kids ... I met him in front of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard. He sat for four or five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat." Lewis embraced the pervasive counterculture of the late nineteen sixties. "In the sixties, there was a thousand underground papers," Lewis remembered. "I read them all. I used to have them all sent to me in California ... I went to all the Love-ins. I took my kids. I enjoyed myself." Lewis cautioned those on the left to be realistic not idealistic. "Everybody in this society wants the quick fix ... So do the radicals, whatever you want to call them. [It's] a bumper sticker ... 'I'm a radical' 'I'm a leftist' 'I'm a progressive' 'I'm left of center.' It's all bullshit ... very few people understand ... the ruling class is smarter than you, and they're more creative. And if you forget that lesson, you go down the drain. Because if they weren't, they wouldn't be around as long as they have been and as strong as they have been. It's not an accident ... Never underestimate your opponent ... Their fucking machine works twenty-four hours a day, man."
LEWIS THE BLACK PANTHER ADVOCATE - LEWIS THE BASKETBALL SCOUT
"I first met Al Lewis in person in New Haven in 1971, at a demonstration in support of the jailed Black Panthers," remembered Green Party member Mitchel Cohen. "[It was] at the Free Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins protests. Bobby and Erica, leaders of the Black Panther Party, were on trial for their lives and twenty thousand demonstrators waged a ... rally and, at night, pitched battle against the police and the unsheathed bayonets of the National Guard. I was twenty-one ... We were writing up our three national demands when I saw Al in the doorway ... He wasn't a speaker there, just one of the crowd. Al winked as he walked past. [I saw] Al at many ... Black Panther support demos. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal demos. Anti-war marches. Always just one of us peons. Just there. Putting his body where his mouth was." The fight for racial equality was one of Lewis' champion causes. "We had meetings in our house," says Al's son, David. "People would come by: Stokely Carmichael, Dick Gregory, Ron Kovic." Dave's sibling concurred. "I remember being on a march [at] Griffith Park. A Black Panther Rally [with] some police involvement and ... having to get out of there rather quickly. Running." Randy Credico recalls another event. "I remember I was up in Harlem and Al spoke up there. [Al] Sharpton [was] there, not sure who he was working for - Giuliani or the other side - but keeping everyone at bay (in Al Sharpton voice) 'Don't worry about it, I'll keep everyone under control. This is a bad thing. This is a horrible thing but keep it cool, keep it cool.' And Al Lewis would get up there [and say], 'We need to have armed militias! The black community should have armed militias!"
Lewis crowed about his capacity as a basketball scout, another layer to the Lewis mystique few people knew about. "I don't recruit. I bird-dog. 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." WFMU called Marty Blake. The eighty-three year old is credited with discovering Karl Malone, Scottie Pippin and a gaggle of other basketball notables. Asked about Al Lewis, Blake remarks (without hesitation), "Al Lewis? The self-proclaimed best scout in basketball!" Blake started as a coach at the famous Tamiment Catskill resort in the early forties. That's where he would rub shoulders with aspiring showbiz names like Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Surrounded by tummlers and kibitzers, it's no wonder Marty eventually found an affinity for a ham like Lewis. "I met him a couple of times. I didn't have much of a chance to say much. It's funny. He knew everything there was to know about basketball from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. I don't know if he did it for a living at one time, but I certainly would have hired him ... One time I heard him say, 'Marty says I'm the best darn judge of talent in basketball.' We had never met!" Blake met Lewis years later in East Rutherford, New Jersey at the 1996 NCAA tournament. By that point Lewis had been observing basketball