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 Mr. Lewis began to claim that he was born in 1910, when he was actually born in 1923. In other words, he was 13 years old by the time he was born.
Why? The prevailing theory holds that in 1964, when he was vying for the role as ancient Grandpa, Mr. 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.
This little lie may not have mattered much at the time. But as the years passed, and as Lewis emerged in New York as a cranky radio talk-show host and freewheeling candidate, he apparently chose to flesh out those 13 phantom years of his.
He was said to have been born Alexander or Albert Meister in 1910, in the upstate 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 1930’s, 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.
I’d prefer to not cast aspersions on Lewis’ integrity. You might call it lying. I’d say this was just another neat of example of identity re-creation, in the rich tradition of George Lynch and J.T. Leroy.