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“Grandpa” Al Lewis 1923-2006: Actor, Radio Host and Lifelong Political Activist Dead at 82

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Actor and activist Al Lewis died at the age of 82. In the acting world, he was best known for playing Grandpa on the Munsters. He was also a lifelong activist. He ran for New York Governor on the Green Party ticket and was a longtime radio host on Pacifica station WBAI. [includes rush transcript]

Today we remember actor, radio host, and political activist “Grandpa” Al Lewis. He died Friday after years of failing health. There are conflicting reports over his age at the time of his death. He was thought to be 95 years old, but according to the Associated Press, his family now says he was in fact 82. Lewis was best known for his roles on two 1960s comedy series–as “Grandpa” on the “The Munsters” and Officer Leo Schnauzer on “Car 54, Where Are You.” He was also a life-long political activist, and an outspoken critic of US policy at home and abroad. In 1998, he ran for Governor of New York, as the Green Party candidate against Governor George Pataki. He also took turns as a basketball scout; a restaurant owner in Greenwich Village; and a radio host on WBAI here in New York.

Grandpa Al’s death was announced Saturday by WBAI program director Bernard White, during the same time-slot he used to host his weekly program. We’re going to play an excerpt now from an interview Bernard White and I conducted with Grandpa Pal on Democracy Now!, on April 10, 1997. We pick up the interview where Grandpa Al about his early involvement in political activities. Here, he talks about the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg–the married couple convicted and executed for spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

  • “Grandpa” Al Lewis, interviewed April 10, 1997.

Listen to full interview with Al Lewis

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ll play an excerpt of that interview that Bernard White and I conducted with “Grandpa” Al Lewis on April 10, 1997. We pick up the interview where “Grandpa” Al Lewis talked about his early involvement in political activities. Here he talks about the case Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the married couple convicted and executed for conspiring to spy for the Soviet Union at the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Most people don’t remember. When the Rosenbergs were executed, the funeral was in Brooklyn — well, they didn’t live in Brooklyn — at IJ Morris. And most people are not aware the two bodies were on view. And a group of us were there to make sure that no maniac came in and threw acid, and there was all kinds of crazies around during the height of the McCarthy period. And the lines started to form at 6:00 in the morning. The viewing didn’t open until about 10:00. It was a group of us from the NMU. And most people are not aware that the majority of people who came to view the Rosenbergs, as they laid in the coffins, were black people.

I was there from the get-go before they opened the mortuary. Had a couple of incidents, one with a Daily News reporter. I still remember her name. Ruth Montgomery was trying to sneak a camera in. We did not allow pictures to be taken, you know, of this and that. I grabbed the bag and the camera and, you know, she said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “I know you ain’t gonna stop me. I know that. And you can attempt to call the police. You want to do that? There’s about 8,000 people waiting in line. You want to start a riot? Now, get out of here. Take your camera and get out.”

Anyway, he had made a decision. The good doctor had made a decision to go to the cemetery and you can read the front page of the New York Times. At least a thousand cars who followed the Hearst, children, grandmother. And I had to make sure that nobody messed with William Edward Burghardt DuBois. So, as we say in them old westerns, you know, we goin’ round up a posse, somebody’s gotta ride shotgun. Well, Al Lewis rode shotgun. And I always said, man, any mother’s son put his foot on that running board knows he’s the running board. I want to know if he could swallow the 45 that go right in his mouth. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: So there was no trouble?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Even Steven. You make your play; I’ll make mine. Take it from there.

BERNARD WHITE: Why do you figure — did you ever think about this? Why so many black folks went to visit — to view the bodies of the Rosenbergs?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: They were not black radicals. Most of them were women. And I think they understood — I don’t even know if they felt that they were innocent or guilty or — I think they just felt that they shouldn’t have been executed. It’s like down in the South, Mississippi, when they used to march down from the penitentiary at Parchment. Parchment Farm. Women working in the cotton fields didn’t know these men, and they used to sing, and the song came out of that. [singing] Another man done gone / Another man done gone to the Parchment Farm.

And it was that kind of an affinity that they had with people who — you have to understand. See, people don’t understand. Whether they did or didn’t, certainly the trial didn’t prove that, that they were communist sympathizers, whatever you want to call. You have to understand the period that — you know, things grow out of soil. You know what I’m saying? You know, it’s hard to grow broccoli out of a rock. You need the proper soil.

And in those communities, because that was my community, Brownsville, East New York, you know how people knew what communists were? Didn’t read a book, didn’t read a pamphlet. During the Depression, the marshal came and evicted 20 people a day, and here come the communists, then the YCL, the Young Communist League. As soon as the marshal leaves, go up, break the lock, carry the furniture back in. Now, who do you think them people are going to — that’s how they knew communists.

