Al Lewis; Played Grandpa On TV Show 'The Munsters'
Sunday, February 5, 2006
Al Lewis, the cigar-chomping patriarch of "The Munsters" whose work as a basketball scout, restaurateur and political candidate never eclipsed his role as Grandpa from the television sitcom, died Feb. 3 after years of heart problems and other ailments. He was 95.
Sporting a somewhat cheesy Dracula outfit, Mr. Lewis became a pop culture icon playing the irascible father-in-law to Fred Gwynne's ever-bumbling Herman Munster on the 1964-66 CBS television show. He also starred in another classic TV comedy, playing Officer Leo Schnauzer on "Car 54, Where Are You?"
Mr. Lewis's life off the small screen ranged far beyond his acting antics. A former basketball player in high school, he achieved modest fame as a basketball talent scout and was well known to such coaching greats as Jerry Tarkanian and Arnold "Red" Auerbach.
He also operated a successful Greenwich Village restaurant, Grandpa's, where he was a regular presence -- chatting with customers, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
In 1998, just two years short of his 90th birthday, a ponytailed Mr. Lewis ran as the Green Party candidate against incumbent New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R). Mr. Lewis campaigned against restrictive drug laws and the death penalty, and went to court in a losing battle to have his name appear on the ballot as "Grandpa Al Lewis." He managed to collect more than 52,000 votes.
Mr. Lewis was born Alexander Meister in Upstate New York. His family later moved to Brooklyn, where the 6-foot-1 teenager began his lifelong love affair with basketball. He later became a vaudeville and circus performer, but his career didn't take off until television did the same.
As Officer Schnauzer, Mr. Lewis played opposite Gwynne's Officer Francis Muldoon in "Car 54, Where Are You?" -- a comedy about a Bronx police precinct that aired on NBC from 1961 to 1963. One year later, the duo appeared together in "The Munsters," taking up residence at the fictional 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
The series, about a family of clueless creatures plunked down in Middle America, ran through 1966. Mr. Lewis was instantly recognizable as the comically twisted grandfather of the family and was often greeted by strangers with shouts of "Grandpa!" He never complained about being typecast and made appearances in character for decades.
"Why would I mind?" he said in a 1997 interview. "It pays my mortgage."
Mr. Lewis opened his restaurant and had a radio program in New York. At one point during the 1990s, he was a frequent guest on Howard Stern's radio show, once sending the shock jock diving for the delay button by leading an obscene chant against the Federal Communications Commission.
He also appeared in a number of movies, including "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Married to the Mob" (1988). Mr. Lewis reprised his role of Schnauzer in the movie remake of "Car 54, Where Are You" (1994) and appeared as a guest star on such TV shows as "Taxi," "Green Acres" and "Lost in Space."
In 2003, he was hospitalized for an angioplasty. Complications during surgery led to the amputation of his right leg below the knee and the toes on his left foot. He spent a month in a coma.
A year later, he was back offering his recollections of a seminal New York punk band, the Ramones, on the DVD "Ramones Raw."
Survivors include his wife, Karen Ingenthron-Lewis; three sons; and four grandchildren.