After a performance of
the Broadway musical now playing at the
Theatre, a tall, bald, mustachioed man went backstage to greet the cast — the original, the ultimate
Douglas Sills, who portrays the head of the spooky household in the musical, dropped to the floor and did an elaborate kowtow.
"You're a hero," Sills said. "Thank you for passing the torch to us."
That torch was lit 48 years ago, when the "The Addams Family" series debuted, fleshing out the slightly spooky, thoroughly contented characters created by New Yorker cartoonist
The television series ran only for two seasons, totaling just 64 episodes, but never really disappeared. Reruns kept the characters and their quirks alive for successive generations, creating a reservoir of appreciation ripe for harvesting by the creators of the musical.
For many people, "The Addams Family" continues to conjure up the image of the Baltimore-born Astin as a twinkly-eyed, debonair Gomez, married to the darkly sexy, note-perfect Morticia of
as a genial Uncle Fester; and
as the just-shy-of-rigor-mortis butler Lurch (Cassidy often provided the disembodied hand of Thing, too).
Although there have also been movie adaptations in the 1990s — two commercial releases starring
as Gomez and Angelica Houston as Morticia, one quick-to-video effort with
— nothing has ever really overshadowed the TV series.
Today, only Astin, who turns 82 this month, and three other performers from the show are alive —
and Ken Weatherwax, who played the children, Wednesday and Pugsley; and
, who occupied the hair-covered mass known as Cousin Itt.
"The Addams Family" aired in the days before contracts automatically came with residuals, so the actors did not exactly get rich form the series. If Astin retains any bitterness over that, or the way that Addams-related projects over the years typically ignored the creators of the roles, he hides it well.
There seemed to be no trace of bittersweetness, let alone bitterness, when Astin attended the
performance of the musical-ized Addams characters. It was his second visit to the show; he caught it on Broadway as well. Several changes have been made to it since then. The national touring version includes a new angle for the plot and several new songs.
"It is less episodic than the first version," Astin said. "That's got to have a salutary effect. The first one was an enjoyable evening, but it turned into what seemed to be a series of vaudeville turns."
The slimmed-down staging for the touring production impressed him, especially a charming scene involving Uncle Fester and the moon. "I loved the creative way they handle that now," Astin said. "I love when they keep it simple."
In the theater, before the performance and during intermission, Astin graciously acknowledged requests for autographs. He's still everyone's favorite Gomez.
"There has been so much exposure of those 64 episodes that when the news about a musical was first announced, half the people who stopped me in the street thought I was involved," Astin said. "No matter how many other versions there have been, I still get recognized. I don't look like I did then, but they still recognize my voice or the strange look on my face."
Strange? A better description would be inviting, with just a hint of mischievousness behind those still very lively eyes.
Astin has never stopped being active. Locally, he has become particularly well-known for performances as
This weekend finds him back in the spotlight, appearing in the world premiere of
by rising playwright Nicky Glossman, a production of the
Theatre Arts and Studies Program, which Astin directs.
The final performance is Sunday afternoon in the recently named John Astin Theatre in the Merrick Barn, an honor recognizing Astin's teaching, acting, directing and rejuvenating of the theater program at JHU since 2001. His connection to the university goes back further — he earned his B.A. in drama there in 1952.
Astin has done a lot of things since "The Addams Family" went off the air in 1966, but he has resigned himself to the fact that, for many people, all that other work is eclipsed by the relatively brief period when he was patriarch of a wonderfully odd assemblage.
"I was surprised that kids coming to my class knew who I was," Astin said. "Strangely, when I would ask them about some of my contemporaries who, I felt, were much better known than I was, they never heard of them. Some of them didn't know who
was. But they would ask me about 'The Addams Family.' That wasn't what I was teaching."
Astin, who would block the side of his face when he passed a car while driving the Los Angeles freeways during the TV show's heyday ("I didn't want to create an accident"), almost didn't become Gomez. He was initially considered for the part of Lurch. Executive producer David Levy then saw Astin's potential at the head of the clan.
"David told me, 'This is "Father Knows Best" —with other people,'" Astin said.
The actor helped develop a key ingredient in the TV show, the relationship between Gomez and Morticia.
"One day over drinks at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I liked the martinis, I said, 'David, the romance between these two people should be in the grand manner,'" Astin said. "This relationship is filled with love and lust, all the good stuff. He warmed to that thought."
The end result was one of the most amorous duos to appear on the little screen.
"We used to do joke promos for the show, where I'd say 'My wife and I are the best-adjusted couple on television,'" Astin said. "I think we influenced the tone of the '60s with that kind of freedom and warmth — you know, peace and love. But the fact that Gomez and Morticia got obviously excited about one another was something the studio got letters on, which was kind of stupid."
The sizzling marriage and all of the other memorable aspects of the televisual family represented a considerable leap of imagination from the source material. The members of the not-exactly-normal clan in the Charles Addams cartoons did not even have names until the TV series was being created; the cartoonist suggested most of the names that were used.
Astin, who had discovered the cartoons while a student at Hopkins and decorated his room on 34th Street with them, took a deeper look at Addams' work when he joined the TV show.
"There was nothing morbid about them, in my view," Astin said. "The cartoons implied violence against a cliche or a habit of modern human beings. There's a line in 'Waiting for Godot': 'Habit is a great deadener.' My conclusion — I never discussed this with him — was that Charlie was trying to wake us up to the joy and wonder of life, which is so much more than what we experience through stale habit."
Backstage at the
, Astin discussed this philosophy with cast members. One of those listening intently was Sara Gettelfinger, the bosomy Morticia in the musical.
"You have so much joy, too," Gettlefinger she said to Astin. "We take you in spirit onstage."