- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

A mustache makes the man.

For Gomez Addams, actor John Astin sported a wiggly, licorice-whip growth that suggested the debonair, roguish side of the slightly daft patriarch from the ‘60s sitcom “The Addams Family.” For the role of Edgar Allan Poe in his one-man show, “Once Upon a Midnight,” he chose a dark, twitchy thatch befitting a tortured 19th-century American poet.

Mr. Astin believes the two men have much more in common than subnasal hair.

“I’ve felt there was some relationship between Gomez and Poe, and recently started to think about it again now that ‘The Addams Family’ is back in the news,” he says, alluding to the release of the complete creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky first season of the series on DVD Tuesday.

“Gomez has an intense desire to explore — he saw the magic and mystery in life, and he wanted to learn everything,” Mr. Astin explains. “Poe had the same nature, but he explored the dark side, while Gomez went toward the bright side. But it is both the light and the dark that give our lives dimension and texture.”

During an interview from his home in Baltimore, where Mr. Astin teaches acting and directing at Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, he went on to say, “There’s a lot of me in both characters, but maybe there is a little more Poe inside of me.”

For starters, both Mr. Astin and Poe spent much of their formative years in Baltimore. Mr. Astin was born in Charm City in 1930 but grew up in the District, where his father worked at the National Bureau of Standards and Mr. Astin attended Wilson High. In 1952, he graduated with a degree in drama from Hopkins, where his fellow students included the writers Russell Baker and John Barth.

“I am grateful to Hopkins because they made me a nerd. John [Barth] and I were students at the same time and I remember him well,” says Mr. Astin of the Eastern Shore-based novelist. “A great guy.”

During graduate work in drama and English at the University of Minnesota, Mr. Astin discovered another affinity with Poe — both gambled. Mr. Astin managed to keep his head above water; Poe was unluckier at cards, amassing a debt of over $2,000 while at the University of Virginia. His stepfather, John Allan, was furious and refused to allow him to return to school. Legend has it that Poe etched the following stanzas into the windowpane of his room on his last night: “O Thou timid one, do not let thy Form slumber within these Unhallowed walls, For herein lies The ghost of an awful crime.”

Ignominiously relegated to the position of clerk in his stepfather’s counting house, Poe later escaped nearly penniless to Boston in 1827. There, his first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” was published the same year.

Similarly, after leaving Minnesota with $100 in his pocket, Mr. Astin headed to New York to seek his fortune as an actor. He did janitorial work but appeared in the original New York companies of “The Three Penny Opera,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses in Nighttown” and Charles Laughton’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” He contributed notable performances in such films as “West Side Story,” “That Touch of Mink,” “Candy” and “Viva Max,” landing the role of Gomez Addams in 1964.

“Now that ‘The Addams Family’ is on DVD, I hope those who aren’t familiar with the show become watchers, but truth be told, the shows have been viewed by many generations and were never off the air for more than 35 years.”

Mr. Astin does not appear on the set’s audio commentary, explaining, “I wish I’d been able to comment on the shows, but my teaching schedules were tough to work around, so I was left off. The shows speak for themselves, although I may do my own personal book on the series some day.”

Mr. Astin is also known for his marriage to Patty Duke and his famous sons, actors Sean and Mackenzie Astin, as well as his recurring gig as Buddy Ryan in the 1980s sitcom “Night Court.” Younger viewers may remember Mr. Astin for his role in National Lampoon’s “European Vacation,” as the voice of Dr. Gangreen in the “Killer Tomato” movies and as the cartoon voice of Gomez for two animated reincarnations of “The Addams Family” during the 1990s.

Until recently, Mr. Astin had been touring with the Poe play, but had to give it up due to the teaching load at Hopkins. “I miss doing the show; I miss Eddie,” he says of the poet and short-story writer, who came to an unseemly and mysterious death on Election Night in Baltimore in 1849. “I feel that Poe, through his own tortured existence, gained deep insight into the nature of the universe, along with an intense love and appreciation for life itself.”

Mr. Astin first became enamored of Poe at age 10, when his mother encouraged him to read “The Purloined Letter.” “She helped occasionally with words I didn’t know, but left me alone for the most part,” he says. “I’ll never forget my reaction to the story. I remember the chair in which I was sitting, the look of the room — everything — for the story’s conclusion struck me so, and the moment is burned in my memory.”

He hopes to exhume the Poe show, but for now Mr. Astin is consumed with building up the theater program at Hopkins, a place better known for theorists than thespians. “I’m optimistic about the theater department, and I hope to bring in a lot more professionals from New York and the D.C. area,” he said, shuddering at the erroneous notion that he is teaching Method acting at the university.

“I’m not interested in a cultish approach to acting. We’re teaching internal acting, but we’re also interested in the outside — the Stanislavsky techniques of good speech, good carriage and an overall physical advantage,” he says.

Apparently, the teacher himself is still learning, as well.

“I’d always felt that acting could not be taught — you could advance talent, but you either have it or you don’t,” Mr. Astin says. “But my students at Hopkins have taught me that it can be done.”

• • •

Ever wondered how actors from classic television series are compensated when those series are released on DVD? John Astin explains:

“There is, as of this date, an established amount (not much) that goes to the actor. It’s little more than a token, and there will probably be negotiations in the future to try to raise it.

“The actors have traditionally been underpaid, especially compared to the writers and directors, principally because they got a bad start in the late fifties and early sixties. The union leaders at that time negotiated poor contracts, and although a strike around 1980 helped change a few things, there is still a lot of catching up to do, compared to writers and directors.

“In my case, as in some others, I am needed in order to help sell it and am able to negotiate a satisfactory arrangement to do PR. So in my case, and in some other cases, there actually is some remuneration closer to a fair figure.”

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