Monday, June 13, 2016

Brush With Celebrity–The Day I Met "Grandpa" Al Lewis

In 1988, I was working at a Boston-area department store (FYI–it was more like a Target than a Nordstrom).  One day our store manager informed us that we would be hosting an in-store signing by Al Lewis, who had been appearing on TV shows since the early 1950's but was best known for having played Grandpa on The Munsters in the mid-1960's (and in subsequent sequels and remakes).

Lewis had lent his name to a series of videos called Grampa's Silly Scaries, Grampa's Monster Movies and Grampa's Sci-Fi Hits which were collections of cartoons and live-action sci-fi and monster movie clips from the 1930's to the 1960's that featured introductions and commentary from Lewis.  (I assume that the videos' producers called him "Grampa" rather than "Grandpa" to avoid tempting a lawsuit from the producers of The Munsters.)  Lewis's agreement with Amvest Video, the company that produced the videos, apparently required him to promote the videos with personal appearances in malls and stores like the one I worked in.  We didn't get many "celebrities" (even D-listers like Al Lewis) in my store, and since I had enjoyed The Munsters as a kid I thought it would be kind of cool to get his autograph.  I wasn't interested in buying any of the videos, but his promotional people provided photocopied pictures that Lewis was willing to sign. 

On the day of Lewis's appearance I waited for the crowd to thin out (not that there was much of a crowd to begin with) and got on line to get an autograph.  When I was about third or fourth in line, I noticed that there was a kid who seemed to be about 9 or 10 years old at the front of the line.  When one of the promotional people motioned for the kid to step forward to get Lewis's autograph, he bounded up to the signing table and, in the hope of getting a personalized signature, eagerly proclaimed, "Hi Grandpa!  My name is Billy!"  Without looking up, Lewis responded, "What the hell do I care what your goddam name is," and quickly scrawled his autograph on Billy's paper before turning his attention to the next item that was presented for him to sign.  Devastated, poor Billy slunk away from the table, his chin aquiver.  Needless to say, when it was my turn to get Lewis's autograph, I didn't dare say a word until I had the signed paper in my hand, after which I only muttered a sotto voce, "Thanks, Grandpa."

To this day, whenever I stumble upon a rerun of The Munsters, I can't help thinking back to the time when poor little Billy was traumatized by "Grandpa" Al Lewis.

(Above: One of my most prized possessions–my autographed picture of Al Lewis.)


  1. concerning Ball of Fire:

    1. Stanwyck is outstanding. She dominates every scene in which she appears. The movie only flags when the professors have to do the business of rescuing her when she is off in New Jersey. It's unimaginable that she was even better in The Lady Eve. But she was.

    2. Hawks is at his third best in screwball, behind only Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. As in Baby, the entire Hawks premise is the incredibly handsome leading man who is a sexual ingenue. As in Friday, the leading lady is worldly wise, sexually self-assured, yet ultimately led by her heart.

    3. Even though the Seven Dwarfs schtick of the bookish mittel-European professors is so corny, the script (by Billy Wilder, who else?) explicitly concedes as much by making the focus of one of Professor Potts' study groups on slang be precisely on the origins and resonances of the term "corny." The newly-arrived immigrant Wilder's ear for working class New York slang is a perpetual pleasure. (incidentally, Preston Sturges must have named Henry Fonda "Hoppsy" in Eve as a hat-tip to Cooper's "Pottsy" here)

    4. Billy Wilder! The plot begins as the professors have arrived at S (S is for Slang) in their encyclopedia when they run out of money and have to use Cooper's sex appeal to persuade the heiress with the purse strings to continue their project…hence the search for a slang expert…hence the insertion of Stanwyck into the project. Thereafter every major plot turn in Wilder's story revolves around an event that begins with the letter S or afterwards in the alphabet. In the rift between Cooper and Stanwyck before their eventual wedding (W), she is a tramp (T) and he is a sucker (S). They torture (T) the gangsters with tickles (T) after which they find them in a stick-up (S), or in mittel-European, an up-stick (U). And the act of sex is not called sex (S) but yum (Y) and then yum (Y) and then yum-yum (Y).

    5. The killer app. The lighting cinematography is by Gregg Toland. Therefore this is the second best-looking Hawks movie, after only Red River, or maybe the third best, including The Big Sleep. There are four scenes in particular where the camerawork is the rival of anything seen in Citizen Kane or Best Years of Our Lives or Wuthering Heights.


    First, the corolla of faces around the table where the Match Boogie is played, with Gary Cooper peering from the outside over the top.

    Second, Stanwyck arrives, on the lam, at the fusty research academy in the same rhinestone (almost) dress that she wears in the Boogie sequence, and Toland lights her so that she literally sparkles throughout the entire scene, the entire establishment.

    Third, when Cooper confesses his love to Stanwyck in the Yum-Yum (blow-job) scene, he tells her how fell for her as he saw the light catch her hair as she stood in front of the window -- whereupon Stanwyck moves away from him in order to stand again in front of the window, so Toland can show-&-tell for us all.

    Fourth, in the motel scene where (because of the plot device of a nail coming loose and Room 9 turning into Room 6) Cooper tells his fellow-professor that he is rejecting his advice to treat his wife as a delicate flower and will treat her with lustful ardor instead (of course, it is Stanwyck, accidentally, who hears of his amorous intentions), the darkened room is lit noirishly so that we only see her eyes as she takes in what she has just heard, not her face, not her body lying in bed. And she falls in love.

  2. You said a mouthful. I guess you've seen "Ball of Fire" once or twice. I read that in the motel scene, Toland used dark greasepaint on Stanwyck's face to make her face appear darker and her eyes appear brighter.