Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Life and Times of John Astin

"My work is to reach people with ideas, hopes, dreams, encouragement, insight, and revelation.  That's what an actor wants to do."

- John Astin
Wolverton Mountain Interview with E. Allen Campbell

"What The Addams Family says is that it doesn't matter what you're like outside, it's inside that counts.  That's why people who are disowned by society like the show so much.  Real values are there underneath.  During the run of the show, psychiatrists wrote articles about how it was the healthiest show on the air.  It was an affirmation of life."

- John Astin
American Television Foundation, Archive of American Television interview, with Jenni Matz, December 20, 2015

John Astin is known as a comedic actor with dark hair and a trade mark mustache.  Although he has appeared in many films and television series, he'll always be be remembered for his role as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family.  John celebrated his 90th birthday in March of this year and he remains active.

John Allen Astin was born in Baltimore, Maryland on March 30, 1930.  His parents were Margaret Linnie (née Mackenzie) and Dr. Allen Varley Astin.  Dr. Astin, was a physicist.and the director of the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology).  John had a younger brother, Alexander W. Astin, born on May 30, 1932.  The Astin family lived in Bethesda, Maryland.

John studied mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania and he initially gave no thought to a professional career as an actor.  However after seeing a performance of Thornton W.ilder's Our Town, the theatre began to capture his imagination, and he gained a new respect for the medium.  At that time, there was no theatre program at Washington & Jefferson, so,  he transferred to Johns Hopkiins University in Baltimore, where he graduated with a B.A. in drama in 1952

John launched his acting career on the stage and made his first Broadway appearance as an understudy in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara..  He also did voice-overwork in commercials and he had a small uncredited role as a chaperone at a dance in the 1961 film West Side Story in which he played Gladhand, a well-meaning, but inept social worker.  The hit musical garnered 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

At this time, John Astin caught the eye of actor Tony Randall, who noticed his talent for comedy.  As a result, he was cast in guest-starring roles in such television sitcoms as  Hazel (1962), starring Shirley Booth, Dennis the Menace, starring Jay North (1962), The Donna Reed Show (1961) and Harrigan and Son, starring Pat O'Brien (1961).  He also appeared in a 1962 episode of Ben Casey, a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, "One Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (Season 2, Episode 23, Air Date: April 7, 1961) and a 1960 episode of the Western series Maverick.

From 1964 to 1966, John Addams starred in The Addams Family, a television comedy about a macabre family.   The show  was based on Charles Addams' cartoons in  in The New Yorker magazine.  John portrayed Gomez Addams, the patriarch of the weird clan.  Gomez was a crazy millionaire who enjoyed losing money in the stock market.  Carolyn Jones played his raven-haired wife, Morticia, who nurtured a man-eating plant named Cleopatra.  Their daughter, Wednesday, played with a headless doll called Marie Antoinette and their son Pugsley Addams blew up dynamite caps.

In his 2018 interview with American Television Archives, John said he thought the romance between Gomez and Morticia should be "on a grand scale."  He wanted them to "have a relationship of great passion."

John with Carolyn Jones as Gomez and m Morticia

Of his role as Gomez Addams and his association with The Addams Family, John made the following remarks in his Wolverton Mountain Review interview: "The feedback I get from my association with Gomez is heartwarming.  It is very difficult for me to take anything but a positive view of the Gomez phenomenon.  Probably, it has kept me out of roles that I might otherwise have played because of the extreme identification with that character.  But, there is no way I can diminish my indebtedness to that program."  He added that he wouldn't trade his association with The Addams Family for any role he might have missed.

The Addams Family was initially a hit, but its popularity waned after two years.  After the show was cancelled, John continued to appear in guest roles in episodes of many popular television series.  In 1967, he played The Riddler in two episodes during the second season of Batman, replacing Frank Gorshin, who was unavailable at the time due to a contract dispute.  Gorshin was upset about being replaced as the villainous Riddler, but agreed to return to the role the following season.

Carolyn Jones also portrayed a villain on the 1960s Batman series.  She played Marsha, Queen of Diamonds in five episodes.

John Astin as The Riddler on Batman

In the 1970s, John made guest appearances on The Partridge Family (1973),  McMillan & Wife (1972,1973), Police Woman (1975), Marcus Welby, M.D. (1975), and Welcome Back, Kotter  (1976).  He reprised his role as Gomez Addams in 1977 TV movie entitled Halloween with the New Addams Family.

From 1977 to 1978, John played the role of Lieutenant Commander Matthew Sherman in 23 episodes of the high seas comedy, Operation Petticoat, about a U.S. submarine that has to take on a group of female nurses.

Below is a 1977 publicity photo of John Astin for Operation Petticoat.

In the 1980s, John Astin guest-starred on The Facts of Life (1984), Diff'rent Strokes (1984) and St. Elsewhere (1987).  In 1984, John guest-starred as Ross Hayley in an episode of Murder, She Wrote (Season 1, Episode 3, Air Date: October 28, 1984). In 1995, he appeared in four more episodes of the seriesportraying scheming real estate developer Harry Pierce in three of those episodes.  From 1986 to 1990, he had a recurring role on Night Court. as Buddy Ryan, Judge Harry Stone's biological father, a former mental patient.