for decades. "I have bird-dogged high-school basketball since 1934," said Grandpa. "I have seen more high-school games than [basketball coaches] Dean Smith and Lou Carnesecca combined ... I first started for Honey Russell, one of the original Celtics, then coach of Seton Hall. Today I have fifty to sixty 'division one' coaches call me. I know what they need. I tell them I don't recruit." He told the Chicago Sun Times that he'd been scouting since the mid-thirties, which means he started around the age of eleven. "I love the challenge of trying to predict what a kid can be three years down the road. I'm a genius at that ... When I go to a game, I rarely sit ... high school [basketball] they allow you to stand underneath the basket. And then I look at the guy in the eye. I can tell you about his desire ... That's what I look for - the guy who plays hungry, with passion and pride ... Professional basketball is not basketball. It's entertainment. They break every rule in [NBA] basketball. They travel on 70 percent of the shots." He preferred to watch amateur ball, but he didn't hold the NBA in contempt. He could often be seen enjoying the New York Knicks. "He called me up and he said, 'Listen, I'm going to the Knicks game tonight ... got courtside tickets," remembers Green Party activist John McDonagh. "So we go there ... and we're walking through [Madison Square] Garden and you [forget] what a pop icon he is. The whole Garden starts cheering, 'Grandpa! Grandpa!' I'm sitting there, you got Spike Lee, you got all these people sitting around [us] ... everyone's running to [Lewis]. Grandpa gets up and he says, 'I'm gonna go over and talk to The Knicks.' I said, 'Grandpa, [they've] got all this security here.' He said, 'Fuck the security!' So he walks across the thing, nobody stops him and normally guys are being tackled. He's shaking their hands and some of the Knicks are saying, 'Yeah, I listened to [your WBAI radio show] on Saturday.' It was mind boggling."
Lewis had plenty of time to watch basketball once The Munsters came to an end. He had a variety of acting roles but, like Fred Gwynne, was often ignored due to his association with the sitcom. Grandpa's notable film roles throughout the period included They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969), The Boatniks (1970), They Might Be Giants (1971) and Death Wish (1974). Television guest shots on Lost in Space, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Night Gallery and Taxi balanced his time. Without a regular series, however, Al's finances dwindled. By the mid-seventies he started working, his brother confirms, as a mortgage broker. Dejected, he reluctantly put on a vampire's cape and started doing personal appearances. He decided that, financially, he had no option but to embrace typecasting. Slowly he started to relish in the enthusiasm of the still fervent Munsters fan base. Stephen Cox was an overzealous fanboy at the time. "Al Lewis was actually listed in the phone book ... One of my dreams came true when [as a pre-teen] I got Grandpa on the telephone. My mouth turned dry, I couldn't believe it. I remember Al being patient with this inquisitive little fan, answering my inane questions." Making peace with the Grandpa role, he soon exploited it every chance he got. He plastered his name on a pair of comedy clubs and a restaurant. Al Lewis ran Grampa's Bella Gente3 from 1987 through 1993 at 252 Bleecker Street. It served Italian food and spun off a line of Grandpa brand pastas for the grocery world. The cover of the menu featured a caricature of Grandpa Munster drawn by Fred Gwynne. Lewis also opened a Staten Island comedy club in September 1989 called, of course, Grandpa's. The man Lewis hired to manage also owned a pork plant. A stand-up comedian named Bobby Collins remembers an attempt to pay him off in meat. "I said, 'Excuse me?' He said, 'I own a pork company.' I said, 'No. I like cash." Lewis helped run another short-lived comedy club in Yonkers called Shooting Stars, where he would MC on Friday and Saturday nights. Once the restaurant shut down and the nineteen eighties comedy club boom collapsed, Lewis devoted his life to politics, personal appearances and his own weekly radio show.
