Grandpa Al Lewis, 1910–2006

I first saw Al Lewis (who played Grandpa in “The Munsters” TV show) in New Haven in 1971 at a demonstration in support of the jailed Black Panthers. I remember I kept staring at him, curious that this famous actor would stand by himself, unlike so many actors and famous people. Later I worked for his campaign for governor. I was struck by the amount of adulation and genuine affection that so many people had for Al, especially (gulp!) cops—I suppose thanks to his role in “Car 54 Where Are You?” as well as “The Munsters.” They all wanted Al to sign autographs. I collected hundreds of signatures to put Al on the ballot from cops riding home on the Long Island railroad and the Staten Island ferry. It was amazing the transformation that came over people when Al greeted them. He ended up getting just over the 50,000 votes needed to put the Green Party on the ballot in New York State. 

Al was also very scholarly and fluent in Yiddish, which he used during his borschtbelt schticks, regaling his audiences with gossip and funny stories about his friends, which included Mafia chieftans like Gotti. He told the Greens over and over about how his first political protest was when his mother brought him to a Sacco and Vanzetti support rally and how that inspired him to fight for political prisoners all his life. 

Al was incredibly supportive of many people, including me when I was a Green Party candidate and organizer against pesticides and genetic engineering. He sponsored several events with the Roosevelt Island Greens and contributed generously to the NoSpray Coalition over the years, as well as to my campaign for mayor on the Green Party line in 2001. 

I remember when Al was sick, a Reclaim the Streets demonstration ended up on Roosevelt Island. As we marched past Al’s apartment, we started the chant: “We love you Grandpa, we miss you, get better.” Soon hundreds of us took up the chant, lights came on in the apartments, people looked out the windows, and everyone waved, knowing who we were chanting about. 

Among the many issues that Al took on, the fight to get rid of the onerous Rockefeller drug laws in New York (in which people have been imprisoned for 20 years and more for first offense nonviolent drug charges) was dear to his heart. He fought ceaselessly to free hundreds of those imprisoned, their lives meaninglessly stolen from them. 

This funny, smart, annoying, funny, ribald, funny, generous, funny, and always dependable anti racist activist was, in my opinion, one of the great people of the 20th century, a legend walking among us. I loved him dearly and so did many others. 

Grandpa Al Lewis: Presenté.