It's a measure of the sort of man he is that when colleagues talk about Sean Astin, it's not the work that's first in their minds. "The Lord of the Rings" star is an actor, the son of other actors, a real showbiz brat. But brat is precisely what Astin is not.
"If you broke down on the road in the middle of the night and phoned him up, he'd be there in an instant to help," says Richard Taylor, the makeup and special-effects wizard who got to know Astin as they made "The Lord of the Rings." "He has this genuine love for people that I think comes through in his acting."
"He's a great guy, so genuine," says Elijah Wood, Astin's "Rings" co-star. Wood plays the ring-bearing hobbit Frodo in the films. Astin is Sam, his dogged, noble sidekick, the hobbit who keeps them going. "When you get to know Sean, you see just how much of the movie's Sam he really is."
"Peter Jackson cast him because of that grounded nature of his," says producer Barrie M. Osborne.
And Philippa Boyens, the screenwriter, says, "We tried to put as much of Sean into Sam as we could. Because really, Sean is Sam."
Astin, 31, blushes when this quote is read back to him. Second-generation Hollywood, a former child star, Astin is a lot of things. He's a character actor with solid work in films such as "Safe Passage," "Memphis Belle" and "Bulworth" under his belt.
He's a family man, the married father of two daughters. He's a college graduate who didn't let the heady years of "Goonies" stardom keep him from pursuing an education. He's a plugger, the perennial underdog, much like the character he played in his biggest star vehicle, "Rudy." And he's a nice guy.
"I'll take it," he says of that label. "I'm the old, married hobbit. Mr. Mainstream." He thinks for a moment. "But I'm not really Sam," he says of his character. "Nobody could be that good, that noble. He's just better than the rest of us. I'm a lot more Hollywood than Sam would ever be."
He grew up the son of TV stars. Mom (Patty Duke) and Dad (John Astin) ruled TV in the 1960s on "The Patty Duke Show" and "The Addams Family." But somehow, despite the proximity to fame, Sean kept his feet on the ground.
He learned, from his mom, "to be as open and honest as I can, to live my life like an open book. And to never say anything I wouldn't want to read in a newspaper." From his dad, he learned "not to take Hollywood seriously." And how to be cool enough to go his own way.
The result of that upbringing is a down-to-earth regular Joe. He became almost a mascot on the "Rings" set.
Astin was the guy who fixed up his "Rings" co-star, Dominic Monaghan, with a place to live in L.A. -- with his brother. He even sold Monaghan his car. When Astin came up with the idea for a short film on the set, the director and other members of the cast and crew volunteered to come in, on their day off, in the middle of an 18-month shoot, to work on it with him.
And at the end of reshoots last summer, when the writers faxed to Astin Sam's poignant speech about there being good things in the world that were still worth fighting for, Astin was almost as thrilled as his colleagues.
"You've got to be happy for him," Wood says. "He's the sweetest guy. And here he gets this great, defining speech, the perfect moment to end the second movie on." Score one for the underdog.
Astin knows that's how he's perceived. At 5 feet, 5 inches, he's not leading-man material. He still identifies most closely with a role that captures that underdog status, Rudy Ruettiger. "Rudy," a 1993 film, was the true story of a short working-class teen who sets an impossible goal for himself -- running out on the field as a Notre Dame football player -- and who achieves great personal victories as he strains for the thing just out of his reach. It could be Astin's story too. Celebrity upbringing aside, he tries harder.
"I still play in Rudy's charity golf tournament every year," Astin says. "He's the most shameless self-promoter there ever was. But he's an amazing guy, a real example of stick-to-it-ness. 'Lord of the Rings' is about to end for me. But there's already talk of another movie from the guys who made 'Rudy.' That's a story I could see going back to. And they know where to find me!"
Roger Moore is a staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.