Saturday, February 04, 2006

Al Lewis, RIP

Pop celebrity is such a matter of timing and luck, more so than talent. (Although talent can definately help.)

Al Lewis died last night at the ripe old age of 95. (Like Abe Vigoda, Mr. Lewis convincingly played a character much older than he himself was, and so his continued existence over the decades always evoked a bit of surprise.) Mr. Lewis will remain a beloved icon as long as my generation is alive.

As Grandpa Munster—an aged Dracula, actually—Mr. Lewis co-starred on The Munsters, a sitcom that ran for a comparatively paltry three years, and inspired a spin-off, color theatrical film. This was an era in which ‘weird’ sitcoms were all the rage, with the Addams family, genies, witches, superheroes, aliens and other bizarre concepts all featured on the then near monopoly Big Three networks.

Although many of these programs remain popular among the baby boomer generation, few earned the enduring love won by The Munsters. This is probably due to the fact that it was one of the shows most obviously aimed at children, albeit without taking that as an excuse to be dumb.

Kids of my era, especially the nerdy ones, invariably loved old monster movies, and The Munsters featured a cast consisting of vampires, the Frankenstein Monster, and even a young wolfman. (Wolfboy?)

In the classic Universal movies from which The Munsters drew inspiration, the monsters themselves tended to be sympathetic on some level. The Frankenstein Monster was misunderstood and hounded. Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, suddenly found himself subject to bewildering physical changes he couldn’t understand, much less control, including hair sprouting up in weird places. Dracula was immortal but lonely, ever apart, as was the Mummy, doomed to live forever in the most hellish of SRO apartments, and to boot betrayed by the woman whose love he had risked—and received—damnation for.

Kids understood these figures, even as they were scared by them. With the Munsters, though, there was no reason to be afraid. Immigrants to a new and (comparatively) understanding country, the Monster and Dracula were able to abandon the bad old ways because they now had the love and understanding they had always wanted. Together, they were a family, and if they were an odd one, youngsters adored them for it.

Herman, of course, the big, clumsy kid, was the one we most loved. Crazy old Grandpa, however, was a close second. Having given up bloodsucking, Grandpa refashioned himself as a mad scientist, albeit a comparatively benign one. Of course, that provided the plot hook for many episodes, as some experiment or other would go awry. Even so, everything would work out in the end, and it would be back down in the basement to fool around once more with Dr. Frankenstein’s old electrical equipment.

It’s difficult to envision Grandpa being played by anyone else. Fred Gywnne’s size and childlike—in the best sense—sense of wonder and smile were perfect for the role of Herman. Surely, though, the character would have remained much the same if he had been played by another actor.

Mr. Lewis, however, brought what was even then an old fashioned Borsht Belt shtick sensibility to Grandpa, and provided us with a much more idiosyncratic characterization. That high-pitched cackle was purely his, as was that rotund, expressive face, which unlike Gywnne’s remained comparatively unobscured and homogenized by make-up and prosthetics. Had someone else played Grandpa, he surely would have been a completely other being.

So all the ingredients were there. The Munsters was a show that ran on a network back in the day when TV really was a mass medium. It wasn’t a top ten show, but I’ve no doubt its rating were higher than most anything seen by today’s fragmented audiences. The show featured a hook that invariably drew in kids, with humor appropriate to that demographic, and even better was in constant rotation in after school rerun slots for decades afterword. Today’s kids, choosing from hundreds of cable channels and an insane array of other entertainment options, will never really know what a communal experience a TV show could be. They will have their own pleasures, but they will never understand the ones that formed us.

So Mr. Lewis profited from all of these factors, and as long as we are alive, he and the character he crafted will always have a place in our hearts and minds and memories.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t earn that place, though. Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Lewis. Thank you very, very much.


At 1:20 AM, Anonymous wjl2 said...

Shouldn't that parenthetical in the first paragraph end in "doesn't hurt" or "does help" ?

I read about Lewis early this morning and it gave me pause. Not only did he look like he was having a great time in the role, in the years afterwards he never bad-mouthed the show or bitched about it having "type cast" him. It was "B-Movie" done as a sitcom, and he seem to have known it for what it was, and loved it all the way.

I haven't seen him in anything else in years, and even when I did, there was always a bit of "Grandpa" in those characters, and it was always pleasently nostalgic.

- Bill

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Thanks for the edit!

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous John Bohlke said...

I still remember when I was at college. Back then, there were no phone lines in the rooms or cable tv. There was one cable connection in the whole dorm in the main floor lounge. I still remember the huge gatherings that got together for Star Trek TNG and Batman the Animated Series.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

I watched him advise and admonish Herman while both of us were growing up, and was pleasantly surprised to see him still alive in the "Munsters" remake of some years ago (he, Yvonne DeCarlo and some other vets were in a restaurant commenting on the new weirdos).

Gads, the strange stuff we remember. Luckily for Al Lewis, he was one of them.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger thanoseid said...

Wow Ken, the story is sad, but the picture of the fat chick with "Eat me" written on her does cheer me up a little.


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