John Astin has always acted a bit, well, bizarre. At least in public.
A list of his characters include a rash of mad scientists, macabre author Edgar Allan Poe and, of course, the dapper and gleefully horrific and terrific Gomez Addams in television’s original Addams Family show.
Astin played the paterfamilias of an eerie household — wife Morticia (Carolyn Jones ); son Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax ); daughter Wednesday (Lisa Loring ); Morticia’s bald brother, Fester (Jackie Coogan ); Gomez’s mother (Blossom Rock ); and their servant, the towering, rumbling Lurch (Ted Cassidy ).
They live in a dark, decaying mansion where morbidity is a lifestyle but never quite understand that most folks don’t share it.
The TV family was toned down a little from the spooky single-panel Charles Addams cartoons on which they were based — a little wackier and more lovable, but still, according to the show’s finger-snapping theme song, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky.”
“It was a ground-breaking show in many ways,” says Astin, plugging the long-awaited release of the show’s first season on DVD this week from MGM Home Entertainment.
“Psychiatrists wrote articles about what a healthy show it was for families. We were the first husband-wife team to have a real relationship. The romance was very unusual for TV at the time.
“ Psychiatrists said the exterior was strange and maybe even forbidding, but inside they’re good people who get along well, with one another and with outsiders, too — if they were not too afraid.
“ I loved doing the show; I had a great time with all the cast. We were lucky; it was sort of serendipitous for all of us to get together — Ted Cassidy was very talented; Blossom Rock; Carolyn Jones; and Jack Coogan, who probably knew more about Hollywood than anyone extant in those days. He was there almost at the beginning.” (Coogan got his big break at the age of 7 in the title role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent The Kid, and he’d already been acting for four years. )
Astin has unstinting praise for the late Cassidy, who in addition to portraying harpsichord-playing Lurch also played Thing, the hand that popped out of an ornate wooden box to answer the telephone. (Unlike the Thing in the movies, where special effects made it possible for it to travel, Cassidy’s Thing wasn’t so mobile. )
“Ted was wonderful at it, and had a great time,” Astin recalls. “He said to me one day, ‘You know, I think I like doing Thing more than I like doing Lurch. ’”
And in case you need it for your next trivia game, Astin poses a basic question: “‘ Was Thing right-handed or left-handed ?’
“ The answer is, ‘Thing was ambidextrous’ — whichever way Ted fit under the table determined the hand that came out. Ted, at 6-foot-9, had to pretzel under those tables. It was all Ted’s manipulation of that enormous body.”
Astin doesn’t provide any of the bonus audio commentary for any of the episodes, but he did on-camera interviews for the “Addams Family Portrait” featurette.
“I’ll be interested to see what they use,” he says.
The initially popular ABC show went off the air in 1966 after only two seasons, but Astin reprised the role several times, including in a made-for-TV movie sequel, in an animated series to which he lent his voice and even playing Grandpapa Addams in something called The New Addams Family.
“I’m an easy mark for that,” he admits. “[Gomez ] is really just an extension of my own basic personality, for better or worse.” Astin started out doing stage work in the 1950 s and made his movie debut as a frustrated social worker in West Side Story. He brought his one-man Poe show Once Upon a Midnight to Fayetteville’s Walton Arts Center in January 2001.
And at 76, he continues to work. He played another mad professor in something called Starship II: Rendezvous with Ramses (“ I don’t know what’s become of that, ” he says ) and had been listed as playing a role in a film called Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer until the filmmakers, who Astin says were “a little bit naive about contracts,” discovered they were going to have to pay him about three or four times what they thought they were going to have to pay him.
“Because I needed the time here” — Astin recently moved back with his wife, Valerie, to his and Poe’s native Baltimore — “I let them off the hook.”
Sean Astin, John Astin’s son by actress Patty Duke, has ascended to stardom, primarily for his portrayal of hobbit Sam Gamgee in the three Lord of the Rings movies; Sean’s daughter had a brief appearance in those movies as well. So we could be seeing the start of an acting dynasty along the lines of the Barrymores, the elder Astin concedes.
“All of Sean’s kids seem to be very theatrical,” he adds. “I guess all of my grandchildren, really — I have five altogether. They’ve always wanted to act. They’re very good at it. And I have a niece who’s really interested in theater.”