It's hard to say, perhaps, in Al Lewis' case. True enough, Lewis is no longer Grandpa to The Munsters, that lovable family of suburban ghouls who haunted prime-time TV back in the '60s. Faltering Nielsens drove a stake through the sitcom's heart 22 years ago. Equally true, however, is that Lewis, at 78, still has the diabolical look of a vampire scientist emerging from his dungeon laboratory.
The fact is, Lewis is more likely to emerge these days from the kitchen of Grampa's, the downtown Manhattan eatery that he opened last year. Instead of TV giggles, he's serving up pasta, pizza and veal Parmesan to a clientele gone batty over his fare. "This is showbiz to me," he says happily. "On TV, I bring joy and fun and laughter. I'm bringing a little bit of that here, plus excellent food."
For the onetime caped comic, Grampa's is no fly-by-night venture. In 1986 Lewis set off for Italy in search of a chef and came back nearly four months later with two. After sharing with them a sacred trust—the secret pasta recipe he learned while living in Rome after WW II—he and two partners opened Grampa's, a cheery Italian-style café specializing in low-price meals and a high-profile owner who's on the premises six days a week.
"I would venture to say that I know Italian food better than most Italians in New York," says Lewis. Of course he also claims to be the second best American-born Chinese cook ever (right after Danny Kaye), that his 1961 sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? was one of the funniest TV shows of all time (along with I Love Lucy and The Jackie Gleason Show), and that he is "the most knowledgeable man who ever lived, on the game of basketball."
Now nearing his ninth decade, Lewis clearly isn't short on hubris or history. Born in Brooklyn (his father was a sign painter, his mother a garment worker), he worked in the theater whenever he could and at odd jobs whenever he had to. He was a hot dog vendor at Ebbets Field, a department store salesclerk, a detective at Macy's, a postal worker, a merchant seaman, a carnival pitchman, a circus clown and a performer in vaudeville, burlesque and radio as well as on Broadway. "I've often said I've had a thousand different jobs in order to stay in show business," he says. "I've had to pay rent."
A closet intellectual—though not while hanging by his heels—Lewis has read a book a day since he was 11 and received a Ph.D. in child psychology (from Columbia) at the age of 31. Divorced, with three sons who live out West, Lewis now shares a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with girlfriend Karen Ingethron, 42, an actress. He also owns homes in Zurich and Encino, Calif., which have more room for his library of several thousand books and his collection of 3,000 hats, picked up in his travels.
Lewis credits real estate investments for his financial security and The Munsters for his lingering fame. The show ran for two years and is still seen in reruns practically everywhere. "Now we're going through a rediscovery of Al Lewis," he says proudly. "I'll probably go on exhibit in the British Museum next to King Tut."
Capitalizing on being demothballed, Lewis now hosts a weekly scary movie series on Ted Turner's WTBS superstation and will soon be featured in several new films of his own, including Married to the Mob with Michelle Pfeiffer.
Mostly, though, pasta is his passion of the moment. Looking for a wider audience, he has been testing a line of Grampa's home-style pasta in local supermarkets and is scouting locations for new restaurants too. Money, he insists, is not what he's after. "I'll tell you the secret of life, kiddo," he says. "Find something that you absolutely love to do, and then get to love the way you do it. You'll be home free."
Okay, so he used to dress in bat-winged capes and hang by his heels in closets. Does that mean a guy can't change?