John Astin, haunted by his famously macabre characterizations Gomez Addams and Edgar Allan Poe. The actor visits the area this week for a pair of special appearances. (Recent photo by David Colwell)
By TOM CHESEK
Who wouldn’t want to be Gomez Addams? Always looking your best, never bored, never having to work. Living a life centered around romance and hobbies in a houseful of strange creatures, explosives and drawers full of cash.
As personified by John Astin in the classic 1960s sitcom The Addams Family, Gomez was a virile lover of both life and death unflappable, full of savoir faire (Tish! You spoke French!), and a far different character than the sketchy, nameless little figure who appeared in the panel cartoons by Charles Addams. His performance was in fact the template for all Addams projects to follow and it takes its rightful place in the canon of crazies from the never-duplicated universe of 1960s TV. It’s ight up there with Barney Fife, Granny Clampett, Batman, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
With the old black-and-white episodes forever in reruns, Astin has lived the blessed/cursed existence of the actor who’s eternally pegged to a single gig, prosecuting a career that’s swung wildly from serious theater to such camp/cult touchstones as the Killer Tomatoes movies and his recurring role as Harry Anderson’s dotty dad on Night Court. There was also a 12-year marriage to fellow ’60s sitcom icon Patty Duke (Sean Astin of Lord of the Rings is his adopted son) and, beginning in the ’90s, a new career as a respected member of academia.
As director for the program in theatre arts and studies at Johns Hopkins University, Astin is largely responsible for a resurgence in the school’s performing arts. He’s further distinguished himself as a lecturer on literature, with a particular specialty in the life and works of one Edgar Allan Poe. He’s written a highly regarded essay on Poe’s little-known (but positively mindblowing) piece Eureka, and he’s toured the continent as the master of the macabre himself, with the one-man show Once Upon a Midnight a presentation he’s brought to Monmouth University and to Holmdel in recent years.
Astin returns to the Holmdel Theatre Company‘s charming, comfortable and criminally underutilized Duncan Smith Playhouse just minutes from Red Bank on Crawfords Corner Road, adjacent to Holmdel High School for two very special personal appearances this weekend. Entitled An Evening with John Astin, it’s a program of “readings, storytelling, anecdotes and reflections on acting” that’s been custom-designed specifically for this occasion: as a benefit for the Holmdel troupe and its education and community programs.
The oRBit desk at redbankgreen caught up with the dynamic 78-year-old a few nights back for a lengthy discussion that touched upon topics ranging from presidential politics and the Stanislavsky Method to the art of slapstick and the proper way to jump off a horse.
Professor Astin with students at Johns Hopkins.
I caught your Poe show twice over at the Pollak Theatre, but this is something a little different, I’m guessing. Is it a scripted sort of presentation, or will you be playing it loose, and let it take you where it may?
It’s going to be loose to some extent, but there is going to be some prepared material, most likely readings from Poe and a few other writers. I’ll be taking questions from the audience, and of course I expect to be talking about The Addams Family.
Let’s talk about the Addams Family! Gomez is a very inspirational figure to me, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re as much the creator of the character as Charles Addams was.
Well, you’d have to consider (producer) David Levy to be the official creator. He’s the one who actually named the Addams Family, because, you know, they were never named in the old cartoons. I was a great fan of those cartoons. Back in college my roommate and I framed a number of them up on the wall of the dorm. Later on I would embark upon a serious study of Addams and his work, and when he passed away I eulogized him at the memorial service in the New York Public Library.
As for Gomez, I have to say that not a day has gone by, in all the years since the series originally went off the air, that I haven’t been greeted by somebody somewhere with a reference to the show. But at the beginning of the series, I was asking myself, who are these characters? What’s their purpose in life? We were basically told at the outset that we were doing a different take on Father Knows Best!
Well, the dad on that old show never seemed to work; he always hung around the house in a suit and tie…
Our show was, to some extent, an attack on that sort of cliche. Gomez and Morticia their house is their world!
I can’t deny being heavily influenced by the Marx Brothers. In fact, I remember one Halloween when my brother and I dressed up as Groucho and Harpo. The show took on its character because of Nat, even though he came on after we had done the pilot. Most of the scripts were written by freelancers; Nat rewrote all of them and never took any credit.
I had the opportunity to get to know Groucho Marx years after the show had finished, but the first time I encountered him was at Hillcrest Country Club, while the show was on the air. I was with the director Sid Lanfield; Groucho came up to me and just stood there, looking at me, for a number of minutes, didn’t say anything, then just turned and walked away. I didn’t know what to think. When I told Nat he said, “That’s Groucho!”
