Al Lewis

Grandpa in 'The Munsters'
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The Independent Online

Dressed in a high-collared black cape and chomping on cigars, the actor Al Lewis found lasting fame as a 378-year-old vampire in the 1960s American television sitcom The Munsters.

As Grandpa, a member of the ghoulish suburban family of monsters living at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Mockingbird Heights, he tried to tolerate his vampire daughter Lily's clumsy husband Herman, who looked like Frankenstein's monster, with bolts through his neck, but possessed a heart of gold. The old man adored his werewolf grandson Eddie, who had a pet dinosaur and a habit of hanging upside down.

Grandpa himself enjoyed the company of his pet bat, Igor, a "mouse with wings", and was a keen scientist, forever brewing up spells in his cellar laboratory. His concoctions included a love potion to help Lily's niece overcome her difficulty in keeping boyfriends, another to cure her insomnia, and one to make Eddie grow six inches taller when his classmates mocked his height - but, invariably, they went wrong.

Lewis was born Albert Meister in Wolcott, New York, in 1910 (although some sources say 1923), to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Germany. He was raised by his mother, who moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where she worked in a clothes shop. He recalled:

Brownsville was the largest Jewish ghetto in America. We all were very poor, but we stood together when people were evicted. When the marshals and sheriffs would leave, we'd break the lock and move the furniture back inside. Back then, we didn't let people live in the street.

After attending Thomas Jefferson High School, where he excelled as a basketball player, Meister went through jobs as a salesman, waiter, basketball scout, owner of a pool-room and a store detective. At the same time, having been a circus roustabout, cleaning up elephants' dung, at the age of 13, he satisfied a desire to perform by working his way up to become a clown, unicyclist and trapeze artist.

Meister started a lifetime of political activism by campaigning against racism and working as an organiser in the Food, Agricultural and Tobacco Workers' Union in North Carolina and the National Maritime Union, later describing himself as an anarchist. After working as a schoolteacher and writing two children's books, he gained a PhD in child psychology from Columbia University in 1941, then served in the US Navy during the Second World War.

In 1949, he decided to act and trained at the Paul Mann Actors' Workshop in New York, alongside Sidney Poitier. He adopted the professional name Albert Lewis, later shortening it to Al, and performed in vaudeville theatre, then in radio soap operas and on Broadway.

He made his television début with a bit-part in the police series Decoy (1959), then took two one-off roles in The Phil Silvers Show (1959), the sitcom about Sergeant Bilko (Silvers) and his get-rich-quick schemes at a US Army base in Kansas. The programme's creator, Nat Hiken, then launched another sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63), featuring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Toody and Muldoon, two inept New York police patrol officers in the fictional 53rd precinct of the Bronx. Lewis was offered the role of a fellow patrolman, the excitable Officer Leo Schnauser.

Then came the part of Grandpa in The Munsters (1964-66), with Gwynne cast as his son-in-law and the film star Yvonne De Carlo as his daughter. Lewis repeated the role in the film Munster, Go Home (1966) and the television film The Munsters' Revenge (1981), but was the only original cast member to voice his character in the cartoon pilot The Mini-Munsters (1973).

He continued to take character roles on television in popular series such as Lost in Space (1967), Here's Lucy (1973) and Taxi (1981). He had already made his film début as Machine Gun Manny in the gangster drama Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), and his later films included They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), They Might Be Giants (1971) and the Mafia thriller Married to the Mob (1988).

In the 1990s, he had the chance to reprise his two best-known television characters. He played Schnauser on the verge of retirement in the disappointing film version of Car 54, Where Are You? (1994) and, more satisfyingly, was seen with other original cast members (minus the late Fred Gwynne) in the TV film Here Come the Munsters (1995), with a new cast taking the leading roles.

Lewis opened an Italian restaurant called Grandpa's in Greenwich Village hosted his own outspoken radio show, Al Lewis Live, on New York's WBAI station and in 1998 stood for New York Governor as the Green Party candidate, wearing a pony-tail and campaigning against drug laws and the death penalty.