Family & Companions
Bristling with manic energy from every pore, actor and director John Astin specialized in oddball characters whose sense of joie de vivre rarely got in the way of reality, most notably Gomez Addams, his iconic role on "The Addams Family" (ABC, 1964-66). He had been a stage performer and minor character actor prior to being cast as Gomez, and his pop-eyed, relentlessly cheery turn as the bizarre paterfamilias instantly launched him to stardom. From there, he worked regularly as a guest star on television while honing an infrequent second career as a director, which included an Oscar nomination for his short, "Prelude" (1968). He remained a favorite thanks to his "Addams" past, which gave him a decidedly kooky small-screen immortality.
Born John Allen Astin in Baltimore, MD on March 30, 1930, he was the son of Dr. Allen Varley Astin, the director of the National Board of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and Margaret Linnie Mackenzie. He developed a passion for reading and mathematics at an early age, and studied the latter at Johns Hopkins University before a role in the senior play switched his focus to acting. From there, Astin went on to do graduate work in drama at the University of Minnesota before heading to New York, where he supported himself as a janitor while appearing in off-Broadway productions, including the original New York runs of "The Threepenny Opera" and "Major Barbara," directed by Charles Laughton. Blessed with an elastic voice that never failed to sound bemused, he found steady work as a voiceover actor for commercials. Television was his first exposure to screen acting via live productions like "Studio One in Hollywood" (CBS, 1948-1958). Astin worked his way up from uncredited bit player to supporting roles on "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) and "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964). Features were fewer and more far between, though he gave a memorable turn in "West Side Story" (1961) as the hapless host who tried to get the Jets and the Sharks to behave at a dance.
Astin's big break came in 1962 with "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster" (ABC, 1962-63), a sitcom which featured him alongside Marty Ingles as accident-prone carpenters. Though short-lived, the series minted Astin as an actor with a gleefully anarchic approach to comedy, and led to his casting as Gomez Addams in "The Addams Family." The offbeat sitcom, based on Charles Addams' macabre cartoons in The New Yorker, focused on a family of eccentrics whose freethinking ways clashed with the straight-laced world around them. Astin's Gomez - who chose the character's surname, based on a suggestion by Addams - was the family's patriarch, a gleeful man-child whose passion for toys was only surpassed by his desire for his icy wife, Morticia (Carolyn Jones). As several critics noted, Gomez and Morticia were the only TV husband and wife in the early '60s who appeared to have a sex life; a word in French from her sent Gomez into mad rhapsodies and much kissing of her arm. Astin's energetic portrayal won him numerous fans during the show's three-year run, and he was largely identified with the role throughout his career. Astin would reprise Gomez on numerous occasions in the decades following the show's cancellation. In 1977, he reunited with most of the original cast for a TV-movie, "Halloween with the New Addams Family" (NBC, 1977), and voiced Gomez for an animated "Addams Family" (ABC, 1992-93), which earned him a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1992. In 1998, he played Grandpapa Addams in a pair of episodes for the syndicated "New Addams Family" (Fox Family, 1998-99).
Following the demise of "The Addams Family," Astin was much in demand as a guest star on episodic television, frequently in roles similar in temperament to Gomez; most notably a brief stint as The Riddler on "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) when Frank Gorshin departed the role in the show's second season, and as arch-villain "Evil Roy Slade" (NBC, 1972) in the cult favorite Western comedy. While paying his dues on screen and in numerous stage performances around the country, Astin made his directorial debut with "Prelude" (1968), a comic short about a harried repairman who found solace in the produce section of his local supermarket. The film earned Astin an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short, and lend to a string of directing assignments over the next few decades, including multiple episodes of "Night Gallery" (NBC, 1970-72) and "Just Our Luck" (ABC, 1983). His sole feature effort was the comedy "Wacky Taxi" (1972), in which also starred as a down-on-his-luck family man who launched his own taxi service.
In 1977, Astin returned to series work on "Operation Petticoat" (ABC, 1977-79). The WWII-era comedy, based on the 1959 feature film of the same name with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, starred Astin as the commander of a submarine that counted nurses among its crew members. From 1985 to 1986, he played a snobbish theater critic opposite Mary Tyler Moore on "Mary" (CBS, 1985-86) and enjoyed a recurring role on "Night Court" (NBC, 1984-87) as a former mental patient who turned out to be series lead Harry Anderson's biological father. Children and fans of outré films saw him throughout the late '80s and early '90s as Dr. Gangrene, a mad scientist who controlled an army of monster tomatoes in "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" (1988), a sequel to the cult comedy "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" (1978). He reprised the role in two equally lowbrow sequels and an animated series, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" (Fox, 1990-91).
By the 1990s, Astin had achieved cult favorite status thanks to his work on "Addams Family" and decades of episode television, and a new generation of producers expressed their appreciation by casting him in their features and series. He appeared as Professor Albert Wickwire, an inventor whose improbable creations were lent to Bruce Campbell's cowboy hero on "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." (Fox, 1993-94), and as the ghost of a deceased gunslinger in Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners" (1996). Jackson would later employ Astin's adopted son, actor Sean Astin, in his "Lord of the Rings" (2001-03) trilogy largely on the basis of his father's positive experiences with the director. Astin also toured the country in a popular one-man show, "Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight," and lent his distinctive voice to countless animated projects. As he entered his eighth decade, Astin balanced his steady acting work with a daily teaching job as a visiting professor of method acting and directing at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.
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Made stage debut in a revival of "The Threepenny Opera" at the Theatre de Lys in New York City
Made Broadway stage debut in a revival of "Major Barbara" at the Martin Beck Theatre
Feature film debut, "West Side Story"
First TV series: Played role of Harry Dickens on the ABC sitcom, "I'm Dickens...He's Fenster"
Produced and directed a short film, "Prelude", which received an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Subject
First TV-movie, "Two on a Bench"
Last feature film for over a decade, "Freaky Friday"
Reprised role of Gomez Addams for the TV-movie, "The Addams Family"
Returned to feature film work with roles in "Teen Wolf Too" and "Body Slam"
First created the role of Professor Gangrene for the spoof feature, "Return of the Killer Tomatoes"
Played role of Radford on the short-lived NBC fantasy series, "Eerie, Indiana"
Toured in one-man show "Edgar Allen Poe: Once Upon a Midnight"