You starred in some other shows back in the ’60s, too, lots of guest shots. You were The Riddler in a couple of Batman episodes. And I remember, just barely, a series called I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and another one with Phyllis Diller called The Pruitts of Southampton, kind of a reverse Beverly Hillbillies.
The Pruitts was a clever show that had a problem with its time slot. Phyllis was great to work with; just a warm, wonderful person. And I actually did a full season, 36 episodes of Dickens, with Marty Ingels. I was basically the straight man, but when we were doing the first episode they realized that I could do falls, so after that we worked in a lot of slapstick. But it was, once again, a case of wrong network, wrong time slot.
I have to throw one more thing at you from the old resumé, a very funny movie, made for TV I think, called Evil Roy Slade, where you played a comic Western villain with the late great Dick Shawn as the good guy in white.
That movie was originally going to be a pilot. It was written by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, and they’ve always said it was their favorite thing that they’d done together. It didn’t get the audience they expected when they first aired it, but it became sort of a cult piece, much imitated they made a big mistake in not releasing it theatrically. I even tried to buy it from Universal at one point, to get it back into circulation. If you can believe it, there have been times when I was walking down the street and a cab driver would give me a ‘Hey! Evil Roy Slade!’
As an Easterner, you wound up doing your share of Westerns in those days, I guess…
My first screen role was an extended bit-part in a movie called The Pusher, filmed in New York. I got eighty dollars a day for two days that was manna! But back then, the agents would say, ‘if they ask you if you can ride, tell ’em you can ride!’ You learned to ride a horse if you wanted to work.
You mentioned an early TV appearance (on a Western-themed Twilight Zone episode with Cliff Robertson) that we filmed out in the desert. I had no experience with that sort of thing; I didn’t know that the sky would be so bright they would have to pummel you with extra light. You’d have the heat and the sun, and then the light from all these reflectors out there in the desert.
Your 1962 movie That Touch of Mink is a film with a local connection to Red Bank. Late in the picture, Doris Day is mad at Cary Grant and goes off with you on a spite-date down to Asbury Park; you borrow a butcher van from your brother-in-law or something and Grant chases after you. There’s a scene where everyone crosses over the bridge into Red Bank and stops at a gas station, which is still there. You probably don’t recall ever passing through this neck of the woods…
You know, I have to go back and look at it again, but I think what you’re seeing there is the second unit that we had working on the picture. Since they mentioned Asbury Park, they had a second unit make the trip down from New York and shoot some of the locations along the way. But I don’t think any of the actors actually went there. I did the scene in the San Fernando Valley!
We’ve talked a great deal about your acting career, but I’m wondering how you made the transition to the world of academia. I’m aware that you attended Johns Hopkins yourself, but what got you started on a full-time career as an academic?
Well, my father, who was a prominent physicist and the director of the National Bureau of Standards, had been a fellow at Hopkins. My brother is also very prominent in his field. But I probably would have run away from being an academic not too many years ago.
I had friends in the writing seminars; they asked me to come in for a semester and work with some of the students. We had a great many students audition for drama class, and even though I thought only three or four of them were outstanding, I said, “what the hell; I’ll teach them all,” and wound up teaching fifty-four students that semester.
They asked me to come back the following year, then they asked if I could teach an entire school year. The next thing I knew, I was trying to convince Hopkins that they needed a theater program. They offer a theater minor now; I’m trying to push for a major.
It’s something that you’re obviously very passionate about; something that’s been a whole other act in your professional life.
Theater is the intersection point of so much of the humanities, it combines many disciplines. Acting broadens the output; gives you a wider perspective on life. Now, Hopkins is a great university so many leaders have come out of here but everyone should avail his or her self of a liberal arts education. Without it, you won’t understand enough of the world around us to be a good leader.
I understand also that you’re known as a proponent of The Method in acting.
I really need to set up a website to try and counter that it’s a statement that’s just kind of gotten around the Internet. I studied with Harold Clurman for five years; most of the best teachers came from the so-called Method, Lee Strasberg and his approach to Stanislavsky. But I actually try to encourage students to find their own approach. And anyway, if I told them I was “Method” way back when, they wouldn’t have hired me to be funny!
An Evening with John Astin will be presented at 8p Friday and Saturday. Tickets are priced at $35 each, and can be reserved by calling the box office at 732.946.0427.