Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Just as one bad book report almost killed John Astin’s appreciation of literature, attending one good play instilled in him a love of drama that ultimately led him into a career as an actor.
Although he started in the theater, Astin is arguably best known to the masses for his portrayal of Gomez Addams in the original TV version of The Addams Family, but he’s also spent plenty of time on the silver screen, appearing in the 1961 version of West Side Story, co-starring with Cary Grant and Doris Day in That Touch Of Mink, playing Jodie Foster’s father in the original ’70s version of Freaky Friday, and—lest we forget—appearing in no less than three Killer Tomatoes movies. In addition, he’s popped up on more live-action and animated TV series than we’d begin to try and count, including Maverick, Batman, Night Court, and Taz-Mania.
For the last few decades, Astin—now 92—has spent the majority of his time teaching acting at Johns Hopkins University, but after being sent several Random Roles interviews by his son, Mackenzie, he found them entertaining enough to hop on the phone and reminisce about his long and illustrious career.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into acting in the first place? Did you stumble into it, or was it something you’d always had your eye on?
John Astin: No, I... [Hesitates.] Ah, I might as well tell you the story.
AVC: I do enjoy a good story.
JA: Well, this starts when I was in high school. We had to do book reports, and I chose to do Moby Dick. I had no idea it was such a long book! But I read the damned thing, and when I got up for my book report, I said, “This is a wonderful adventure tale, but I have to confess that, at times, I felt like I was reading one long plug for the whaling industry.” Years later I learned that a number of critics had said that, too. I mean, there’s no question that it’s a great book. But as I stood there in front of my junior class in high school, I finished the book report, and the teacher said, “That is the worst book report I have ever heard. You must be really quite stupid.”
JA: Yeah. And I was none too happy as a high school junior anyway, because of a lot of stuff that was going on in my life at the time. But she went on and on about how this was a great book, and I had demeaned it by what I said, and...she finally used the word “cretin,” and I hoped that my fellow classmates did not know what the word meant! But with that, I developed a hate for English classes. so when I took the college boards, I was offered a scholarship to Washington and Jefferson College, which was half tuition, to be a math major. And I took them up on it, because I loved math.
When I got there, I noticed that Freshman English was a required course, and I tried to get out of it. And they told me that I’d lose my scholarship if I didn’t take English. So I went to the English professor, and I said, “Look, your course is required, but I don’t like your subject. I think it’s just an excuse to BS. It’s not really about anything.” I’d just turned 18, so I knew everything. [Laughs.] Anyway, this professor listened to me, and he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Every once in awhile, I’ll give you something to read, and I want you to get back with me on it as to whether it’s about anything.” So the first thing he gave me was Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness...and I said, “Say! This is really about something!” As though I had discovered it. And gradually he got me back into enjoying literature.
And then later in the semester, I had a friend in Ohio at Wooster College—I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, it’s a small college—and he said, “My roommate’s going to be in a play. Why don’t you hitchhike out and see the play?” And in those days, you could do that! [Laughs.] So I hitchhiked out to Wooster...and I had seen perhaps two plays in my life. I’m otherwise completely ignorant of the theater. And I sat down, looked at the program, and I said, “Geez, the guy wrote this play is gonna be in it!” So Thornton Wilder steps out and says, “The name of this play is Our Town.” And I watched this play, and I was ripped up. It was a fantastic evening in the theater. And Wilder was so close to this that his performance [as the narrator] was really beautiful. And he did this with a bunch of college kids...and they were pretty good, too!
And as I was hitchhiking back, I thought, “You know, John, you are changing some of your outlook on life as a result of this play. Isn’t that an amazing medium that can create that kind of change in a human being?” And that’s what interested me so. You see, I believe that the theater can explain things by showing them when science or religion can’t. It’s that relationship that takes place among the actors in a well-written play that can teach us something of what it is to be a human being. And we don’t have any other way, really, of doing it. Listening to music can help. But you need the words. And you need the human interplay.
So I became interested in the theater. I was still a math major, but the English professor was delighted, and we put on a couple of one-act plays. But there was no theater program at Washington and Jefferson in those days—there is now, and a very healthy one—and I wanted to go someplace that there was a theater program. Well, the Department of Writing, Speech and Drama had just been established at Johns Hopkins, and my dad had been there and so on, and it wasn’t far away from home. And when I got to Hopkins, the dean asked me, “Why didn’t you apply for your scholarship?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think I’d get it.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you apply?” And I knew by his eyes that he was offering me a scholarship.
