Today is the birthday of “Grandpa” Al Lewis (Albert or Alexander Meister, 1923-2006). Among many other fake biographical tidbits, Lewis often gave out that he was born in 1910. Some have speculated that he did that so the public (and the television producers) wouldn’t know that he was actually one year younger than Yvonne de Carlo, who played his daughter Lily on The Munsters (1964-1966).
I postulate an added reason — it sorts of bolsters the credibility of the image he liked to project of an old time vaudeville and burlesque comic (and an advocate for social justice, i.e. it’s hard to have been involved with Sacco & Vanzetti if you weren’t old enough). In reality, vaudeville and burlesque were almost gone by the time he was old enough to have performed in them. (He also claimed to have gotten a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia, of which no record exists). He undoubtedly did some live performing at whatever kind of venues were around in the 1940s — those great comic chops came from somewhere. But it’s not until the 1950s when he begins to show up in Broadway shows and on television that anything verifiable on Mr. Lewis emerges.
Prior to his stint on The Munsters, he’d been on Bilko (1959) and Car 54, Where Are you? (1961-63), among other shows. His last film was in 2002.
My fellow New Yorkers remember his last years fondly — he was very prominent on the local scene, with his Italian restaurant Grandpa’s in the Village (customers were thrilled to see him there all the time, sitting at a table smoking his omnipresent cigar), his WBAI radio show and his candidacy for Governor of New York on the Green Party Ticket. When he passed away in 2006, he was not 95 as everyone thought, but 82.
Clips like the one below, though, are why I say to you that it is good to be alive on this earth:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube either!