LEWIS THE RADIO HOST - LEWIS THE POLITICIAN
Al Lewis held court every Saturday at noon on WBAI, covering current events. The call-in show gave Grandpa a platform to take on New York's mayor and governor, two men he despised. "Four more years of Benito Giuliani ... He'll win big. No question. We'll get four more years of this shit and it'll get worse ... H.L. Mencken said, 'Looking for an honest politician is like looking for an ethical burglar.' I understand politics better than the politicians; I know them for what they are. He's a lame-duck mayor. Where does he go from here? He and George Potato Head Pataki are jockeying to see who can be the running mate of Scrub Bush ... That family of thieves!" Amy Goodman of WBAI-based Democracy Now loved being around Al Lewis. "Sometimes I would go to WBAI on Saturdays when Al did his show. You couldn't go to his show without him taking everyone out for lunch afterward. Not to have a conversation - but [so that he could] lecture us ... it was worth every minute." If he were alive today, Lewis would be a vocal advocate for health care reform. During a 1998 radio broadcast he yelled in his trademark shout, "We're the only industrialized country that doesn't have universal medical care! But I got news for you! You know who does? Every senator! Every congressman! Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki! And you know who's paying for this? Me and you! And they get the best. John Hopkins ... free. But they vote against us getting it. This is crazy." Randy Credico spoke at a wake for Grandpa shortly after his death. He performed a hilarious vocal impression of Lewis for an appreciative group of onlookers. "I was born 95 years ago! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! THINK I'M LYING!? Get over here, ya piece of crap!' That was his favorite catch phrase ... [He would say of] people that he hated like Giuliani, 'He's a vicious piece of crap!' He understood racism in this country. I think his number one cause was racism, domestically. He was against the US government. A student of history ... Al would say, 'John Brown was the only religious man in this country. John Brown! That's it! Shut up! Shut up! You're wrong! John Brown! Giuliani! Ghouliani! Mussolini! Piece of shit!!"
Having become a well-known political voice thanks to WBAI, Lewis was enlisted by The Green Party to run for Governor of New York. They felt that Al's bombastic politics and explosive, well-known personality would be the right combination to represent the party. "He was running for governor, he campaigned around the state," remembered John McDonagh. "Grandpa Al is in Buffalo and he's giving a press conference, 'Unemployment in western New York is unbelievable. If elected I'm going to bring factories here ... any questions from the press?' First guy raises his hand. 'Grandpa Al Lewis. I want you to comment on what's going on down in Washington between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.' He looks around. 'I don't fucking believe this. I come all this way and you're asking me about a blowjob in Washington? That's it. Press conference over." During a protest march in which Lewis was speaking out against a Governor Pataki initiative that would have made it difficult for prisoners to receive parole, a regional newsman asked Lewis, "What do you say to the woman that's being raped..." before being cut off. "No, what do you say? You know what I say? Call the police!" screamed Lewis. He ripped into the reporter. "Don't set me up! I'm not a straw man, fool!" "But you came here [to the protest]." "But I'm not a fool! I didn't fall off a turnip truck and I didn't come here on a green banana boat. You may have, but I didn't. You ain't gonna paint me into no corner. What do I say to a woman that's being raped? Call the police or kick the rapist in the balls! What the hell kind of a question is that ... what's the matter with you? What the hell kind of a reporter are you?"
Lewis fought in court to have his name appear on the ballot as "Grandpa Al Lewis." The motion was denied, a judge ruling that it would open the door for candidates to use fake names. The Munsters child star, Butch Patrick, endorsed Al's candidacy. He rattled off three reasons why people should vote for Lewis. "Al's healthy, he's educated and he's Jewish!" The Chicago Tribune quoted Matthew Hiltzik from the Democratic Party who said, "The real issue isn't Grandpa Al Lewis, but rather Senator Al D'Amato. While Al Lewis helps draw attention to many failures of the Patocki/D'Amato [sic] administration, we feel the Democratic nominee will be the most effective in addressing statewide issues." On the Republican side, spokesperson Terry O'Brian told the paper "He's the product of a minor party trying to get on the ballot - and we're sort of ignoring him." In the end, Al Lewis garnered a total of fifty-two thousand votes. Shortly before the results were tabulated, George Pataki reportedly said, "Grandpa Munster worries me."
