Actor Al Lewis was born on April 30, 1923, in Wolcott, New York. His first television roles came in the mid 1950s, such as on the series The Phil Silvers Show (1955). He made his film debut in 1960. Lewis is best known for playing Grandpa on The Munsters. The show was short-lived, but he made a living with appearances as Grandpa from the family of vampires for decades afterward.
Entertainer and entrepreneur Al Lewis was born Alexander Meister on April 30, 1923, in Wolcott, New York, before his family moved to Brooklyn. Meister, a consummate entertainer, frequently wove conflicting stories about his childhood and adolescence; many details concerning his early life are suspect or unverifiable.
According to Lewis, his parents were Polish-German immigrants, and his mother worked in a sweatshop. Growing up in New York, Lewis insisted that he worked on the defense committee for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were convicted on disputed murder charges and executed in Massachusetts in 1927. In later years, however, Lewis' son challenged the statement, saying his father would have actually been only 4 years old at the time of the trial.
Lewis also asserted that he held a variety of jobs in his teens, which he said occurred during the 1920s. His stories range from the mundane to the outrageous: he insisted he worked as a salesman, waiter, teacher, store detective, radio actor, circus clown, trapeze artist, children's book writer, a union organizer in the South and the manager of a poolroom.
By the 1930s, Lewis allegedly worked on ships as a Merchant Marine, and on Russian convoys during World War II. He would later tell media outlets that he had to abandon torpedoed ships twice during this time. "You don't know what it's like to be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," he told an independent newspaper in 1997. "There is no more lonely feeling. You see nothing, nothing, nothing." By the 1940s, Lewis said he had left the open seas to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University in child psychology. The university has no official record of this claim, however.
What is verifiable is the start of Lewis' film and television career. His first television roles came in the mid 1950s, with appearances on Decoy (1954) and The Phil Silvers Show (1955). His made his film debut in 1960 in the gangster film Pretty Boy Floyd, playing Machine Gun Manny. Other performances followed, including a co-starring role on the cop comedy Car 54, Where Are You?, and appearances on shows such as Naked City and Route 66.
Lewis is probably best known for his role in the 1964 sitcom The Munsters. Lewis played Grandpa, the elderly vampire in a family of monsters, for the show's two-year duration. While The Munsters was short-lived, the series had a long life in syndication and became a cult hit with fans. Lewis made a living out of playing Grandpa for decades afterward, making appearances as his character at various fan conventions. The actor would continue appearing in films, including They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969), and on television in shows such as Green Acres (1971), Taxi (1981) and Here Come the Munsters (1995).
But Lewis wasn't just a character actor; he also ran a successful Italian restaurant, Grandpa's, in New York City's Greenwich Village, and ran as the Green Party candidate against New York Governor George Pataki in 1998. Lewis lost the election, but he took 52,000 votes -- about 1 percent of the election total. After his loss, Lewis continued to work as an advocate for prison reform, the legalization of marijuana and the end of police brutality.
Lewis died on Roosevelt Island, New York, on February 3, 2006, after complications from heart surgery. Media outlets initially claimed the actor was 95. But after Lewis' second wife discovered several official documents verifying his true birth date, it was revealed that the star was only 82. His family later contended that the white lie occurred in 1964, when Lewis was vying for the role of Grandpa.
Lewis was younger than actress Yvonne De Carlo, the woman who was to play his daughter on the show. Worried that he might lose the job for that reason, Lewis' family members say he aged himself to get the part. The falsehood soon became the truth that Lewis would live for the rest of his life.
Lewis married Marge Domowitz in 1956. The couple had three sons before their divorce in 1977. In 1984 he married actress Karen Ingenthron, who remained his wife until his death.
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