In his 30s, John Astin was creepy, kooky, spooky and ooky as gallows-humored Gomez on TV's The Addams Family. At 76 he's no longer ooky, but a visiting professor in theater at his alma mater, Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.
But old habits and macabre mirth die hard, as any Addams will tell you — "die" being the operative word. And Astin is thrilled that his twisted sitcom has been reborn on DVD.
"I think our show was for the ages," he said. "It wasn't specific to a time or place, so generations have enjoyed it."
Perhaps befitting the show's warped bent, the first Addams DVD is incomplete. Most TV series get season-long sets, but The Addams Family debuts with Volume One, grouping the first 22 episodes of its first season. It will take three volumes to unleash all 64 episodes from the show's two seasons.
Astin figures it's worth the wait. "I have a few episodes on film," he said, "but they take up so much space. A DVD is much easier and looks much better."
The Addams Family is late in the game. Both seasons of its prime-time rival, The Munsters, already are on DVD, along with a documentary and two spinoff Munster movies with the same stars. Except for two '90s Addams movies with a new cast, The Addams Family is a DVD newbie.
ABC's The Addams Family and CBS's The Munsters both ran from 1964-66, when The Munsters had slightly higher ratings. Each sitcom's gimmick was featuring a family suited to a horror film, but Astin never saw them in competition.
"I think Charles Addams' (New Yorker Magazine) cartoons were the inspiration for both shows, though he was only connected to our show," Astin said. "But I loved both series."
Astin's Gomez was a dapper lawyer wearing dark pinstriped suits and a gleefully malicious grin. He loved to smoke cigars, read newspapers while standing on his head and passionately dote on his wife, the pale, rose-snipping Morticia (Carolyn Jones).
"We were the first TV couple to have an implied sex life," Astin said. "I didn't utter the word sex on TV, but I did say we were the only 'well-adjusted' married couple on television."
He also tried making Gomez "someone seeking the joy of life, only with a slightly different view. I felt Charles was using implied violence as a means of attacking the cliché and waking people up to the joy of life."
After the series, Astin brought that enthusiasm to many TV guest spots and films such as 1976's Freaky Friday and 1996's The Frighteners, directed by Peter Jackson.
The same director worked with his adopted son, Sean Astin, in the Oscar winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. Another of Astin's sons, Allen Astin, lives in Houston with his wife, the former Natalie Savage.
Astin and his wife, Valerie, live in Los Angeles when Astin isn't teaching at Johns Hopkins.
The actor has fond memories of this area, having performed Waiting for Godot at the Alley Theater in 1959 and his one-man show on Edgar Allan Poe in Galveston in 1998.
Astin says Sean still dreams of making a movie on the Galveston hurricane of 1900.
"Projects like that are tough to get off the ground, because they're hugely expensive," Astin said. "But Sean still wants to do it."
His fictional children on The Addams Family were Wednesday (Lisa Loring) and Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax). As the main cast's only three survivors, they all appear in interviews on the new DVD, and Astin hopes to do commentaries on later DVDs. "Stuff I haven't thought about in years is stimulated by seeing an episode," he said.
That includes how he handled Gomez's standing on his head.
At first, Astin was held up by a harness and wires. "But then our stuntman showed me how to do it, and within a day, I was standing on my head by myself," he said.
He also smoked real cigars on the set — usually long, slender ones "which looked like what I thought Gomez would smoke. There was an elegance to them."
To maintain continuity, Astin had to keep lighting fresh cigars, since they'd burn down between takes. "I lit 50 in one day. That was the record."
The Addams Family was a bit more ghoulish than the cartoonish Munsters, in which Fred Gwynne's Frankensteinian Herman was a cheerful lunk who worked at a mortuary. But the shows were close enough to be seen as competitors.
"I think the press wanted to find a rivalry there," Astin said. "But we never felt that. I was always rooting for their success."
He was similarly diplomatic about the Addams Family movies of the early '90s, starring Raul Julia as Gomez and Angelica Huston as Morticia.
"I thought it the better part of discretion not to see them," Astin said. "I didn't want to get into that trap of evaluating them. Suppose I was critical? I wouldn't want to lie. And I have a great deal of respect for the actors."
Even with the films' success, many haven't forgotten the TV original. In response to fans, Astin hopes to set up his own Web site to let them contact him and order photos.
"I've got an interesting gallery of pictures, and there's sort of a John Astin-Gomez Addams group still out there," he said. "After 40 years, who'd have thought that?"