So I got it, and I was so encouraged by that that I had a fantastic couple of years as a junior and senior. Of course, it all goes back to Washington and Jefferson, but my learning experience at Hopkins was huge. In those days, you could take as many courses as you wanted, and in my last semester at Hopkins, I signed up for... Oh, it was, like, 27 hours or something like that. [Laughs.] I decided to audit two of them. The odd thing is, I remember more from the audits than the classes I took for a grade! But I had a great experience, maintained friends connected with Hopkins for some time, and eventually they asked me to come and teach a class in Acting and Directing, which...is not the way I would do it, but I did my best and decided after a semester or two to try and start a theater program. And that’s where I’ve been for the last 20 years.
AVC: Thanks to the wonder of streaming, I was able to watch your episode of Maverick the other day.
JA: [Legitimately surprised.] Oh, really?
AVC: It was a lot of fun. It never would’ve occurred to me that I’d ever see a scene with John Astin squaring off against Roger Moore, but lo and behold, there it was.
JA: That was the first thing I did in Hollywood!
AVC: Just based on the date, I thought it might’ve been.
JA: Yeah, Roger was so nice, but he would sit there and go [Sighing.] “I don’t think I belong here.” This cowboy thing, he wasn’t in favor of it. It was a job he wished he didn’t have. But I’ve enjoyed him in lots of other stuff! I really liked the way he played James Bond, because he was having fun.
AVC: You came out to Hollywood after having started in theater. What led you to make the jump in front of the camera?
JA: Well, I played Morrison the butler in Major Barbara on Broadway, with Charles Laughton. I was an understudy, but it was an all-star production, actually. It had Charles and Cornelia Otis Skinner, Glynis Johns and Eli Wallach, Nancy Malone was in it, Colin Keith-Johnston, who was the original Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End.
AVC: Burgess Meredith was in that, too, wasn’t he?
JA: Yeah, Burgess was it. Actually, one time Burgess had to be out because he was one of the producers of Dial M For Murder, which was down the street, and Dick Lupino—who played Charles Lomax—moved up to Cousins, which Burgess was playing, and I moved into Dick’s role of Lomax. When we were rehearsing, Laughton gave me an idea for the character which I loved, and when I went onstage, I got this huge reaction from the audience.
Charles had these speeches about poverty and how it’s a crime and so on, which he would end up delivering straight to the audience in a format that he’d set up which worked very well. And after these big speeches, I had a speech which was maybe one short paragraph, but I got a bigger hand than Charles got on his stuff. And he looked at me from across the stage, and his next line was, “Quite so! May I call you Charles?” [Laughs.] He said that, but he came across the stage and shook my hand, as if in congratulations for getting that big hand. I had a terrific time playing that part, and Charles was tickled pink, because I took his direction and it worked like a charm, and he told me lots of very complimentary things which I won’t repeat now, but...they were really lovely things.
So I got agents to come and see me after that, but I still didn’t get any actions. But actors had seen it. Henry Fonda saw it, and Tony Randall saw it. Well, about three or four years later, Tony was doing a summer production of a play called Goodbye Again by Allan Scott and George Haight, and when I walked in, Tony saw me and says, “I know you! You’re one of the funniest guys I’ve ever seen!” And I didn’t know what he was talking about, but when I realized he had seen my performance as Lomax, I knew I had the part.
So Tony and I developed a really good working relationship in the play, and Patricia Barry, who was also in the play, she and Tony... We were doing a couple of weeks in Detroit and a couple of weeks in Chicago, and they talked me into leaving Chicago and got me to come to California. And I called my then-wife— my first wife—and said, “Are you okay with that?” And she said, “Are you kidding? Get out there and get a job!” [Laughs.] Which is what happened. Tony’s agent decided to handle me, and I got the Maverick, which was the first thing I did out there, and then I got something else right after that. I did about half a dozen in a row, one after the other. And those half-dozen or so things are what got me going in Hollywood.
JA: Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, he kept sending me up for stuff, and I was given the part of “Glad Hand” in West Side Story to read. I had seen the play at the Actors Fund Benefit in New York, which Larry Kert told me was the best performance they ever had. And it was a terrific evening in the theater. But I didn’t pay much attention to that part. I think I thought, “Well, they could do a little more with that.” [Laughs.] But when I knew I had to read for it, I thought, “You know, I am not this guy...but I’ve got to go in there as this guy!”
