On the gray side, but Astin will always be Gomez

March 12, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

IT'S A weekday morning, and I'm sitting in a dimly lighted theater at Johns Hopkins University, trying very hard not to freak out as one of my childhood heroes, Gomez Addams, leans against the stage.

If Lurch the butler comes shuffling out and intones: "You rang?" or Morticia Addams suddenly appears and plants a kiss on Gomez's forehead, we will have officially entered a time warp. At which point, I plan to calmly stand up, walk out to my car and check into a psych unit.

Oh, somewhere in my fevered brain, I know this man near the stage is really the wonderful actor John Astin. But to me, he'll always be Gomez Addams, patriarch of "The Addams Family," the brilliant sitcom about a household of ghoulish characters that ran for just two seasons in the mid-'60s and lives on in glorious rerun perpetuity.

To a 12-year-old growing up in southern New York, Gomez Addams, strange and dark-eyed and absurdly confident, with the beauteous and somber Morticia on his arm, embodied the swagger and cool I would later see in the Beatles and Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali.

That's why I've come to Hopkins on this sunny, late-winter day to watch Astin teach a course called Acting and Directing Workshop.

Astin, now 70, grayer than in his Gomez Addams days - aren't we all? - but still sporting that thick shock of hair and trademark bushy mustache, is a Hopkins grad himself, class of '52, back when the school still offered a drama major.

With dozens of movie, theater and TV credits - he also played the slightly unhinged Buddy Ryan in "Night Court" and the title role in "Evil Roy Slade" - he lives in Los Angeles with his wife of 12 years, Valerie. But when John Irwin, the former chair of the Writing Seminars, invited him to teach at Hopkins, he leaped at the chance.

So many students signed up for the course that Astin agreed to teach three classes instead of the one originally agreed upon.

Today, 11 of his approximately 50 students are gathered in scruffy Theatre Hopkins. In pairs, they take the stage and sit on wooden folding chairs and read from various plays, including "Mrs. Warren's Profession" by George Bernard Shaw, "Waiting for Lefty" by Clifford Odets and "The Doctor in Spite of Himself" by Moliere.

"What I'm finding," Astin will say later, "is that I'm really enjoying opening up and sharing my secrets with these students."

They are game as they climb onstage, these engineering and math and film-media studies majors. But, as actors, "we're dealing with the raw stuff here," says Astin. His mission, he says, is simple: "Give them some sense of world and American theater. And give them some sense of acting."

For the next 90 minutes, he listens attentively as his students read their lines. He encourages them. He exhorts them to "get off-paper," to forget the character and relate as themselves to the other person, to make the words their own. He relates stories of the struggles he had as a young actor.

When the subject is raised about how young actors can portray grief - something they may not have experienced yet - he tells them a story:

"When I was 15, I thought my brother was killed in an accident," he begins in a soft voice.

He tells of watching his brother, Alexander, speed down a hill on his bicycle one day, the boy laughing and not paying attention and then plowing into the back of a truck. He tells of his brother laying in the street in a crumpled heap and his muffled, anguished cries of: "I can`t move! I can`t move!"

"As I'm telling you this now," he continues, voice even softer, "I'm on the edge of crying. Just remembering ... those little details, I am moved. ... He turned out to be OK. [But] I could take something like that and, in a rehearsal, imagine my brother was dead. Using that is enough to bring those emotions out."

When the class is over, the students surround Astin, peppering him with questions, seeking his advice on various projects. He has been their teacher for only six weeks, yet their affection for him is obvious.

"He's just been great, very accessible ... and his knowledge is incredible," says Ben Blake, a senior from New Jersey.

Yeah, yeah, I say. That's all well and good. But do you realize that's Gomez Addams up there?! A gen-u-ine pop culture icon?! Not to mention a personal hero of mine?!

"Yeah, when I first saw him, I said, `Oh, cool, Gomez Addams!' " says Lisa Caputo, a senior from Silver Spring.

"Not me. I said: `There`s the dead guy from `The Frighteners,' " says sophomore Brian Udoff, ticking off a 1996 movie starring Michael J. Fox as a paranormal con artist that John Astin is probably trying to forget.

A few hours later, I meet Astin at One World Cafe, the hangout for coffee-lovers and vegetarians on University Parkway.

We talk for a while about his teaching, his early training as an actor, and finally I get around to "The Addams Family." Within seconds, I am jabbering about what a huge fan I was, how much I loved his work as Gomez Addams, how much joy it brought me as a kid.

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