Saturday, February 04, 2006

Al Lewis, 1923 - 2006

Al Lewis
1923 - 2006

There are four performers whose portrayals of Dracula are so iconic that they will spring immediately to mind for the average American: Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck, Christopher Lee, and Al Lewis. In the 1960s, the pop culture relationship with monsters changed, and Lewis' Grandpa on "The Munsters" (the character's family name is indeed Dracula - he's Lily's dad, not Herman's) filled in the final facets of the character: regular guy, sarcastic Yiddish joker, and comforting family presence. If any "Munsters" cast member could hold his own next to Fred Gwynne, it's Lewis, eyes a-twinkle, cigar a-chomped.

Al Lewis passed away on February 3, 2006, in New York and is survived by his wife, Karen. Some men, when they pass, as with Ossie Davis last year, give one pause. This is very sad, I think, and he will be missed. But we should all be envious of such a life; there are not many ways to live more fully than Lewis did. Character actor, humanist political activist, restauranteur, sports scout, voracious scholar, circus performer, we've just lost another great show biz raconteur. Lewis' '98 Green Party bid for Governor of New York was one of the few show-biz personality political attempts that was more than a novelty or publicity move. The man demonstrated for the Black Panthers, he fought against imprisonment for non-violent drug crimes, and he was there at the Rosenberg execution - the roster of Lewis' activities goes on and on, and it is inspiring.

A fine remembrance of Lewis as an activist for social justice can be found at the Dissident Voice newsletter site.

Besides his indelible turn on "The Munsters" (the greatest gimmick sitcom of all time), and hilariously abrasive work as Leo Schnauser on "Car 54, Where Are You?", Lewis was a real gem among comedic character actors for more than 40 years. Lewis was a delight every time he popped up on screen, my favorites being appearances in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), The World of Henry Orient (1964), and most of all, the Kinetoscope-cherished They Might Be Giants (1971).

For more biography of Mr. Lewis, check out the "Munsters" season 2 DVD, containing a sweet biographical tribute featurette. (And don't believe iMDB's 1910 birthdate: he lied to get the "Munsters" job!)

As Grandpa tells Eddie Munster in the Cold War-razzing classic episode "Herman the Spy," (Al Lewis the radical must've loved this one - the Russians are lovable scamps, the American government are jerks, and military intelligence on both sides are idiots), in perfect '60s sick-joke style:

"Bury me deep this time! I don't want any crazy dogs digging me up again!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hermann and Grandpa
as much as they didn't get along,
worked great together!