Al Lewis, tribute by Dan Barry

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Feb 11, 2006, 11:32:05 AM2/11/06
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Hey, Whose Grandpa Didn't Tell Some Tales?

Dan Barry, NY Times

NEWSPAPERS across the country, including this one, published
a small correction a few days ago. Al Lewis, the actor who
played Grandpa in ''The Munsters,'' died on Roosevelt Island
last week at the age of 82. He was not, repeat, not 95.

A 13-year discrepancy in the age of a minor celebrity poses
no threat to the well-being of our nation. Nor does it
silence the laughter that Mr. Lewis continues to coax from
us through sitcom perpetuity, or diminish the passion he
demonstrated as an advocate for reform and the Green Party
candidate for governor in 1998, when he was 88 -- that is,
75.

Mr. Lewis was both Grandpa and another ''drum major for
justice,'' said his friend, the Rev. Lawrence Lucas, a Roman
Catholic priest. ''Al challenged the system.''

But he also challenged the concept of chronology. Judging by
interviews he gave over the years, much of Mr. Lewis's life
was a kind of performance from which he could never retire.
Even when not in makeup or costume, he still wore a mask.

Actors who lie about their age usually subtract, not add,
years, and few would have the nerve to fudge those years by
more than a decade. But at some point Mr. Lewis began to
claim that he was born in 1910, when he was actually born in
1923. In other words, he was 13 years old by the time he was
born.

Why? The prevailing theory holds that in 1964, when he was
vying for the role as ancient Grandpa, Mr. Lewis worried
that he might lose the job because he was actually younger
than Yvonne De Carlo, the actress who would be playing his
daughter, Lily. So he aged himself, a lot, in a ruse no
doubt abetted by his rubbery face.

This little lie may not have mattered much at the time. But
as the years passed, and as Lewis emerged in New York as a
cranky radio talk-show host and freewheeling candidate, he
apparently chose to flesh out those 13 phantom years of his.

He was said to have been born Alexander or Albert Meister in
1910, in the upstate town of Wolcott; officials there say
they have no record of any Meister. After moving to
Brooklyn, he was said to have worked on the defense
committee for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who
were executed in 1927; challenging work for a child of 4.

When Lewis talked about the 1930's, he described himself not
as a boy growing into long pants, but as an adventurous man,
always in the mix of history. He said that he worked as a
radio actor, circus clown, trapeze artist, medicine show
''professor,'' and union organizer in the South, where, he
once said, ''you faced death at any moment.''

He said that he appeared in Olsen and Johnson's
''Hellzapoppin','' the Broadway hit of 1938. He said that he
championed the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black
teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in a
profoundly flawed case.

All this while he was working on a doctorate in child
psychology, which he was said to have earned at Columbia
University in 1941 -- or 1949. The university, though, has
no record of this.

Lewis also said that he was a merchant seaman who had to
abandon a torpedoed ship not once, but twice. ''You don't
know what it's like to be in the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean,'' he told The Shadow, an alternative newspaper, in
1997. ''There is no more lonely feeling. You see nothing,
nothing, nothing.''

MAYBE this was true. Maybe Mr. Lewis did meet Charlie
Chaplin at John Garfield's house, as he claimed. Maybe he
did ride shotgun while escorting W. E. B. DuBois to the
burial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Maybe he did retain
Charles Manson as a baby sitter.

Or maybe he was just acting. Captive to his minor deceit,
perhaps he chose to pose as a witness to American history:
to remind people of the deprivations of the Depression,
which he experienced, but also to keep certain events from
slipping from the nation's memory. Sacco and Vanzetti. The
Scottsboro Boys. The labor wars. The Rosenbergs. Even two
zany comedians, long forgotten: Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.

Butch Patrick, who played Mr. Lewis's television grandson,
Eddie Munster, and in recent years appeared with him at
conventions and car shows, described his former co-star as
an entertainer above all, eager to tell people what they
wanted to hear.

''He was well read, and the information he was throwing out
there was accurate,'' he said. ''He just placed himself
there so the credibility level would be there. That's my
spin on it.''

There is no question that in his later years, which were not
as late as they seemed, Mr. Lewis backed up his strong
convictions with his presence and his money. He advocated
prison reform, vigorously opposed the Rockefeller drug laws
as unnecessarily punitive, and argued both against police
brutality and for police salary increases.

His energy and passion seemed especially remarkable given
his, uuh, age, which few doubted. Father Lucas vividly
recalled attending Mr. Lewis's 90th birthday party, when Mr.
Lewis was 77.

Even Karen Lewis, his wife of more than two decades,
believed that her husband was in his 90's. That is, until
his health began to fail a couple of years ago, and she came
across what she called ''evidence'' while collecting
documents for his hospitalization.

''He always told me he was born in 1910,'' she said. ''But I
don't think it matters at all.''

Maybe she's right. Maybe it was just Grandpa being Grandpa.


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