So I put on an old suit and I dressed for the part, and I went in as that guy...and I think Bob Wise ever after thought that’s who I was! Because it’s the only part... I couldn’t get another role with him no matter how hard I tried! He loved what I did as Glad Hand, but that was it. That was all I would ever do...and he did a lot of stuff after that! But that was my first big Hollywood movie, and it was thrilling to do that, to be in an Oscar-winning picture. I even got reviewed in the [Hollywood] Reporter. James Powers had a very nice thing to say about me.
[The very nice thing in question: “John Astin is especially memorable as one of the adults.”]
AVC: It wasn’t too long after West Side Story that you got your first starring role in a sitcom: I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. I actually have the box set they released of that one.
JA: Did you watch it when you were a kid?
AVC: Not when I was a kid. But I was aware of it, so I was glad when I finally did get to see it. You and Marty Ingels had such great chemistry.
JA: Yeah, we were a funny combination. Unfortunately, Marty never saw it that way. He thought you had to be a stand-up solo, and I liked the idea of a combination.
AVC: Well, given the title of the show, it was obviously never going to be a one-hander.
JA: No, it wasn’t. And, you know, it got reviews that were fantastic. A couple of publications said it was the best new show in years...and at the same time, they panned The Beverly Hillbillies. And I would have traded—gladly!—a few reviews for the length of the run of that series. [Laughs.] Paul Henning did all of the hillbilly jokes he had in his brain, between that and Petticoat Junction. Later I did a lot of stuff with Linda Kaye Henning. I was part of the California Artists Radio Theater. Peggy Webber... I don’t know if you know who she is, but she’s really a talent, and I had a great time working with her. I did a lot of stuff with Samantha Eggar, and... Oh, let’s see, Norman Lloyd was in that group.
AVC: That’s so funny: as soon as you mentioned the Radio Theater, his name came to mind. I interviewed him for this feature, and he was such a fascinating guy.
JA: Oh, yes. And a hell of a nice guy.
JA: Well, it was good to work with the actors. I’ve always been a big fan of Barbara Harris, so I really loved working with her. And with Jodie [Foster], but she was just a kid then.
AVC: My wife and I revisited it the other night on Disney+ and it’s still a lot of fun.
JA: It seems so distant. But I remember I was wearing a toupee in that movie, and we were shooting that stuff that we did in San Diego, and they had the lights too close to my head...and my hairpiece caught fire! [Laughs.] Now, I discovered it very quickly...
AVC: That’s good.
JA: Yes, it is! [Laughs.] And Walt Disney Productions or whoever it was made the decision to pay for a new hairpiece, which was nice.
JA: Night Court was a really valuable creative experience. That character came out of the deepest part of myself, and I would have loved to have done a series or even a movie with that character. I mean, it was great to have done it within those Night Court episodes, but I would have been very excited to have done that character in a movie or a series, because there was a very deep humanity in Buddy Ryan...which, interestingly, was the name of a football coach. [Laughs.] But that character came out of pure improvisation. And out of my relationship with Harry [Anderson]. I miss him. It’s too bad he died so damned young.
AVC: When I posted on social media that I was going to be speaking with you, people immediately wanted me to ask about Night Court, many of them quoting your...catchphrase, I guess you’d call it, but certainly a recurring line of dialogue.
JA: “I’m feeling much better now.” [Laughs.] Yep! Yeah, it’s funny: I had a show which I did a few times—I wasn’t satisfied with it, so that’s why I stopped—that was entitled An Evening With John Astin, and I had clips from all the shows and films I’d done. The clips that got far and away the biggest laughs were The Addams Family and Night Court.
AVC: How did you find your way into The Frighteners? Did Peter Jackson come looking for you specifically?
JA: Yeah. However, he was auditioning everybody and his brother. I just did a sort of improvisation of the character, which—at least according to Peter and Fran [Walsh]—won me the role hands down. He said there was no competition. I departed from the text of the script and everything. I just used improvisation techniques. But it worked! I try to find that for anything I read for. But they were, I guess, very glad to have me.
I tested a few times for Gandalf [in Lord of the Rings]. The last test I did, they gave me something out of the second book, and I studied it and came up with what I thought was a good interpretation of it, but it wasn’t at all what Peter and Fran wanted. I knew them well enough to say, “Hey, let me try to work on it and come back again.” They would’ve been receptive to that. But I thought about it, and Sean [Astin, John’s son] was trying to get into the film, too, and I ... well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t want to spend about a year and a half on a horse! [Laughs.] So I just let it be.
