Easy leap: Gomez to Poe

Celebration: For the 190th birthday bash, John Astin puts his theater training to use in bringing the troubled poet and storywriter to life.

January 22, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

"Cara mia!" Gomez Addams as Edgar Allan Poe?

Yes, John Astin, whose most familiar role was as the patriarch of the Addams family, comes to Baltimore this weekend to portray Edgar Allan Poe.

Picturing Astin in the role as Poe somehow works. Perhaps it's because Gomez was certainly a weird and wacky character. And Poe? What can you say about a man who gave the world "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Telltale Heart"? Weird? Yes. Wacky? Some would say, even allowing for his immense talent.

So Astin, with his kindly yet slightly crazed eyes, easily makes the jump from Gomez to Poe. Crowds of people have already enjoyed watching him portray the writer.

Since October, the actor has been touring the country in a one-man show called "Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight."

Of course, no one polls members of the audience to learn if they are fans of Poe or of the Gomez Addams character. "All I know is, we have sold out at almost every place we have played," Astin says in a telephone conversation from Woodstock, Ill. "In Indianapolis, we sold out at the 1,400-seat theater."

Astin is taking a break from the one-man show to perform at Baltimore's celebration of Poe's 190th birthday, presented by the Poe House and Museum and held at Westminster Hall where Poe is buried.

"I'm very grateful to be able to take part in this tribute to Poe on Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Astin says. He will do some excerpts from the play, among other things. He will also be joined by the Bach Society in "The Haunted Concert."

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House, was determined to bring Astin to Baltimore for the birthday tribute.

"It's been about three years ... trying to get John Astin to Baltimore," Jerome says. "I saw his show twice, once in North Carolina and once in Frederick. It was truly impressive. We have had many Poe impersonators in Baltimore during the birthday celebration. Some have been good. Most of them have been mediocre."

Astin's portrayal of Poe, Jerome says, is excellent.

"Poe may be dead; his bones may be lying outside at the Westminster graveyard in the grave. But John Astin has brought Poe back to life. It is truly outstanding, and the people of Baltimore are in for a treat," Jerome says.

Astin was born in Baltimore but raised in Washington. He has a degree in drama from Johns Hopkins University. He was trained in the Shakespearean method of acting and says that it has been worthwhile throughout his career. "That kind of classical training is valuable in everything from Gomez to Poe," he says.

Astin first appeared on stage in 1954 in a revival of "The Threepenny Opera" at a New York theater. His film debut was as a social worker in the 1961 production of "West Side Story." In 1964, he was cast in what still remains his most famous role, Gomez Addams in TV's "The Addams Family."

In 1968, he produced and directed a short film, "The Prelude," which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Subject.

Astin has appeared in a number of sitcoms, including "Night Court," where he had a recurring role as the mentally confused Buddy Ryan. He will make a guest appearance on "The Hughleys" television show this season. And he has a movie coming out later this year, "Betaville." It's a futuristic story in which Astin plays the U.S. president.

Yet, there are things he still wants to accomplish in his career.

"When I wrote and directed the film, for about three minutes, I was the hottest young filmmaker in town," he says. "But I didn't capitalize on it. I lost my writing focus. I would like to write and direct a movie. Or just write something and have it published."

Astin isn't saying if that something will have anything to do with Poe, for whom Astin developed an early passion.

"When I was about 10 or 11, my mother gave me `The Purloined Letter,' " he says. "I was stunned with Poe's observations on human nature. Eventually, I went on to read his poetry and later his criticisms. I often felt he was not fully appreciated, certainly not by people of his time."

Astin fully appreciates what Poe has left the world and loves having the opportunity to perform in the one-man play. He also credits his "Addams Family" role with boosting his star power and name recognition.

"I am grateful for Gomez," he says. "It is a treasure when people come up to me and recall Gomez."

Poepourri

What: Edgar Allan Poe Birthday Celebration featuring John Astin, the Bach Society and the Calvert Pipe Band

When: 8 p.m. today, 7 p.m. tomorrow, 4: 30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Westminster Hall, Fayette and Greene streets

Tickets: Today and tomorrow, $25, $20 ages 18 and under; Sunday, $20, $18 ages 18 and under

Call: 410-396-7932

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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