Relationship to Rochester
There are some who believe Lewis was born Albert Meister in Wolcott, NY, between Syracuse and Rochester. However, there are no records of his birth at Wolcott. Most believe he was born April 30, 1923 in Brooklyn, but he insisted he was born in 1910. No one knows why he publicly lied about his age, adding 13 years. See Wikipedia article for discussion and sources.
When he was young, he and his immigrant mother moved to a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn. His mother worked in a garment factory and sometimes had to sell apples in the street to make ends meet.
Lewis worked in circuses during the summer in the 1920s, eventually becoming a performer. During the rest of the year, he was a good student, graduating high school and entering college. He earned a B.A. in Education at State Teacher's College in the early 1930s and eventually received a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University in 1941.
The 1930's brought hard times to millions of Americans. Lewis became a radio performer in Chicago, as well as being a salesman, plumber and doing medicine shows. He also became an activist, joining demonstrations at Home Relief offices and opposing evictions.
During the war years, he served in the Merchant Marine. He was an organizer for the National Maritime Union. Twice his ship was sunk in enemy waters and he was rescued.
He played many roles in live television in the late 1940's and the 1950's. In the early 1960's, he was cast as Officer Schnauzer Car 54: Where Are You? and Grandpa Munster in The Munsters. To this day, he is known to millions as Grandpa.
A lifelong student of history, Lewis was well prepared for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Living in California, he befriended the Black Panthers and taught black history. He helped them raise money for their legal defense as the FBI's covert Cointelpro program landed many of the Panthers in jail. He also opposed the Vietnam War and joined many anti-war demonstrations.
Lewis continued taking up causes of the poor and the discriminated against from the 1970's through the 1990's.