Born: April 30, 1923
Died: February 3, 2006 (at age 82)
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Al Lewis (born Albert Meister; April 30, 1923 - February 3, 2006) was an American character actor best known for his role as Count Dracula lookalike "Grandpa", opposite Fred Gwynne's and Yvonne De Carlo's characters on the CBS television series The Munsters from 1964 to 1966 and its subsequent film versions. Later in life, he was also a restaurant owner, political candidate, and radio broadcaster.
Lewis was born Albert Meister on April 30, 1923. He had originally given his birth year as 1910. His reputed early radio work in the mid-1930s would indicate the earlier birth date, as did an off-the-cuff remark on the TVLegends interview, 2002, where he says "not a bad memory for 92". Ted Lewis, his son, firmly said his father was born in 1923 to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. Other sources placed his birth in Wolcott, New York, but no official record of his birth has been published to date (2006), and officials in Wolcott say they have no record of any Meister. The Times wrote: "Lewis was born Albert Meister, probably in 1923, although he insisted that he was born in 1910. This, and Lewis's many other questionable stories, means that much of the actor's life is a broth of conjecture that his fans will no doubt squabble over for years to come." On his application for a Social Security number, completed sometime between 1936 and 1950, Lewis gave his date of birth as April 30, 1923. The 1940 census lists an Albert Meister "age 16" living on Douglass Street in Brooklyn, New York.
In a 1998 interview with Walt Shepperd, Lewis said:
My mother was a worker, worked in the garment trades. My mother was an indomitable spirit. My grandfather had no sons. He had six daughters. They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change. My mother being the oldest daughter, they saved their money, and when she was about sixteen they sent her to the United States, not knowing a word of English. She went to work in the garment center, worked her back and rear-end off and brought over to the United States her five sisters and two parents. I remember going on picket lines with my mother. My mother wouldn't back down to anyone.
Lewis attended Thomas Jefferson High School, which he left in his junior year. He claimed to have attended Oswego State Teachers College (now SUNY Oswego), notwithstanding his lack of a high school diploma, and to have earned a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University in 1941, of which Columbia has no record.
His acting career begins the well-documented portion of his life. He worked in burlesque and vaudeville theaters, then on Broadway in the dramas The Night Circus (1958) and One More River (1960) and as the character Moe Shtarker in the musical comedy Do Re Mi (1962).
His earliest television work includes appearances on the Beverly Garland crime drama Decoy and The Phil Silvers Show. From 1959-63, he appeared in four episodes of Naked City. Lewis' first well-known television role was as Officer Leo Schnauser on the NBC sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? from 1961-63, also starring Fred Gwynne. Lewis reprised the role in the 1994 movie of the same name). In the series, Lewis first played Al Spencer the Auto Body Man in two early first season episodes before landing the more familiar role of Officer Schnauser. But he is best remembered as "Grandpa" on The Munsters, which ran on CBS from 1964-66.
In 1967, Lewis played the part of Zalto the wizard in the Lost in Space episode, Rocket to Earth. His first role in a movie was as Machine Gun Manny in Pretty Boy Floyd (1960). He had small roles in The World of Henry Orient (1964), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), They Might Be Giants (1971). He appeared as Hanging Judge Harrison in Used Cars (1980) and had a minor role in Married to the Mob (1988). His last film role was in Night Terror (2002).
Lewis was a recurring guest on The Howard Stern Show. In 1987, during a "Howard Stern Freedom Rally" against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that was broadcast live, Lewis repeatedly shouted "fuck the FCC!" until Stern was able to take the microphone away from him. Stern and the station were not punished for Lewis' comments.
Unlike some actors, Lewis did not mind being typecast. He enjoyed acting out his "Grandpa" character—in the original costume—and got a surprising amount of mileage from such a short-lived role. "Why not?" he said. "It pays the bills."
In 1991, he appeared as Grandpa Munster in an episode of Hi Honey, I'm Home on ABC. In 1991, he appeared in a low-budget New Zealand family movie called Grampire (My Grandpa Is a Vampire in the U.S. version) wearing much the same costume as he did in The Munsters. From 1987-89, Lewis hosted Super Scary Saturday on TBS in his Grandpa Munster outfit. This would later be parodied in Gremlins 2: The New Batch with the character of "Grandpa Fred" (Robert Prosky).
Lewis appeared in an episode of The American Experience where he recalled his experiences at Coney Island which he frequently visited and worked at as a game barker. He was featured in the Atari 7800 videogame Midnight Mutants, an action-adventure title with a Halloween theme. His appearance in the game mirrored his "Grandpa" persona in The Munsters.
In 1987 he opened an Italian restaurant, Grampa's Bella Gente, at 252 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. In September 1989, he opened and ran a comedy club called Grandpa's on New Dorp Plaza in Staten Island, New York City.
As a left-wing activist, he hosted a politically oriented radio program on WBAI and ran as Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 1998. In that race he sought to be listed on the ballot as Grandpa Al Lewis, arguing that he was most widely known by that name. His request was rejected by the Board of Elections, a decision upheld in court against his challenge.
Despite this setback, he achieved one of his campaign objectives. His total of 52,533 votes exceeded the threshold of votes set by New York law (50,000) and hence guaranteed the Green Party of New York an automatic ballot line for the next four years (see election results, New York governor). He said that, with no political machine and no money backing him, the likelihood of winning the governorship would be "like climbing Mount Everest barefooted".
Lewis married Marge Domowitz in 1956, with whom he had three sons, Dave, Ted, and Paul. The marriage ended in divorce in 1977. In 1984 he married actress Karen Ingenthron, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life.
In his final years, he resided on Roosevelt Island in New York City. In 2003, he was hospitalized for an angioplasty, and complications from the surgery led to an emergency bypass and the amputation of his right leg below the knee, as well as all of the toes on his left foot. He died on February 3, 2006, of natural causes in a hospital. Following his body's cremation, his ashes were reportedly "placed in his favorite cigar box."