Friday, July 27, 2012

19. Grandpa Al Lewis: actor, gadfly, personality, liar

Al Lewis (rear) and the Cast of the Munsters

It began at noon on Saturday with the same jazz musician playing solo.  Then, as he continued, you heard intermittent whoops and yells of approval in the background, informing you that Al Lewis, the vampiric Grandpa of Munster fame, was back as feisty and cantankerous as ever, charged with facts and bristling with opinions, ready to take on anyone or anything he disapproved of.  It was his weekly radio program on WBAI, "Al Lewis Live," and he crackled with life.

I never saw Al Lewis in the Munsters; I knew him as a radio personality, promoting a host of causes dear to his heart: racial equality, repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, health care for all, and countless others.  His utterances were memorable.  If mention was made of some overly optimistic proposal or hope, he would puncture it by exclaiming, "And I'm going to win the lottery!"  To promote meaningful reform, he reiterated, "We've got to get the asses of the masses in the streets!"  If a listener phoned in to disagree with him, "Fool!" he would shout, "Fool!  Fool!  Fool!" and slam down the receiver.  Decidedly, enlightened dialogue was not his thing.  On those occasions I winced and said to myself, "Grandpa, your job isn't to rage, it's to educate."  But he won my approval when, explaining why he knew things that seemed to escape the attention of others, he would say emphatically, "I read!  I read!"  And he did.  If he lacked foreign languages, he read numerous newspapers and books in English, including the counterculture papers of the 1960s, and often cited the Manchester Guardian as well.

Footnote:  For me and WBAI, see post #16, "My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI."

When angry -- and he often was -- Al Lewis's speech was laced with expletives unmentionable to ears polite.  When radio show host Howard Stern was locked in a battle with the Federal Communications Commission over alleged indecencies voiced on his show, Grandpa Al came to an outdoor rally in Stern's support, took the mike, and announced, "We're here because we have a purpose.  And that purpose is to say fuck the FCC!  Fuck 'em!  Fuck 'em!  Fuck 'em!"  Stunned, Stern snatched the mike away from him and feared the worst, though in this instance the FCC declined to intervene.

While Grandpa Al was not quite so outspoken on WBAI, he took great delight in heaping scorn on elected officials, referring repeatedly to "Mayor Benito Giuliani" ("All he needs is a balcony"), and "Governor George Potato Head Pataki."  But his provocations ranged much further.  Attending a demonstration in support of the Black Panthers, he declared, "The black community should have armed militias!"  And in the wake of 9/11 he stated publicly on the radio and in interviews that the attack was inevitable, even predictable, the cause of it traceable to Washington and Tel Aviv.  Not sentiments to endear him to the establishment or to mainstream public opinion.  "I know I may offend some people," he often acknowledged, "but Mrs. Lewis's son don't care!  Don't care!"

If Grandpa Al brandished an arsenal of opinions, his mind was also a treasury of facts.  When he mentioned an article demonstrating how, no matter what their misdeeds, government agents are immune to prosecution, and offered to send a copy to anyone requesting it, I wrote him to obtain one.  In the mail I received a copy of an article by the publisher and editor of The Idaho Observer, citing no less than nine court cases establishing immunity for prosecutors who knowingly use false testimony and suppress evidence, who knowingly offer perjured testimony, who conspire with judges to determine the outcome of judicial proceedings, and the like.  Grandpa Al told on the radio how he mentioned these decisions at a public meeting and was immediately challenged by three incredulous law professors, whom he then invited to go check the references.  They did, and when two returned, dumbfounded, they announced that Al Lewis was right; the third was too chagrinned to come back.

Al Lewis also made frequent mention of Marine General Smedley D. Butler, the recipient of sixteen medals, including two Medals of Honor, and often quoted from Butler's book War Is a Racket (1935), which was published following his retirement after thirty-four years in the Corps, including service in the Caribbean,  Central and South America, and China.  In it Butler told how, as a muscle man for Big Business, he had made Mexico safe for American oil interests, Haiti and Cuba safe for the National City Bank, brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests, made Honduras right for American fruit companies, and smoothed the way for Standard Oil in China.
Al Capone had operated in only three districts, he observed, whereas he had operated on three continents.  When he died in 1940, he was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.  All of which was news to me and gave his listeners food -- a hoard of it -- for thought.

My one meaningful contact with Grandpa came when he reported receiving a letter from a gay inmate in North Carolina doing twenty years for having had consensual sex with a sixteen-year-old; the inmate wanted Grandpa to help him find a pen pal.  Hearing this, I wrote Grandpa for the address, then wrote the inmate offering to correspond with him.  The result was -- and still is -- a prolonged correspondence that has now stretched over the years to more than four hundred letters.  (In
vignette #11 I relate how this friendship determined me never to serve on a criminal trial jury again.)  And when, sometime later, I wrote Grandpa Al to tell him the results of the contact he had provided, he read the letter on the radio and urged other listeners to likewise become pen pals of inmates.  He had in fact launched a program to connect listeners with inmates, initiating it after he had interviewed one inmate in a New York State prison who had never had a visit or received a single letter in his fifteen years of incarceration.  Grandpa Al could be cantankerous, but he was also profoundly compassionate.