During the campaign, no news outlet could confirm Grandpa's actual age. "People lie about their age and make themselves younger," said Amy Goodman. "He made himself thirteen years older. I'm still trying to figure that out. I was at his ninetieth birthday party ... five years ago." At one point Lewis was called out for fudging his age on a voter registration form. He had written his actual age on the legal document: seventy-five. Elsewhere he stated he was eighty-eight. Confronted about the discrepancy Lewis admitted there was a slight of pen, but qualified it by saying he had to write a younger age in order to "counter the rampant age discrimination in the entertainment business." Meanwhile, WBAI was stuck in a mire of political turmoil. A convoluted series of internal conflicts climaxed with a locking out of all staff. Amy Goodman remembers the period being especially difficult for Al Lewis. "The hardest thing for him about the Pacifica troubles, when we were all pushed out, was that his mail was locked inside of WBAI. That was mail from prisoners. He always talked about how he answered every letter and he just could not abide that he could not get those letters to answer." Randy Credico knew more than anyone about Grandpa's prison activism. "I went to a lot of prisons with Al ... we went to Greenhaven, we went to Bedford Hills ... we got thrown out of [Bedford] because he'd always [say of] the commissioner of corrections, Glen Gordon, "He's a piece of shit. You're a piece of shit! I know your type!" Amy remembers fondly, "For years he would call me after almost every Democracy Now ... to yell at me. Did I read the latest editor and publisher? How could I call myself informed on any subject that I was covering if I hadn't read this or talked to this person ... At the end he would say, 'Love ya,' and slam the phone down."
MOBSTERS, PORN STARS AND SHOCK JOCKS
Nineteen fifties Broadway introduced Lewis to his fair share of Damon Runyon type characters. Nat Hiken and his sitcoms showed an affinity for boxers, wrestlers, gamblers and assorted mugs. Lewis would never lose his affection for misfits. He befriended the notorious John Gotti, going so far as to act as a character witness when the mob boss was on trial. "I come from Queens, very Italian neighborhood," says John McDonagh. "So, John Gotti died [and Al Lewis] told me, when he had the restaurant on Bleecker Street, [Gotti] used to order food from him. So Al would bring it over and he got to meet John Gotti ... Al went to the trial ... He was there. So John Gotti dies in jail and Al calls me, 'Listen, you gotta come pick me up. We're going to go to the funeral.' I said, 'Al, no. I've been talking to guys in [my Queens neighborhood]. The FBI are everywhere. Photographing everyone, taking all the license plates ... How's it gonna look [if I am] going to the Gotti wake?' I'm in enough trouble ... So, Al goes there and I'm waiting for the eleven o'clock news... because I know Al is making the eleven o'clock news. So, Al gets out of the cab and a reporter runs up to him. 'Grandpa Al Lewis. Why are you here? Did you know that John Gotti is responsible for ten murders?' 'Is that right? You seem to have a lot of information about John Gotti and who he murdered. The FBI are right over there, I suggest you go over there and tell them about the murders." Grandpa loved colorful characters - the more nefarious the better.
Al Lewis appeared with smut icon Ron Jeremy in the picture South Beach Academy (1996) and participated in a ridiculous Ron Jeremy music video. Lewis occasionally claimed to be Ron Jeremy's uncle, at other times he was simply a friend. Just as Grandpa made money visiting various nostalgia conventions, Jeremy subsidized his pornography with personal appearances. One of his new ventures was "Ron Jeremy: Stand-up Comedian." Lewis hated it. "That's the worst act in show business!" he condemned. "He has no presentation! He has no material! He has no timing! Forget it!" Grandpa opened up about his sex life on Al Goldstein's trashy cable access program Midnight Blue. "I first got laid in Dayton, Ohio," Lewis told him. "I think they put up a [monument]. I coined the phrase CF. A celebrity fucker. Somebody became enamored over [me as an] actor." Lewis became a regular on Howard Stern's radio show and pay-per-view specials. In the fine tradition of a man who was adored by the NYPD and The Black Panthers, Grandpa was presumably the only man in the world that was a regular on Howard Stern and WBAI. Clearly, he had wide appeal. The Howard Stern Show granted Grandpa the opportunity to act even more outrageous than normal. He appeared on Stern to promote "a gig at a nudist colony just outside of Chicago." While talking about Ron Jeremy, Stern asked Lewis whether he would ever participate in a pornographic film himself. Grandpa replied, "If the price was right."
