'The Munsters' grandpa Al Lewis, dies at age 95

Sunday, February 5, 2006

NEW YORK -- Al Lewis, the cigar-chomping patriarch of "The Munsters" whose work as a basketball scout, restaurateur and political candidate never eclipsed his role as Grandpa from the television sitcom, died after years of failing health. He was 95.

Lewis, with his wife at his bedside, died Friday night, said Bernard White, program director at WBAI-FM, where the actor was host of a weekly radio program.

Lewis, sporting a somewhat cheesy Dracula outfit, became a pop culture icon playing the father-in-law to Fred Gwynne's ever-bumbling Herman Munster on the television show.

But Lewis' life off the small screen ranged far beyond his acting antics. A former ballplayer at Thomas Jefferson High School, he achieved notoriety as a basketball talent scout familiar to coaching greats like Jerry Tarkanian and Red Auerbach.

He operated a successful Greenwich Village restaurant, Grandpa's, where he was a regular presence.

Just two years short of his 90th birthday, a ponytailed Lewis ran as the Green Party candidate against incumbent Gov. George Pataki. Lewis campaigned against draconian drug laws and the death penalty. He didn't win, but did collect more than 52,000 votes.

Lewis was born Alexander Meister in upstate New York before his family moved to Brooklyn, where the 6-foot-1 teen began a lifelong love affair with basketball. He later became a vaudeville and circus performer, but his career didn't take off until television did the same.

Lewis played opposite Gwynne in "Car 54, Where Are You?" from 1961 to 1963. One year later, the duo appeared together in "The Munsters."

The series, about a family of clueless creatures plunked down in middle America, was a success and ran through 1966. It forever locked Lewis in as the memorably twisted character; decades later, strangers would greet him on the street with shouts of "Grandpa!"

Unlike some television stars, Lewis never complained about getting typecast and made appearances in character for decades.

"Why would I mind?" he said in 1997. "It pays my mortgage."

Lewis rarely slowed down, opening his restaurant and hosting his WBAI radio program. At one point during the '90s, he was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show, once sending the shock jock diving for the delay button by leading an undeniably obscene chant against the Federal Communications Commission.

He also popped up in a number of movies, including the acclaimed "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Married to the Mob." Lewis reprised his role of Schnauzer in the movie remake of "Car 54," and appeared as a guest star on television shows such as "Taxi," "Green Acres" and "Lost in Space."

But in 2003, Lewis was hospitalized for an angioplasty. Complications during surgery led to an emergency bypass and the amputation of his right leg below the knee and all the toes on his left foot. Lewis spent the next month in a coma.

A year later, he was back offering his recollections of a seminal punk band on the DVD "Ramones Raw."

He is survived by his wife, Karen Ingenthron-Lewis, three sons and four grandchildren.

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