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Wednesday, July 8,2009

More than Gomez Addams

John Astin talks about other roles that define his career

by Mary C. Cusack
Continuing its tradition of bringing popular actors to Lansing, BoarsHead Theater’s production of Jeffrey Sweet’s comedy-drama “Bluff,” which opens tonight, will star John Astin.

During the first week of rehearsals, Astin sat down for a marathon, three-hour conversation about his experiences and the importance of theater and education. Astin, 79, exhibited energy and enthusiasm as he discussed some of the standout roles of his life.


Let us dispose of this fact right away: Astin is best known for his role as quirky patriarch Gomez Addams in the hit 1960s TV series “The Addams Family.” While the role assured him a place in pop-culture history, it is not necessarily the role of which he is proudest. While Gomez was a career-making part, there are others for which he should be recognized. Here’s are some of them:


Evil Roy Slade


Considered a cult classic, the 1972 TV movie “Evil Roy Slade” was shot as a television pilot. With its quirky, sometimessubtle sense of humor, the movie was perhaps ahead of its time, as it seems to have influenced more recent TV comedies, like “Arrested Development.” Astin plays the title character, the meanest man in the Wild West, who falls in love with a beautiful schoolteacher, while he’s holding up a bank. This sends him into an existential crisis, as he tries to reform himself with the help of his lady love and a psychiatrist. The star-studded cast included Mickey Rooney, Dom DeLuise, Dick Shawn and Milton Berle.


Astin notes this role as his favorite. “Evil Roy was a lot of fun, a tortured person, but funny,” he said. “It got a lot of great reviews. It would have been a very popular series, I’m sure.”


Buddy


A recurring character on the successful ‘80’s-‘90s TV series “Night Court,” Astin played Buddy Ryan, a charming schizo phrenic who turns out to be Judge Harry Stone’s (Harry Anderson) father.

“There’s another character I like a lot,” Astin said. “That came from the creator of the show, Reinhold Weege, and Harry Anderson. They kicked it around and wrote it for me. I’d love to do a series with that character. I think it could be a meaningful series.”


Edgar Allen Poe


Astin toured in “Edgar Allen Poe: Once Upon a Midnight,” a one-man play by Paul Day Clemens and Ron Magid, for six years. The play is a combination of biography and Poe’s writings. Astin won rave reviews in every city the play was produced, from Chicago to Tampa to Los Angeles, and dozens inbetween, as well as in Ireland and Australia. He has recently been asked to reprise the role, an offer he is still mulling over. “The play itself is two hours of non-stop intensity, going into all the tragedy of Poe’s life, and tying it in with his works,” Astin said. “It really scores, but it takes a lot of prep.”


Almost Gandalf


At the same time Astin’s son Sean was championing for the role of Samwise Gamgee in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Astin read for the part of Gandalf. The elder Astin had worked with director Peter Jackson before on the 1996 film “The Frighteners.”

“Peter tested me twice for Gandalf,” Astin said. “The second time I tested, they asked me to prepare certain things. I was guided by the book, and they had another way of presenting it, and I couldn’t figure out how to satisfy them. The day after the second test, I figured out a way to do it the way they wanted it. I could have made my own video test and sent it to them.”


Astin didn’t follow up, for several reasons. He said he was concerned about spoiling his son’s chances of getting the part. He also would have had to give up the Poe play to do it, and he wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of being on a horse for a year and a half.


In the ‘Bluff ’


In "Bluff " Astin plays Gene, the salesman stepfather of Emily (played by Prentiss Benjamin), who is in the process of formulating a relationship with Neal (played by Max Schulman). Astin describes Gene as "the leading man’s provocateur."


It is a role Astin has played before, but that doesn’t mean he can phone it in. "I said to myself that I’ve done it before, it’ll be a breeze,” he said. “But I’m working just as hard as I’d work if it were brand new."


Astin considers the time spent in this production to be a vacation from his teaching gig at Johns Hopkins University . However, he also sees it as a way to stay actively engaged in theater. “There’s something for an audience in this role and in this play. It’s the kind of play that’s going to intrigue the audience and leave them at the end of the play talking about each character ... and what will happen next."


Teacher


A friend at Johns Hopkins asked Astin to guest lecture a seminar in theater in fall of 2000. He parlayed that opportunity into a full-time position as the director of the Program in Theatre Arts and Studies. His ultimate goal is to establish a theater major at Hopkins; currently there is a theater minor housed within the Writing Seminars Department.

“I’m fascinated with today’s youth, especially Hopkins students,” he said. “So many of them are there for technical education. I’m pushing and pushing to provide a broader education and a broader environment for the students. And theater can do that.


“There is a desperate need for the humanities. In this world we have to learn how to live. The humanities can help us develop a little bit of wisdom in this area. It’s not going to solve everything, but it’s going to help us.”


As a student, Astin grew distant from the humanities after a bad experience in high school. He was pursuing a degree in mathematics at Washington and Jefferson University, when a professor reignited Astin’s dormant interest in literature.

Astin eventually transferred to Johns Hopkins and changed his major to drama. He said his story would have been very different he hadn’t been required to take freshman English with an inspiring professor. Now Astin passes that passion on to a new generation, two of whom — Anthony Blaha and Julie Sihilling, recent graduates of Johns Hopkins — will share the stage with him in “Bluff.”

Astin has many projects yet to complete, including some writing. “I think when I’m about 93, I’m going to retire,” he declared.

When given a dubious look, he replied with a flash of that famous, mischievous smile, and said, “You figure I’ll keep working? Maybe. Maybe I will.”

’Bluff’

July 8 – 26 7 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday BoarsHead Theater, 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing $12-$30 (517) 484-7805 www.boarshead.org



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