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Munster's bull

Newspapers across the country published a small correction a few days ago. Al Lewis, the actor who played Grandpa in The Munsters, died in New York on Feb. 3 at the age of 82. He was not, repeat, not 95.

A 13-year discrepancy in the age of a minor celebrity poses no threat to the well-being of our nation. Nor does it silence the laughter that Lewis continues to coax from us through sitcom perpetuity, or diminish the passion he demonstrated as an advocate for reform and the Green Party candidate for governor in 1998, when he was 88 - that is, 75.

Actors who lie about their age usually subtract, not add, years, and few would have the nerve to fudge those years by more than a decade. But at some point Lewis began to claim that he was born in 1910, when he was actually born in 1923.

Why? The prevailing theory holds that in 1964, when he was vying for the role as ancient Grandpa, Lewis worried that he might lose the job because he was actually younger than Yvonne De Carlo, the actress who would be playing his daughter, Lily. So he aged himself, a lot, in a ruse no doubt abetted by his rubbery face.

He was said to have been born Alexander or Albert Meister in 1910, in the upstate New York town of Wolcott; officials there say they have no record of any Meister. After moving to Brooklyn, he was said to have worked on the defense committee for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were executed in 1927; challenging work for a child of 4.

When Lewis talked about the 1930s, he described himself not as a boy growing into long pants, but as an adventurous man, always in the mix of history. He said that he worked as a radio actor, circus clown, trapeze artist, medicine show "professor" and union organizer in the South, where, he once said, "you faced death at any moment."

He said that he appeared in Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin', the Broadway hit of 1938. He said that he championed the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in a profoundly flawed case.

All this while he was working on a doctorate in child psychology, which he was said to have earned at Columbia University in 1941 - or 1949. The university, though, has no record of this.

Lewis also said that he was a merchant marine who had to abandon a torpedoed ship not once, but twice. "You don't know what it's like to be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," he told the Shadow, an alternative newspaper, in 1997. "There is no more lonely feeling. You see nothing, nothing, nothing."

Maybe this was true. Maybe Lewis did meet Charlie Chaplin at John Garfield's house, as he claimed. Maybe he did ride shotgun while escorting W.E.B. DuBois to the burial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Maybe he did retain Charles Manson as a babysitter.

Butch Patrick, who played Lewis' television grandson, Eddie Munster, and in recent years appeared with him at conventions and car shows, described his former co-star as an entertainer above all, eager to tell people what they wanted to hear.

"He was well-read, and the information he was throwing out there was accurate," he said. "He just placed himself there so the credibility level would be there. That's my spin on it."

There is no question that in his later years, which were not as late as they seemed, Lewis backed up his strong convictions with his presence and his money. He advocated prison reform, vigorously opposed drug laws as unnecessarily punitive, and argued against police brutality and for police salary increases.

His energy and passion seemed especially remarkable given his, uh, age, which few doubted. Lucas vividly recalled attending Lewis' 90th birthday party, when Lewis was 77.

Even Karen Lewis, his wife of more than two decades, believed that her husband was in his 90s. That is, until his health began to fail a couple of years ago, and she came across what she called "evidence" while collecting documents for his hospitalization.