NEW YORK (AP) — 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 after years of failing health. He was 95.
Al Lewis, a longtime political activist, was best known for his television role as Grandpa Munster.
Lewis, with his wife at his bedside, passed away Friday night, said Bernard White, program director at WBAI-FM, where the actor hosted a weekly radio program. White made the announcement on the air during the Saturday slot where Lewis usually appeared.
"To say that we will miss his generous, cantankerous, engaging spirit is a profound understatement," White said.
Lewis, sporting a somewhat cheesy Dracula outfit, became a pop culture icon playing the irascible father-in-law to Fred Gwynne's ever-bumbling Herman Munster on the 1964-66 television show. He was also one of the stars of another classic TV comedy, playing Officer Leo Schnauzer on Car 54, Where Are You?
But Lewis' life off the small screen ranged far beyond his acting antics. A former ballplayer at Thomas Jefferson High School, he achieved notoriety as a basketball talent scout familiar to coaching greats like Jerry Tarkanian and Red Auerbach.
He operated a successful Greenwich Village restaurant, Grandpa's, where he was a regular presence — chatting with customers, posing for pictures, signing autographs.
Just two years short of his 90th birthday, a ponytailed Lewis ran as the Green Party candidate against incumbent Gov. George Pataki. Lewis campaigned against draconian drug laws and the death penalty, while going to court in a losing battle to have his name appear on the ballot as "Grandpa Al Lewis."
He didn't defeat Pataki, but managed to collect more 52,000 votes.
Lewis was born Alexander Meister in upstate New York before his family moved to Brooklyn, where the 6-foot-1 teen began a 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.
Lewis, as Officer Schnauzer, played opposite Gwynne's Officer Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You?— a comedy about a Bronx police precinct that aired from 1961-63. 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, was a success and ran through 1966. It forever locked Lewis in as the memorably twisted character; decades later, strangers would greet him on the street with shouts of "Grandpa!"
Unlike some television stars, Lewis never complained about getting typecast and made appearances in character for decades.
"Why would I mind?" he asked in a 1997 interview. "It pays my mortgage."
Lewis rarely slowed down, opening his restaurant and hosting his WBAI radio program. At one point during the '90s, he was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show, once sending the shock jock diving for the delay button by leading an undeniably obscene chant against the Federal Communications Commission.
He also popped up in a number of movies, including the acclaimed They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Married to the Mob. Lewis reprised his role of Schnauzer in the movie remake of Car 54, and appeared as a guest star on television shows such as Taxi, Green Acres and Lost in Space.
But in 2003, Lewis was hospitalized for an angioplasty. Complications during surgery led to an emergency bypass and the amputation of his right leg below the knee and all the toes on his left foot. Lewis spent the next month in a coma.
A year later, he was back offering his recollections of a seminal punk band on the DVD Ramones Raw.
He is survived by his wife, Karen Ingenthron-Lewis, three sons and four grandchildren.
I maintain that our favorite characters are not in fact, "dead", but live on in memories and celluloid. I can understand his friends and family being directly effected, but the portrayal of Grandpa Munster is eternal. All I have to do is watch The Munsters presentations to enjoy the presence of Grandpa unto timelessness. After all, the entire presentation is available on DVD.
However, what makes this news a bit more gloomy is the fact that Al Lewis was himself a character outside of the Grandpa portrayal. By and large, the characters actors play are much more interesting than they themselves, which is why I generally do not care a whit for the 'personal lives' of said actors, but not in this case. Lewis was certainly the exception, and that is a rare breed indeed. ∞