John Astin: Before, During and After “The Addams Family”

Sometimes you have to start in the middle. It may appall some people to know that I first knew John Astin (b. 1930) from his THIRD starring sitcom, Operation Petticoat (1977-79). At the time I knew little of Astin’s earlier triumphs, or at any rate I didn’t connect them with the guy on this show. This was also the era when his wife was a woman then known as Patty Duke Astin, whom I had small awareness had ever been a star named Patty Duke.

Astin’s career almost seems charmed. After graduating from Johns Hopkins with a drama degree in 1952, he got his first Broadway job only two years later, in the legendary production of Threepenny Opera I wrote about here (you can hear him on the cast album.) Next came a revival of Major Barbara (1956-57), followed by the original production of The Power and the Glory (1958-59), and finally Tall Story, which ran for six months in 1959.

Astin has a hilarious turn in the film of West Side Story (1961) as Glad Hand, the guy in charge of the high school dance. He also had supporting roles in That Touch of Mink (1962), Period of Adjustment (1962), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), Move Over Darling (1963) and The Wheeler Dealers (1963).

1962-63 Astin co-starred with comedian Marty Ingels in the now-legendary sitcom I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster, in which they played a couple of partners in a carpentry business. Shot in front of a live studio audience, which went against the trend at the time, the series only lasted one season, though comedy fans still treasure its memory. Fortunately, Astin was able to rebound mightily after its rapid cancellation.

Next came his giddily insane turn as Gomez Addams on The Addams Family (1964-66), which we wrote about here. Some know him only for this, but some don’t know nuthin’. At any rate — this is not a bad place to revert to Astin’s biography. Astin’s father was Dr. Allen Varley Astin, a physicist, who was director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. (This may explain why Astin’s original major in college had been math). His father actually ran a U.S. government agency, and Astin grew up in that culture. There is a certain worldliness that he exudes as Gomez: “Old Man, I’m going to phone Washington and settle this thing once and for all!” He actually grew up in a home where people said and did things like that.

In 1967 he played the Riddler on two episodes of Batman when Frank Gorshin was unavailable.

That same year, he was a regular on The Phyllis Diller Show.

In addition to frequent guesting on television, he returned to movies at this time, appearing in William Castle’s The Spirit is Willing (1967), Candy (1968), Viva Max (1969), Bunny O’Hare (1971), and the Smothers Brothers’ Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), among others.

For a while, he specialized in comedy westerns, including the TV movies Sheriff Who? (1967), and Evil Roy Slade (1972) and The Brothers O’Toole (1973). These were all PRIOR to Blazing Saddles. 

Operation Petticoat ran on ABC from 1977-79, as we said. Based on the 1959 film with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, it concerned a (pink) naval submarine that was forced to transport some army nurses, causing no end of havoc! Also in the cast was a pre-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis, and a pre-Ernest Jim Varney!

This may have been his last starring role, although Astin has worked constantly as a supporting player down to the present day. He was a regular on Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived sitcom Mary (1985-86). He was in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) and Teen Wolf Too (1987) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). He had recurring roles on Night Court and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. He did lots of Addams Family reunions and cartoon voiceovers and horror parody films. He toured with a one man show about Edgar Allan Poe (I wonder if made a gleefully wild eyed Gomez face during the show, provoking a gale of applause? The odds are very good) In latter years he has been teaching acting at his alma mater Johns Hopkins in his native Baltimore. Baltimore. Can you think of a better hometown for Gomez Addams? I can’t.