From a recent interview with Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster) published by the New York City anarchist newspaper, “The Shadow,” issue #43. “Besides being a Talmudic scholar, Al Lewis has devoted his life to social and political activism from the 1930s through the present. Now at 87 years of age, Al Lewis has settled back in New York City, where he shares his insights, his razor sharp wit and viewpoints with a receptive audience on his “Al Lewis Live” radio show on listener-supported WBAI (Saturday at noon, on 99.5 FM), when he's not making movies.
Excerpted from the interview:
You read the wrong things; you don't know American history. The United States, per capita, at a certain period in its history, had the most junkies of any country ever in the world. That was right after the Civil War. The most brutal war, the greatest amount of casualties that America's ever had. We fought each other. And cocaine came on the scene at that time as a pain-killer. It was so prevalent that if you had a five-year-old son, you could send him to the drugstore with 50¢ and he'd bring back a bottle, a tincture of cocaine. It was sold that prevalently. It was also the basis for the original Coca-Cola, where they made their fortune. Then in 1919, they passed the Harrison Act, where they made cocaine illegal, so in the OTC, the “over-the-counter” drugs, the base became alcohol…
I don't deal with memorabilia. I have no nostalgia items, I don't keep anything.
Q: Back in the 1930s, there was a lot of political activity going on. A lot of labor demonstrations, strikes, the organization of the CIO. Were you involved in any of that?
Yup, yeah, Scottsboro, Tom Mooney, Warren K. Billings. I was an organizer in the Food, Agricultural and Tobacco Workers Union down in North Carolina.
Q: You worked in that industry?
No, no, I accepted a challenge. The industry I worked in just before the war, World War II, was the National Maritime Union.
Q: You were a seaman?
Yup, yup. The late '30s and then into the war. I was torpedoed twice, once in the Mediterranean and once off Murmansk.
Q: You were carrying goods to the Soviet Union?
Like 600 other sea ships in a convoy. You never knew what you carried. You could have been carrying potatoes, which of course we weren't, or you could have been carrying explosives. And you saw those ships go up. Boy, Coney Island never had fireworks like that. And all those men died. In a convoy, you had 200-300 Victory Ships. Henry J. Kaiser made millions on those. And if you saw guys swimming in the water, you never stopped to pick them up. You let them die there. Because of the submarines. You could be a target. You'd look out the port hole and see these guys screaming for help, covered with oil, or they're on fire. 'Later jack, later!'
Q: Did you ever have to abandon ship?
Sure, in the Mediterranean and in Murmansk, the ship was sunk. You don't know what it's like to be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There is no more lonely feeling. You see nothing, nothing, nothing. And there comes the British Corvettes — 'bwoop, bwoop, bwoop' — them fuckers, they didn't gave a shit about the few of us that were in the water. They were circling and dropping the ashcans looking for the German U-boats. And we were screaming 'You motherfuckers!' And they finally pulled us in. And then in Murmansk, the Yops, Russian planes, spotted us and a Russian trawler. All women manned those ships, pulled us out of the water and took us to the hospital.
Q: So what was the first political activity that you were involved with?
I don't know. Probably when I shit on the grass in Prospect Park, I don't know. I don't know what that means. What is a political activity? What does it mean?
Q: In the demonstrations back in those days were there ever problems with the police? Did they try to attack people?
Did you just come to this country? (Laughs) What are you talking about? The police are here to protect property. They're not here to protect the public! So, what the fuck are you asking me? Of course! Name me a period when the police… (laughs)
Q: Are there any good politicians that you've run into recently?
In the cemetery? H.L. Mencken said: 'Looking for an honest politician is like looking for an ethical burglar.'
Q: What did you think as a middle-aged man about the youth and free love culture popping up in the Sixties?
I went to all the Love-Ins. I took my kids. I enjoyed myself.
Q: That was around the time that you were doing the Munsters, wasn't it? So people recognized you as Grandpa Munster?
Sure, absolutely. In California in that period, the estimate was that there were at least half a million runaways from the age of eight on, drifting to California. Every Friday I used to have about 50, 60 kids who would wait for me on Sunset Boulevard and I'd take them all to dinner. All runaways. That's how I met Charlie Manson. He wanted to be in the music business. He babysat my three kids. He didn't chop no heads off, he was very nice with me. I met him in front of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard. He sat for four of five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat.
Q: Did you know any Sixties musicians, performers or anyone like that?
Did I go out of my way to meet any performers? I'm more important than any body you can mention. Do you know that? Yeah, I met the Beatles, you name them, ain't no big fuckin' deal. They couldn't get a hotel to put them up, so Universal Studios was encased with a wall, with their own police and firemen. We stayed in a bungalow, and one of them stayed in mine. I met Bobby Darin, you name them. Naturally! I'm in the business!
Q: How much of Grandpa Munster was Al Lewis, and how much of Al Lewis was Grandpa Munster?
Everything. There's a part of me in everything. 'Car 54's' Schnauzer is a part of me. I can't do you. It's a composite, a collage of my whole life. It's Al Lewis. I always say, 'You hire Al Lewis, you get the whole Al Lewis.' He's loud, he's opinionated, he smokes terrible cigars, that's it. I can't be and I'm not going to attempt to be what someone thinks I should be. That's the road to hell. Like they used to say uptown, 'Don't sing that song, I don't know the lyrics.'
Q: What's your secret for success, for a long, healthy, happy life?
My secret for success? I don't know what the hell success means. (Laughs) I'll tell you what my secret is. It took me a long time to find this out. Find something that you absolutely love to do. Not you like it, or it's pleasant, something that you absolutely love to do. And along the way, if you're lucky, get to love the way you do it. Then you're home free.
And you're looking at a man right now. I got a spine made out of stainless steel. Nothing shrinks it, nothing, nothing. Because I know who I am. I don't have to brag. I know what I contributed. I know what I did. You think you can do it better? Hey, go right ahead. The stage is yours. But find something that you absolutely love doing. And then get to love the way you do it. That's the uniqueness of all of us. That's it. Albert Einstein, one of my favorites, said: 'Imagination is more important than knowledge.' And if that cat say it, it's good enough for me.
I learned this from my mother: you have to know what you're worth. I don't work cheap. Everybody has a worth. I don't ask for what a piece of shit like Tom Cruise gets. A piece of shit who can't act his way in or out of a paper bag. Somebody wants to pay him that, it's no skin off my fuckin' ass. But what I'm saying is, know what you're worth. Know what you contribute. If you don't know that, you're in fuckin' trouble, man. And the one thing I learned from my mother is: never sell yourself short. My mother used to say, in broken English: 'This is a big world. When you go out, there's millions of people ready to kick you in the ass. Don't bend down to accommodate them.' That's peasant humor. Even biggies in Hollywood don't understand that. They'll bend down to take the kick, but they'll get two million for the picture. Not Al Lewis, not my mother's favorite son. No, no, no.