'The Addams Family,' now on DVD, is really still a scream

Critical Eye

October 29, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,[sun reporter]

THEY'RE CREEPY AND KOOKY, mysterious and spooky -- altogether ooky. And when it comes to television comedy, they're about as good as it's ever gotten.

Which means that this Halloween should be especially celebratory, since it's the first since last week's long-awaited arrival on DVD of The Addams Family, a mid-'60s sitcom centering on the most charmingly horrific misfits you'd ever want to meet. For $29.95, you can get the show's first 22 episodes, spread over three discs -- surely a small price to pay for more than 10 hours of television at its most hilariously exuberant, not to mention surprisingly life-affirming,

For two seasons on ABC, from 1964 to 1966, the Addamses ruled as the happiest, most welcoming, most compellingly abnormal family on TV. The characters, loosely based on the single-panel cartoons of The New Yorker's legendary Charles Addams, quickly became pop-culture mainstays.

There was the butler, Lurch (Ted Cassidy), a giant of a ... well, he looked like a man, one as imagined by Dr. Frankenstein after an especially rough night. There were the wacky relatives -- the walking hairball known as Cousin Itt (Felix Silla); the practicing witch and out-of-practice fortune teller, Grandmama (Blossom Rock); and the incandescent (literally!) Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan), whose habit of lighting a bulb by sticking it in his mouth became something of a national fad (vintage self-lighting Fester bulbs fetch upward of $50 on eBay).

There were the kids, Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax) and Wednesday (Lisa Loring) -- the former a chubby little boy who once, to his parents' horror, actually wanted to join the Boy Scouts; the latter a pouting, black-clad young girl (decades before Goth became chic) who delighted in showing visitors her headless doll. Oh no, Wednesday would assure them, she's supposed to look like that -- she's Marie Antoinette.

"At the time, being a kid, we didn't understand a lot of the jokes," says Weatherwax, now 51 and working as a grip on Hollywood film sets. "We would just do our dialogue and play it straight -- that's the way they wanted it done. Now we understand why a lot of that worked."

There was the mother, Morticia (Carolyn Jones), a sexy, black-clad siren perpetually driving her infatuated husband to distraction. And finally, there was the effervescent paterfamilias, the family breadwinner, who played the stock market horribly and was the world's worst lawyer, but always seemed to have scads of money anyway. Was there ever a more appealing force of nature on TV than Gomez Addams?

"I thought that Gomez, what he was trying to do was explore the wonder of life, the joy of life," says John Astin, the Baltimore-born actor who embodied the phrase joie de vivre during the show's two-year network run. "That's why Gomez is such a happy character."

Visually, the show was a carnival funhouse, stocked with bearskin rugs, two-headed turtles, suits of armor, even a mounted fish head with a man's leg sticking out. Verbally, the show was a deadpan delight, filled to overflowing with twisted double meanings, rampant non sequiturs and delightfully dark turns-of-phrase -- as when Morticia, horrified that their children are being taught fairy tales in which evil witches end up getting shoved inside ovens, couldn't understand how anyone could write approvingly of such cruelty. Especially when the authors were blessed with such an appealing name, Grimm.

For Loring, only 4 years old when the show's pilot was shot, it was that sensibility that gave The Addams Family its lasting power. If their rival over on CBS, The Munsters, could be compared to The Three Stooges, she says, the Addamses were decidedly TV's version of The Marx Brothers.

"I wasn't even aware, until talking with John [Astin] recently," Loring, now 48, says, "that Nat Perrin, who was one of our producers, came out to Hollywood to do the writing for The Marx Brothers. I didn't even know that. I just made the logical comparison."

Astin, however, is dead on (and isn't that a phrase the benignly macabre Addamses would love?) when he suggests that the show's appeal extends beyond clever writing and pitch-perfect casting. For all their darkness, Gomez and Morticia and Fester and Lurch and all the rest were good-hearted, accepting people. And you just knew they'd be a lot of fun to be around.

"The show is an affirmation of life, a paean to joy, in a sense," says Astin, 76, who returned to Baltimore in 2001 and now teaches acting at the Johns Hopkins University, where he still attracts stares from strangers certain they know that face from somewhere. "These people are strange on the outside, but stalwart on the inside. ... We were rarely selfish. We were generous and inclusive, nonjudgmental. I think those are good qualities; they last."

Oh, and one other thing about The Addams Family. At a time when network censors insisted that Rob and Laura Petrie sleep in separate beds on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomez and Morticia may have been the first TV couple to have openly lusted after each other. All Morticia had to do was speak French, and Gomez would be all over her, planting kisses on her arm and calling her a bunch of Spanish words that, even without any translation, sure sounded passionate -- names like Cara Mia ("My Beloved") and Querida ("Darling").

"We changed television," says Astin, still proud of what he and his castmates accomplished four decades ago. "For the first time, a couple had a real relationship. There were articles written at the time, by psychiatrists, saying it was the healthiest show on the air."

The funniest, too.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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