In the 1990s, John appeared in episodes of  Burke's Law,(1994), Mad About You (1994), Step by Step (1994, 1995) , The Nanny (1996) and The Hughleys (1999).  In 2000, he appeared in an episode of Becker and in 2005, he played Norman Warner in the television movie School of Life, a comedy-drama about a new teacher who competes for a teacher of the year award.  In 2018, he provided the voice of Uncle Dudley in an episode of the Justice League Action animated series.

John Astin has been married three times and has five sons. 

He married his first wife, actress Suzanne Hahn on March 26, 1956. They had three children: David Astin,, Allen J. Astin (born March 23, 1961) and Thomas E. Astin (born March 19, 1965).  The couple divorced on June 14, 1972.
John with Suzanne Hahn in 1969
John's second wife was the late actress Patty Duke (1946-2016), who had had a troubled life and was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The couple wed on August 5, 1972.  They had a son, Mackenzie Alexander Astin (born May 12, 1973).  John adopted Patty's son, Sean (born February 25, 1971) and raised him as his own.

Sean's  paternity was questioned (Although Patty claimed that John, who was married to Suzanne Hahn at the time, was her son's biological father,).  There had been media speculation that Desi Arnaz Jr. might be Sean's father, as the result of Patty's scandalous relationship with the then-17 year old Araaz.).  Of his son Sean's birth, John told People magazine in 2001 that there was "a a bit of stuff in the press early on. (Sean) basically grew up without any real  knowledge of all that stuff."

When Sean was 14, Patty told him that Desi Arnaz Jr. was his biological father,  Sean then developed a relationship with Arnaz .  When Sean was almost 26, a relative of Michael Tell, Patty's former husband, suggested that they were related.   Patty had impulsively married Tell, a virtual stranger, who had been subletting her apartment.  The two were only together for 13 days and their marriage was annulled a year later.

Determined to uncover the truth, Sean underwent DNA testing.  In 2001, he revealed to People that Michael Tell was his biological father.  Despite maintaining relationships with all three men, Sean regards John as his father.  John stated that his "spiritual connection" with his son is more important than DNA.

After 13 turbulent years of marriage, John Astin and Patty Duke divorced in 1985

John Astin and Patty Duke

On March 19, 1989, John wed Valerie Ann Sandobal.  They reside in Baltimore. 


* From  1992 to 1993, John Astin provided the voice of Gomez Addams in the animated version of The Addams Family.  He also portrayed Grandpapa Addams in two episodes of a revival of the series called The New Addams Family. The episodes are "Grandpapa Addams Comes to Visit, (Season 1, Episode 6, Air Date: October 26, 1998) and "Fester and Granny vs. Grandpapa Addams" (Season 1, Episode 40, Air Date: March 10, 1999).

* John's Addams Family co-star, Carolyn Jones, died of colon cancer on August 3, 1983.  She was 53 years old at the time of her passing.  Of John's seven castmates on the series, the only other survivors are Lisa Loring  (born February 16, 1958), who played daughter Wednesday Addams, and Felix Silla (born January 11, 1937), the Italian-born American stuntman, who played the costumed Cousin Itt, a diminutive being, composed entirely of floor-length hair, a bowler hat and sunglasses.

Blossom Rock, who played Grandmama, died in 1978, at the age of 82.  Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch, the giant-sized, deep-voiced butler, died after complications from open heart surgery in 1979.  He was only 46.  Former child actor, Jackie Coogan, who played Uncle Fester, died of a heart attack in 1984, at age 69.  Ken Weatherwax, who played son Pugsley Addams, died of a heart attack at his home on December 7, 2014.  He was 59.

* John's brother, Alexander Astin, is an educator, researcher and author.  He is the  Alan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Organizational Change at the University of California, Los Angeles.  He is a founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

* John received an Academy Award nomination for Prelude, a 1968 short film he wrote, produced and directed. It's about a TV repairman (Astin) who meets his dream girl, but fails to win her over.  He eventually appreciates the reality of his situation.  

* John is a longtime devotee of writer-poet Edgar Allan Poe.  He has portrayed Poe in a one-man play entitled Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight.

* John  practises Nichiren Buddhism.  He is a member of the Soka Gakkai International, a worldwide Buddhist association.  

* John's sons, Sean and Mackenzie, are both actors.  Sean Astin is known for his roles in The Goonies, Rudy and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, whole Mackenzie Astin appeared on the TV sitcom The Facts of Life and in the films Love and War and Iron Will.

Mackenzie Astin
During filming of The Evening Star, a 1996 comedy-drama, Mackenzie Astin was injured in a car accident.  He lost the edge of his right ear. and he was fitted with  a prosthetic attachment in order to match the scenes already filmed.  It was attached to his right ear for the duration of the production.

*  In 2001, John Astin began teaching drama at Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater.

John Astin then and now

SOURCES: American Television Foundation, Archive of American Television interview, with Jenni Matz, December 20, 2015; Wolverton Mountain, interview with E. Allen Campbell; Entertainment Weekly "Original Cast of  the 'Addams Family',"by Benjamin Svetkey, November 15, 1991;  People, " How Patty Duke's Son Seam Astin Learned Who His Biological Father Is.,by Jodi Guglielmi, March 30, 2016, Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (IMDb)    

- Joanne

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