June 8, 2010

I don’t often link to other writers’ work in this space.  It’s not because I’m a snob – it’s just that I can barely stay on top of my own pieces.  (Case in point: I don’t have anything on tap this week.)

But I would be remiss if I didn’t direct everyone to this terrific piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis by one Kliph Nesteroff (who should display his byline more prominently).  I haven’t watched The Munsters since I was a kid, but since then, I’ve come to know Lewis for his dramatic roles in some live television during the late fifties, and then as a frequent guest star on Naked City and Route 66.  At that point, Lewis was a classic “New York” type of character actor, often playing gangsters and other menacing roles (he was taller than you’d guess).  He’s credible in those parts even if you only know Lewis from the comic side of his career (The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54, The Munsters), which seems to have outlasted the rest.

“Grandpa,” it turns out, was full of shit.  He padded his resume and his personal life with a lot of lies, and the discrepancies regarding his age were reported widely when he entered politics.  Only after Lewis died was it established with some certainty that he had (for reasons that remain murky) added thirteen years to his age.  I had read about all of that before, but Mr. Nesteroff has applied some thorough legwork toward investigating which of Lewis’s fish stories are bullshit and which aren’t.  The results may surprise you.  I was gratified to learn, for instance, that Lewis’s credentials as a lifelong progressive activist mostly check out – a fact that goes a long way toward redeeming a personality that otherwise sounds kind of insufferable.

I was also intrigued by the anecdotes in Nesteroff’s piece that involved Lewis’s Munsters co-star, Fred Gwynne.  Gwynne, it would appear, was a darker and more complex fellow than his most famous character, the amiable Herman Munster.  If we’re lucky, Mr. Nesteroff will next turn his attention to Gwynne’s life story.


Al Lewis menaces Martin Milner on Route 66 (“The Thin White Line”).


4 Responses to “Vamping”

  1. MDH Says:

    Thanks for the link, I’m looking forward to reading the piece. I wasn’t much of a Munsters fan past the age of six (even at five I was skeptical), but Lewis has haunted my consciousness with weird regularity over the years.

    Post-Grandpa and post-post-Leo Schnauser (yeah, I’m that old), I remember seeing him in a half-hour pilot called — I think I’ve got this right — Big Al’s Doggz in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It aired in the wee hours one weekday on a local Portland, Ore., station, and it may be that only me and my fellow night-owl brother caught it. (Somebody prove me wrong before I chalk it up to too much weed.) No loss: Lewis played the manager of the titular teen band, and the whole endeavor was unwatchably threadbare. Ditto those horror-movie intros he shot, in full Grandpa regalia, for a series of budget VHS tapes in the late ’80s, in which he rambled and seemed seedy and kind of pissed-off. Depressing stuff — I admit I fast-forwarded through his bits to get to the monster shenanigans.

    When I moved to NYC in 2000 I was pleasantly surprised to learn Lewis was active in local politics — was, in fact, the unofficial mayor of Roosevelt Island. Having taken the tram there a couple of times since I can understand why he was so angry in those videotapes…. Finally (now who’s rambling?), a few years before he died, I happened to be in the Upper East Side and saw him in person. He was walking downtown chomping a cigar, and when he saw that I’d recognized him he gave me a two-eyed wink that said, “Yeah, I’m who you think I am.” He was a lot taller and more spry than I ever would’ve guessed.

    Funny — I saw Ed Koch in almost the exact same spot a week before.

  2. ejp Says:

    Yeah, I guess it would be “gratifying” to someone to know Lewis was an apologetic bootlicker for domestic terrorist groups like the Black Panthers, a cop-killer like Mumia Al Jabbar, a slanderer of Harry Truman regarding the atomic bomb droppings (which also reveals his lack of regard for the lives of US servicemen who didn’t die in Japan as a result of that justifiable action), a man of callous indifference regarding the victims of September 11, 2001 and a supporter of out and out traitors to the United States like the Rosenbergs (whose guilt is no longer a subject of academic dispute).

    If that’s what one must do to “redeem” one’s personality, then I guess we can also consider the likes of Charles Lindbergh to be “redeemed” as well regarding some of the crazy political views he had in the late 1930s!

  3. Lester Boutillier Says:

    This is probably a dumb question, but is the TV actor Al Lewis the same as the director-writer Al Lewis of Our Miss Brooks fame?

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Not a dumb question at all. The “other” Al Lewis was a radio writer/director whose transition to TV and movies didn’t really take hold. Don’t know much about him, though.

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