As if owning and operating a basement laboratory weren't peculiar enough, the Feb. 3, 2006, death of beloved Munsters star and leftist rabble-rouser "Grandpa" Al Lewis cemented his standing as one mysterious individual especially if you took the time to cross-reference the many inconsistencies in his printed and posted obituaries. Just who was Al Lewis, anyway? Even the simplest factoid seems up for debate.
His name was Al Lewis.
A given? Only technically. The Associated Press maintains that the cigar-chomping icon was in fact born Alexander Meister, while other news outlets have him as Albert Meister. Countering both reports is Tony Greco, the Pittsburgh-based president of Munsters Fan Club International and a self-described friend of Lewis' since the 1980s. Greco swears that America's favorite retiree vampire was born Alvin Meister and his fanboy certitude just about has us swayed.
He was 82 when he died. Or was it 95?
On different occasions, Lewis stated his birth date as April 30, 1910, and April 30, 1923. We've never heard of an actor fudging his birth date to make himself look older, which he would have been doing as recently as a 1997 interview he gave to New York publication The Shadow. But Greco maintains that Lewis' official age was advanced a few years to better sell his role as The Munsters' bloodthirsty old codger and that the actor went along with it, perhaps to lend credibility to some of the more colorful elaborations in his back story (see below).
Lewis' son Ted has claimed that his father was only 82 when he died, not 95, as many outlets reported. And in a series of corrections to the Associated Press' obituary, The New York Times disclosed that Lewis' widow, Karen, had in recent years discovered "evidence" to back up the 1923 birth date. Case closed we think.
He was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.
While most reports agree that Lewis was raised in Brooklyn where he claimed to have learned worker solidarity in "the largest Jewish ghetto in America" many obituaries had him born in the tonier upstate community of Wolcott. That's an environment that's far harder to associate with his crusty persona, and according to the Times, Wolcott has no record of anyone named Meister in its rolls. So maybe Grandpa was a borough baby from Day One?
His earliest gigs in show business included work as a circus clown and acrobat.
Yes to the acrobatics, says Greco it's where the future TV vampire learned to hang upside down. But it probably wasn't in the 1920s, as Lewis had claimed but which hardly gibes with a 1923 emergence on this Earth. As to Lewis' complementary assertion that he used to sweep up excrement who in the entertainment field hasn't, in one way or another?
He was part of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, and in the 1930s, he worked to free the Scottsboro boys.
Sacco and Vanzetti were executed Aug. 23, 1927, which means that a 1923-born Lewis would have to have been the first 4-year-old radical reformer in American history. And the Scottsboro trials took place less than a decade later.
He earned a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University.
Though Reuters reported this one as fact, an associate archivist we spoke to said the Columbia registrar could find no record of any such degree. She did say that one of Columbia's affiliate schools, Teachers College, had a record of a 1947 degree conferred on one Alexander Lewis. A call to them quickly turned up nothing. Hmmmm.
His pre-TV occupations included store detective, hot dog vendor, salesman, poolroom owner, teacher and voice-over artist for Italian neorealist films.
Trying to prove or disprove any of these sounds like a fun way to spend the rest of our natural lives.
Later in his life, he ran a restaurant in Greenwich Village.
Correct, though it was named "Grampa's," not "Grandpa's," as most obits erroneously stated. According to Greco, Lewis also lent his name to a chain of comedy clubs and a line of pasta.
He ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket.
Certifiably true. The 52,533 votes he collected in 1998 (not 1988, as Reuters stated) were said to have amounted to about 1 percent of the ballots cast.
He created a character that made millions of TV viewers laugh, and his inspiring work as an outspoken "anarchist" agitator continued to the very end, via his uncompromising broadcasts on New York's WBAI-FM.
We hold these truths to be self-evident.
Charles Manson once baby-sat his kids.
Lewis claimed this in at least one interview. Oh, what the hell, let's give it to him. And while we're at it, let's give him every tale he ever spun even the mutually contradictory ones. As Greco fondly remembers, "Al could tell stories. He told them in a way that they were believable. When he told them, you didn't care if they were true or not. They were coming from Grandpa."