Sunday, February 5, 2006

Al Lewis and Betty Friedan R.I.P.

Al Lewis, best known as television's Granndpa Munster, died Friday night. Many biographies listed the year of his birth as 1910, but according to his son Ted Lewis it was actually 1923. That would have made Al Lewis 82 years old. Regardless, his career spanned nearly 50 years.

Lewis was born Albert Meister in upper New York state. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was still fairly young. In high school Lewis proved to have a gift for basketball. The game would interest him for the rest of his life, to the point that he would even serve as a scout for various high school teams. While young he performed in the cirucs before deciding to go to college. Al Lewis worked in the circus before deciding to go to college. He eventually earned a PhD in child psychology. For some time he was a teacher and even wrote two books for children. Eventually, however, he turned to acting, enrolling in Paul Mann's Actor's Workshop in New York City. He worked in burlesque theatres, eventually making his way to Broadway.

By 1959 Lewis made his first appearance on television, on an episode of the series Decoy. That same year he appeared on The U. S. Steel Hour. He would go onto guest star in such series as The Phil Silvers Show and Naked City, as well as films such as Pretty Boy Floyd and The World of Henry Orient. He got his big break as Officer Leo Schnauser on the classic sitcom Car 56, Where Are You. It was on this series that he first worked with Fred Gwynne, with whom he would again work on The Munsters.

While The Munsters only lasted two years, it left Lewis typecast and he worked sporadically in film and television. He would appear in such movies as Used Cars and Married to the Mob. On television he continued to make guest appearances, appearing on such shows as Here's Lucy and Taxi. Later in his life he would host his own WBAI radio show and was a frequent guest on Howard Stern's show. At one point he actually shocked the shock jock with a chant against the FCC that was obscene enough that Stern went for the delay button.

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of The Munsters. Created by the folks who brought us Leave It to Beaver (Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher), it impressed me as one of the poorer sitcoms to ever air on television. But I have to admit that The Munsters was a case of the cast being better than the material they were doing. Both Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis were brilliant, and what few laughs are to be had on any give Munsters almost always came from them. Indeed, it is a shame that both Gwynne and Lewis are not known for their work on Car 54, Where Are You, one of the most hilarious sitcoms to ever air. Given the proper material, Al Lewis could be one of the funniest men on television. Even though he was merely a supporting character on Car 54, Where Are You, (Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne were the leads), Lewis shined on that show. And he was brilliant in many of his other, often brief bits in movies and TV shows. Indeed, I remember him well as Judge H. H. Harrison from the movie Used Cars. At any rate, I am saddened by his passing. He was a very funny man who was used too little in film and on television.

This weekend has also seen the passing of pioneering feminist Betty Friedan. She died yesterday, which was also her 85th birthday, from congestive heart failure.

Friedan graduated from Smith College in 1942. She later attended the University of California, where she did graudate work in psychology. Working as a journalist for union publications, Friedan eventually did a survey among her fellow Smith College graduates on their current lives and expectations. The survey became an article, which focused on the unease which many educated women felt in our society at the time. The article was rejected by every women's magazine to which Friedan submitted it in 1958.

Friedan then expanded the article into the book The Feminine Mystique. Essentially the book attacked the then current belief that the most fulfilling role any woman could find in life was through marriage and childbearing. Essentially, at best a women could only live vicariously through her husband and children. Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique became a best seller. It also spurred the feminist movement. Indeed, Friedan would co-found the National Organisaton for Women (also known as NOW) in 1966.

In addition to The Feminine Mystique, Friedan also wrote The Second Stage (in which she argued that feminism must address family issues), The Fountain of Age (in which she attacked ageism), and Life So Far (a memoir).

I read The Feminine Mystique in high school and since that time I have admired Betty Friedan. Unlike many latter day feminists, she never sought to villify men. Instead, she largely saw the oppresion of women as a situation created by social and economic pressures rather than some conspiracy on the part of the male sex. Indeed, it must be pointed out that many of her fiercest opponents were women. And she always did point out that the "feminine mystique" was nearly as much of a disservice to men as it was women.

Friedan was a brilliant woman and one who fiercely defended those beliefs she held dear. She was also a feminist who realised that women need men and vice versa. As one of those people I have always admired, I must say that I am saddened by her passing.

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