This Day in Jewish History / The Actor Who Played Grandpa Munster Dies

Al Lewis was such an inveterate storyteller that the date of his death is one of the few things people know about him for sure.

CBS Television / Wikimedia Commons

February 3, 2006, is the date on which actor Al Lewis, best known for his depiction of Grandpa Munster on the 1960s TV show “The Munsters,” died. So great was Lewis’ tendency to make claims about his life story that could not be substantiated that the date he expired is among the few things about him that is known with certainty.

The confusion begins with Lewis’ birthdate. It was probably April 30, 1923, but Lewis, who was born as either Albert or Alexander Meister, often claimed he was born in 1910. His place of birth is also up for grabs: It was either Wolcott, in central-western New York, or Brooklyn, where he is known to have grown up.

Perhaps he inherited the tendency. Lewis described his mother as a strong influence on him, but couldn’t settle on which part of the Old Country she came from (possibly because the borders had trouble keeping still), saying in a newspaper interview that “They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change.”

She was the eldest of six daughters, who was sent by her parents at 16 to scout out opportunities for the family in New York. Later, she worked in the garment trade, and as a proud union woman, would take her son with her when she was on the picket line.

Lewis said he attended the (now-closed) Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York and then Oswego State Teachers College. Less credible is his claim that he attained a Ph.D. in child psychology at Columbia University in 1941, especially as reporters who have checked with Columbia said officials there could find no record of his attendance.

Circus child, or not

Whether Lewis really toured with the Clyde Beatty and Cole Brothers Circus, beginning at age 13, is anyone’s guess. The same goes for his claims of having served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, and of staying behind in Rome long enough to work dubbing the films of Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini into English during the 1950s.

What is incontrovertible is that Lewis did work in vaudeville and burlesque in the United States, and that he appeared in several successful productions on Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s, before landing the breakthrough role of Officer Leo Schnauser in Nat Hiken’s TV comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” about a police precinct in the Bronx. Like “The Munsters” after it, “Car 54” ran for just two seasons, but both left their mark on American culture, thanks in part to a long afterlife in syndication.

Grandpa paid the mortgage

“The Munsters” (1964-1966) was a spoof of monster movies like “Frankenstein” as well as early TV shows about wholesome American families, such as “Leave It to Beaver,” whose producers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, were also responsible for the later show. Lewis played Grandpa Dracula, a vampire, alongside Yvonne De Carlo, who played his ghoulish daughter Lily, and Fred Gwynne (another “Car 54” veteran), who played her husband, Herman Munster, who bore a strong resemblance to Frankenstein. Despite their monstrous appearances and peculiar diets, the Munsters were very much like a typical middle-class TV family, and were always surprised when neighbors and others responded to them with fear or revulsion.

Lewis was happy to capitalize on his fame as Grandpa until the end of his life (“Why would I mind? It pays my mortgage,” he told a reporter at one point), and when he ran for governor of New York in 1998, he even tried to be listed on the ballot as “Grandpa Al Lewis.” (The board of elections, and later an appeals court, balked.) The Italian restaurant he opened in 1987 in New York’s Greenwich Village was called “Grampa’s Bella Gente,” and the Staten Island comedy club he opened two years later was also called Grandpa’s.

Lewis also had a regular radio show on the non-profit WBAI in New York until the end of his life, and on top of that had an informal career as a college basketball scout, with a nose for identifying talented high school players.

Lewis had circulatory problems, and lost his right leg below the knee in 2003. Three years later, on February 3, 2006, he died in a New York hospital, at the age of 82 — or possibly 95.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen