Like a lot of people my age, I always felt a special affinity for Grandpa Munster. I liked his whole Transylvania-cum-Borscht-Belt schtick. I liked knowing that his list of preferred aliases included "The Count" and "Sam Dracula." And I liked the way he once defended the Munster family home against a demolition crew that was determined to tear it down.
"I won't fire unless I have to," he promised, digging in his heels behind a Revolutionary War cannon. Then, under his breath: "I sure hope I have to."
As the years wore on, Grandpa -- who, we had all learned by then, was an actor named Al Lewis -- remained a presence in the lives of us TV Land types. He was a familiar face in certain New York neighborhoods, where I had the pleasure of running into him from time to time. In the 1980s, he opened a restaurant in Greenwich Village; its yuppie-pizza bill of fare wasn't nearly the selling point of having Lewis himself escort you to your table, cigar clenched between his teeth and the button on his lapel displaying a photo of him in full Mockingbird Lane drag. Some '60s sitcom stars spend entire decades fruitlessly attempting to distance themselves from the roles that made them famous. But Al Lewis was always going to be Grandpa Munster -- and a whole lot more.
He lent his undiminished vaudeville-ghoul cachet to worthy causes, like Howard Stern's ongoing battles with the Federal Communications Commission. A comment Lewis passed during an on-air Stern rally became the subject of controversy. As I recall it, the exact quote was: "Fuck the FCC!" At times, it seemed like our Grandpa was growing up right along with us -- or not growing up right along with us, which is even better.
A few weeks ago, we learned that Lewis was going through hard times. According to the Associated Press (passing on information printed in New York's Newsday daily), the 93-year-old actor had gone in for an angioplasty that turned complicated. A ruptured artery had necessitated an emergency bypass; to prevent gangrene, his right leg had to be amputated below the knee, and all the toes of his left foot had been removed. He had spent a month in a coma before finally coming to. He joked to reporters that the Vegas odds of him pulling through had been 1,000 to one.
As luck would have it, I was vacationing in New York at the same time he was recuperating, so I decided to leave a care package for him at his hospital. Just small stuff, like a tiny wind-up vampire, a ghost-shaped deck of playing cards (the girlfriend picked that one out) and a store-bought "Happy Halloween, Grandpa" greeting card that we personalized with a hand-scrawled, "And get well soon!" I honestly didn't expect anything more than to drop them off at the nurse's station in the recovery wing where he was staying.
"Room 10," the official on duty said, waving us on to what I was sure would be a holding area for gifts, or a makeshift encampment where beefy orderlies grilled suspicious-looking visitors who admitted no real relation to the patients. We reached the door, poked our heads inside and there he was -- Grandpa, in his own private dungeon.
He looked smaller than I remembered him -- thinner and more delicate-looking, but what else could one expect under the circumstances? To my relief, he was out of bed (seated, of course) and dressed in street clothes. Rather nice ones, in fact. Reference point No. 1: That's more presentability than I myself can lay claim to on a typical day off.
Introductions were made, and it swiftly became clear that, despite slightly diminished hearing, Lewis was both completely coherent and amenable to receiving guests. I deposited the trinkets on a nearby table, and he thanked us for coming to see him. He indicated the rear of the room, which was filled with cards and flowers from other well-wishers. Some of the cards were computer-generated, bearing black-and-white images of him in his "Munsters" days. We said it was an impressive array, which it was.
He asked where we had come from. We said Orlando.
"Disney," he smiled. (Reference point No. 2: There are many stars working today whom I doubt could successfully make such an association. Carmen Electra, for example. And she's technically never been in a coma.)
Grandpa Al remembered Florida, all right. He said that he used to travel down to Miami to perform on "The Jackie Gleason Show." And what was he like, we wondered?
"Well, he was his own worst enemy," Lewis said, in simultaneous frankness and sympathy. "With the drinking and everything." Of course, when you're 93 and can say you've come out of a coma, you've automatically become an expert on what works and what doesn't.
Another hospital staffer entered and told Lewis that he'd be going back to bed soon. She noticed aloud that he hadn't finished his lunch. He countered that he'd eaten all of his soup.
"These are some of my fans who came to visit me," he told her, with what I hoped was pride, and not just gratitude. She exchanged awkward smiles with us -- there's really nothing appropriate to say in such a situation -- and I had the feeling that it was getting to be time to go. We asked Lewis when he'd be allowed to go home.
"Three or four weeks," he said, his eyes flashing us a look that said, "I only know what they tell me."
I promised Lewis that we'd be thinking of him, and we began to exit. But he wouldn't let us leave without heaping some praise on this unnamed medical worker who was monitoring his mobility and eating habits. It seemed that she was taking care of him just wonderfully.
"Don't let anyone tell you that they're all rotten here," he kidded.
By "here," I'm not sure if he meant the hospital or New York in general. But I think the point would be roughly the same in either case.
"Rotten," I chuckled inwardly as we left the hospital. It was a Grandpa Munster word if ever I'd heard one.