Al Lewis got the name "Grandpa" and acquired a fan base as a result of the TV sitcom "The Munsters," which was vastly popular but ran for only two seasons (1964-66), being canceled because both sponsor and producer were fed up with the cast's complaints and bickering.  Lewis and fellow Munster Fred Gwynne resented Yvonne de Carlo's stellar pretensions and made no bones about it.  Lewis didn't mind the series coming to an end ("It was a corny family show"), but countless reruns kept it in the public's mind, assuring his continuance in the role of Grandpa, which he exploited vigorously ... and profitably.

It was Lewis's bombastic political pronouncements on WBAI that led the Green Party to enlist him as their candidate for governor of New York State in 1988.  He wanted to be listed on the ballet simply as "Grandpa," but the Board of Elections wouldn't hear of it.  A lively campaign followed in which
he harangued against the draconian Rockefeller drug laws and promised to relieve upstate unemployment by bringing factories there, while berating any reporter who asked a question he deemed irrelevant.  He got only 1% if the vote, but by surpassing the threshold of 50,000 votes assured the Green Party a place on the ballot for the next four years.

But who was the man who became Grandpa Al?  It's hard to know, since for his early years the chief source is Grandpa himself, and for Mrs. Lewis's son truth was malleable, facts could be juggled and reshaped.  On his radio program he claimed to be in his nineties.  That he could be so exuberantly alive and have so keen a mind at that age gave all us budding oldsters hope.  Alas, it seems that he was born in 1923, not 1910, which made him a mere octogenarian.  Eager to get the role of Grandpa and aware that Yvonne de Carlo, his daughter in the show, was in fact a year older than he was, he had added thirteen years to his age and clung to this fiction to the end.

Al Lewis was probably born under the name Albert (or Alexander?) Meister to a Jewish family in Brooklyn.  He rarely spoke of his father, but eulogized his mother as an immigrant from Eastern Europe who worked in the garment trade and from an early age gave him a dedication to labor union causes and the rights of workers.  After that it all gets vague.  He seems to have dropped out of school at sixteen and run off to work in a circus as roustabout, clown, and unicycle performer, but what he did during the Second World War is unclear; he may have served in the Merchant Marine.  After that he apparently became an actor and got bit parts in radio and later TV and film, until at last he was cast in significant roles and became better known.

Here follows a sampling of the claims with which he spiced his bio:

  • Back in his circus days he had his own medicine show, prepared the medicines in a bathtub and sold them.
  • He worked on the defense committee of indicted anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.  (A remarkable commitment, since he couldn't have been more than five years old.)
  • He and his mother came to the rescue of evicted people during the Depression, breaking the lock on their homes and putting the furniture back in again.
  • The National Maritime Union sent him to North Carolina to organize workers -- work that he did fearing for his life.
  • He joined the Merchant Marine prior to World War II and spent time in Italy.
  • He got a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University in 1941.  (The university has no record of it.)
  • Years later in L.A. he met Charles Manson, the future mass murderer, who babysat his sons.  "He didn't chop no heads off.  He was very nice with me."
  • He was a talented basketball scout, discovered many future stars.  (Verifiably true.)
To which could be added running an Italian restaurant on Bleecker Street from 1987 to 1993, and several comedy clubs as well -- all likewise verifiably true.   Grandpa Al never lacked for energy or initiative.

Al Lewis's loyalties were not without contradictions.  During the Depression of the 1930s he viewed the police as the enemy, but when, as Officer Schnauser on the TV program "Car 54," he won a wide fan base among New York's Finest, he changed his attitude, made friends among them, and often accepted paid commissions to entertain at law enforcement events.  Yet he also befriended the flamboyant mob boss John Gotti, became a character witness for him at his trial in 1992, and attended his funeral when he died in prison ten years later.

A chronic cigar smoker, Grandpa Al would probably have had little patience with WBAI"s current emphasis on health and nutrition.  In 2003 he was hospitalized for an angioplasty, and complications from the resulting surgery led to an emergency bypass and amputation of his right leg below the knee and all the toes of his left foot.  His wife Karen, his cohost on the show, carried on, often playing recordings of his earlier broadcasts.  Once I heard him when he phoned in during the show, but his mind was in slow motion and the old spark was gone; he was only a glimmer of his former self.  He died in 2006 and was cremated, with his ashes buried in his favorite cigar box.  His wife continued the show as the self-styled keeper of the flame, but without Al Lewis it wasn't the same; in time, the program was terminated.

Whatever afterlife Grandpa Al now resides in, if he has an ounce of spunk left he'll be challenging the Powers That Be.  I tremble for them.

Thought for the day:  Wealth accumulation centers, foundations for the advancement of bliss, and towels that say LOVE are not the answer.
                                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder

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