I mean, read John L. Lewis’s book. Toughest places to organize was in the South. Harlan County. Good lord! I mean, you get off the train, they shoot you; bus, don’t matter. And he used to bring in communists. And that’s what people knew them as. They didn’t know nothing about no ideologies, the Soviet Union, Karl Marx. They didn’t know what the heck that was. And so it was that kind of an affinity. These people are putting their lives out on the line and getting hit on. If I don’t remember a thousand battles. They used to call it home relief; now they call it welfare — in the '30s. And battles, they wouldn't give the lady home relief or they’d cut her off, or they took away this and stuff. And then, battles with the police. Well, I mean, people say, 'Jeez, wow! So, if they were communists, they were probably moving back furniture the same way.' It’s that kind of an affinity that underdogs have.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Al Lewis, longtime actor and political activist. And Al, we just couldn’t resist. Remember Vera Hall?

VERA HALL: [singing] Another man done gone / Another man done gone from the county farm / Another man done gone / I didn’t know his name / I didn’t know his name / I didn’t know his name / I didn’t know his name / He had a long chain on / He had a long chain on / He had a long chain on / He had a long chain on / He killed another man / He killed another man / He killed another man / He killed another man / I don’t know where he’s gone / I don’t know where he’s gone / I don’t know where he’s gone / I don’t know where he’s gone / I’m going to walk your log / I’m going to walk your log / I’m going to walk your log / I’m going to walk your log.

BERNARD WHITE: So what is it in your past that made you pick the side that you’re on? I mean, there were many people —- excuse me, that you worked with -—

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: I think somebody hexed me at birth. I don’t know.

BERNARD WHITE: Because you could have just made money and been very comfortable and not —


BERNARD WHITE: — have anything to do with any of these issues.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is supposed to be. You fight for what you believe in. As I said many a time, I’m my mother’s son. I remember my mother taking me to demonstrations. I was a boy. My mother was — I guess, what’s that? The Bell Curve would say she was an ignorant peasant woman from Europe. Came here, girl of 15, worked in the sweatshops. Brought over five daughters and her mother and father from Europe. Worked on her back. Worked all her life. Sweatshops. Garment center.


GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Never had a vacation, my mother. Never went to a movie. Didn’t have the time, bringing up a family, taking care of her five sisters and her mother and father, brought them here from Europe. Had to earn money for passage and everything. And my mother was the kind of woman who understood the class struggle. While my mother worked as a poor lady in the garment center, and the boss said, 'You know, it's kinda hot; let’s open the window,’ my mother’s thinking was, 'If the boss says open the window, no, we keep it closed! That's it! That’s it!’

My mother used to go on demonstrations. My mother used to — see, you people don’t remember. You all are youngsters. But during the Depression, people selling on the street corner, and along came the police officer of that day and used to attempt not all, but many, to get a dollar or two bribe. Otherwise, you can’t stay here. My mother was the kind of woman who would say in broken English — I’ll do my mother now — 'Why you doing there? Why you bothering that man? He's trying to make a living. Get away from there!’ to the policeman. When I was a little kid, I was embarrassed. I’d pull my mother. ’Don’t pull me! Why you doing that?’ Well, my mother had a voice bigger than mine. Suddenly there’s 50 people there, and the cop is getting scared. You know, for a dollar he’s trying to get from the guy selling garbanzo beans — arbus, we called them — or sweet potatoes or something. And here’s a mob. He don’t know if they’re going to tear his head off. And he walked away. But that was —- I’m my mother’s son. That’s it. I mean, I don’t know how else to explain it. Then, of course -—

BERNARD WHITE: Oh, that explains it very well.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: I armed myself with facts and figures. You know what I mean? You know, but that’s how my mother was. My mother, you know, a little lady and fearless.

AMY GOODMAN: “Grandpa” Al Lewis on Democracy Now!, April 10, 1997. He died this past Friday in Roosevelt Island at his home. We will come back to the interview that Bernard White and I did with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: The theme of The Munsters. “Grandpa” Al Lewis was one of its stars. He died this past Friday in Roosevelt Island. We’re going to go back to the interview that I did with him with my colleague at WBAI, Bernard White, on Democracy Now! It was April 10, 1997.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to W. E. B. DuBois for a minute. As you, a few years later —


AMY GOODMAN: — a few decades later when you met him, from the story you are telling about your mother. What was he like? And how did you find his concerns and what he talked about similar to what your mother cared about?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: My meetings with the good doctor were not social meetings. I never — pardon me, I think I was once in his house at Grace Court, when he lived at that beautiful house.

AMY GOODMAN: In New York City?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: By the river. Near Hick’s Pine, Orange, Pineapple, you know, in that area. I think I may have been there once, and that was some kind of a party — I don’t remember. Arthur Miller had a house there, Norman Rosten had a house there. I don’t know. It was some kind of a party or something. My conversations were never lengthy conversations. I would meet him at certain situations where he needed protection, you know, all kinds of crazies in this world. You know what I mean? And I was there to trump an ace. You know what I mean?