When Howard Stern was stuck in an early nineties battle with the Federal Communications Commission, he held a large public rally outside the station. "Grandpa Al Lewis comes out to our radio studio," remembers Stern. "We're in front of about five thousand people. Grandpa gets on stage to support us because the FCC was hassling us ... So, Grandpa misses the fact we're [live] on the radio." Footage of the rally shows Al Lewis taking to the microphone. "First of all, I am so happy that we are all here together. I mean, that is beautiful. And we all know why we're here ... we're here because we all have a purpose," said Grandpa calmly. "And that purpose is to say fuck the FCC! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em!" Howard Stern was stunned. "I really thought [he'd] lost his mind," says Howard. "I figured, in my mind, as far as I was concerned, my career was over because we're on the radio live. The FCC was really on my ass and [he] had to yell the F-word on live radio."
A variety of health issues brought about a complicated surgery and Grandpa Munster's eventual death in 2006. One of his final performances was a 2003 fundraiser for Democracy Now. He delivered an impassioned political speech. Hammering his fist on the podium, he emphatically delivered a controversial screed to a large crowd. "I may offend some people but Mrs. Lewis' son doesn't care! Doesn't care! What happened on September 11th was inevitable. Inevitable! Inevitable! It was horrific. Approximately five thousand lives were lost. Don't get angry with me. Just listen to the message. Were those lives more valuable than those school children who died of shrapnel in an action that was directed, promoted and paid for by the US government? Were the lives on September 11th more valuable than the ... hundred thousand people who were killed in Guatemala? In Nicaragua? You want me to go down the list in killing? Was that horrific? Was that terror? And you want to talk about terror? Again, I don't care if you are angry. As we can now see, from the Freedom of Information acts - the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an act of terror! There was no military objective involved ... One other thing. September 11th happened. The initial [phrases], 'Let's bomb them into the stone age.' 'Let's wipe them out.' 'Let's kill them.' Americans suffer from short or long term memory [loss] ... Baruch Goldstein. You know who he was? He was an Israeli captain who went in on a Friday in the mosque and machine gunned them with an automatic rifle and killed them. Did any of you ... raise the human cry, 'Let's bomb them into the stone age?' Were their lives less valuable than those at the World Trade Center ... if you go now - NOW - to Israel there is a memorial to Baruch Goldstein! I want to ask you something. There were nineteen people involved in [the September 11th attacks] ... that airplane was a bomb because of the high-octane gasoline. It was a flying bomb. Those nineteen men. What would Americans do if some place in the Middle East they erected a monument to them? Who says that our lives are more valuable than his or hers? Where is it written? Where? Where is it written?"
1The Broadway productions Lewis performed in prior to Do Re Mi were:
1956 - The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards
1958 - The Night Circus with Ben Gazzara
1959 - One More River with Lloyd Nolan (only lasted three nights)
2Bert Lahr is best remembered for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
3The restaurant was Grampa's while the comedy club was Grandpa's.
Archive of Kliph Nesteroff articles
Contact Kliph: firstname.lastname@example.org
Midnight Blue Interview, 1989
The Joe Franklin Show, 1993
Democracy Now, April 1997
Shadow Magazine, 1997
Z Mag: Al Lewis Runs for Governor by Mitchel Cohen (Fall 1998)
A&E Biography - Al Lewis: Forever Grandpa (2000)
King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken & The Golden Age of TV Comedy by David Everitt (2001, Syracuse University Press)
The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane by Stephen Cox (2006, Back Stage Books)
New York Sound Posse Podcast: Remembering Al Lewis (February 2006)
Staten Island Advance, (April 12, 2008)
Marty Blake Interview with Author (May 2010)
Hank Garrett Interview with Author, (May 2010)