And so we talked five, six, seven, eight minutes and, you know, and as again, I would say the good doctor, as far as I can remember, never participated like — tonight is a demonstration, you know, in the killing, you know, of this young man Cedeno. Now the good doctor wouldn’t be in the crowd. He would address the crowd if they asked — you understand what I’m saying? And so, if he had to go there to address the crowd, me, guy named Popeye and a few other guys would make sure that there ain’t no crazies around, you know, and if they are, you pay the price. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: So he didn’t join demonstrations?


AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t join demonstrations?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Well, I don’t know what you mean by joining them.

AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t march.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: You mean, did he march with a picket sign? I never knew of him to do that. I knew him even before he married Shirley, you know, Shirley Graham. In his later years he married Shirley, and then they both went to Tanzania, because of the trial — you know, arrested and handcuffed — embarrassing.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he arrested?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: So-called Smith Act communist. Why was Paul Robeson? They took his passport away. You know, it’s like Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

AMY GOODMAN: You knew Paul Robeson?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Oh very well, very well, very well. Knew him very well. Oh, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get to know —

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Knew him first as a football player. Yessiree, All-American, and it’s a damn shame — you are not supposed to say “God damn.” Can’t say that, because a lot of these Christian people listening are going to jump up in the air. But it’s a damn shame that he’s not in the football hall of fame. That’s right. He was a great, great football player. Besides, most people don’t know he was an LLB. He was a lawyer. Had his law degree. Didn’t practice but he had a law degree. Yeah. Brilliant man. Brilliant linguist. Great singer. Great actor.

BERNARD WHITE: So how — you used to hang around with him also?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Yeah. You know, hey, you know, with the boys. Boys in the hood.

AMY GOODMAN: Remember this one?


BERNARD WHITE: I think I hear you clapping.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Yeah, that’s me.

AMY GOODMAN: 1965, Paul Robeson.

PAUL ROBESON: [singing] When Israel was in Egypt’s land / Let my people go / Oppressed so hard they could not stand / Let my people go / Go down, Moses, way down Egypt’s land / Tell old Pharaoh / Let my people go.

BERNARD WHITE: I’m really glad that you went into acting.


BERNARD WHITE: I’m glad that you went into acting.


BERNARD WHITE: Because singing is not your thing.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: No. But you don’t understand. You see, you don’t understand. I have been in musicals on Broadway, and they asked me, “Do you sing?” I said, “Yes, I sing poorly, but passionately.”

BERNARD WHITE: That you do.


AMY GOODMAN: What did you sing on Broadway?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Last thing I did on Broadway was Do Re Mi, a musical, Comden and Green, Jule Styne, Phil Silvers, Nancy Walker.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you sing?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: 1960 — let’s see. We opened Christmas week. David Merritt was the producer. Garson Kanin was the director.

AMY GOODMAN: But what did you sing?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: What did I sing?


GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: What did I sing? Oh I sang — I didn’t have a solo, obviously. It was white backlash, I think. Great — there was one great song in there that Julie wrote, may rest in peace. [singing] Make someone happy / Make just one someone happy / And you will be happy, too.

I sing better than you, Bernard. You know that?

BERNARD WHITE: Oh, come on now. We’re going to have to have a contest.

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: I agree. You know me.

BERNARD WHITE: You still say that, and you’ve heard me?

GRANDPA” AL LEWIS: Yeah, you know why? Because you don’t sing with feeling. You know, funny thing. I was — years and years ago, what’s his name — first name, Wilson, the black band leader. He had a jazz show in L.A. on KGOL, I think it was, and he was interviewing the conductor, Zubin Mehta, you know, famous, world-famous conductor, and Zubin said a very interesting thing. They were talking about — they had played a record or something, a gospel song. And he said, “For me, it’s not judging whether the singers are great or spectacular or just okay, but when I hear them sing, I believe them.” Hear that? Now when I sing, they believe me!

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Al Lewis. In a few weeks, he’s going to be celebrating his birthday on April 30. He’s going to be 88, and what a life he’s led through this 20th century. When he finished up the Broadway run of Do Re Mi with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker, he was summoned, along with Fred Gwynne, to test for The Munsters, and we’re going to talk about that with him when we come back. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was “Grandpa” Al Lewis, interviewed April 10, 1997. His age — well, there are different stories about his age. While he was alive, we thought he now was 95. But it turns out, according to his son, in fact, he died at the age of 82. He died on Friday at Roosevelt Island where he lived. Our condolences to the Lewis family.

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EXTRA: “Grandpa” Al Lewis speaks at a fundraiser for Democracy Now!

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