The Addams Family (1964-1966) / The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972) / Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977) / The Addams Family (1992-1993)—“Gomez Addams”
AVC: How did you find your way into The Addams Family in the first place? Was it an audition, or did they come looking for you specifically?
JA: Yeah, they came to me. I never read for it or anything. I had been in a few things that had done well, and in those days, once you got over that hump, you didn’t have to read. They called me in because they got a bunch of preview cards that were very positive on a movie I had done with Jim Garner and Lee Remick called The Wheeler Dealers, and they wanted to make a deal with me. They sent Marty Ransohoff’s assistant, who was a young man named John Calley...and I don’t know if you know the name, but John became head of Warner Brothers and all kinds of stuff like that. But we had a really good dinner, and we became instant friends.
So there were three possibilities for me: there was The Loved One, The Americanization of Emily, and The Addams Family...and the first one to come up was The Addams Family. So Marty Ransohoff pitched The Addams Family to me. Well, he didn’t have to pitch it to me, because I was a Charles Addams fan before my college days. I mean, my roommate and I would put our pennies together and buy a book of Addams’ cartoons and razor out the ones we liked best and frame them and put them up in our room. That was our decor! But I was told that I would play the butler. I thought, “My God, how am I gonna do that?” And Marty said I would have a non-exclusive contract, which you can never get in television, and a bunch of other stuff. And I left the meeting thinking, “Well, this will never happen, and that’ll be a good thing.”
But then I got a phone call, and it was from David Levy, who had been present at the meeting but had been mostly quiet. He said, “I had another idea for you in this show.” He was a former vice-president of NBC, so he had a lot of credits. We met at the Polo Lounge and had martinis, and we discussed The Addams Family. He said, “This show is really Father Knows Best with different people...and I want you to be the father. And then we’ll cast the rest of it.” So we discussed it further, and I realized that I could make up a character, because there were really only a couple of clues from Charles [Addams’ cartoons]. So I thought, “This looks pretty good!” And that’s how it happened.
AVC: Gomez had always struck me as being a bit Groucho-esque at times, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized that the show’s head writer was Nat Perrin, who’d actually written for the Marx Brothers.
JA: Oh, yeah! Although I actually never thought of Groucho when I was doing Gomez. But it was somewhere there, because I was such a fan of the Marx Brothers. It came from my childhood, actually. When I was a kid, I was in fourth grade, and for Halloween, I was made up as Groucho, my younger brother Sandy—or Alexander, who’s now a professor emeritus at UCLA—was Harpo, and a pal of ours named Dominic was Chico. And we went to school on Halloween as three Marx Brothers. We didn’t have a Zeppo, but...we didn’t really need a Zeppo! It was quite an event, actually. We surprised everybody.
One day shortly after the show premiered, I was talking to Nat, and I said, “You know, they’re saying Gomez reminds them of Groucho Marx, Ernie Kovacs, Peter Sellers...” And Nat said, “They’re all good, my boy.” [Laughs.] “Take it and enjoy it!” He was a terrific father figure, in a sense. Both he and David. David Levy was the guy who thought up the show, and Nat was brought in after we’d done the presentation film. The presentation film went over very strongly, and it was thought that we should finish the presentation film and make it the first show, because it was sort of introducing all the characters. So that’s when Nat was hired.
At one point, they replaced David and Nat, and they hired somebody else to direct and write, but Carolyn [Jones] and I got together and said, “You know, this isn’t what we signed up for,” and we went to Filmways, the producers, and said, “You’ve got to get David and Nat back.” And they did. It was a very compatible group. Nat might say, “Let me read something to you,” and he would read a phone call that he had written down...and it lasted about five minutes! He said, “We’re about five minutes short on an episode that has to go into Canada. Can you shoot this right away?” And I said, “I’ll give it a shot!” So what I could remember of it, I did, and what I couldn’t remember, I made it up! So we got the five minutes. And Nat congratulated me. [Laughs.] We had a very loose, friendly relationship, and I loved working with him. He would openly talk about stealing stuff from the Marx Brothers. He said, “Do you think we could do the stateroom scene in Cousin Itt’s room?” I said, “Well, we could give it a shot!”
It was fun to do the show. Most people ask me about The Addams Family, and it has dominated my professional life, really. But we just did two years...and, you know, it’s been on the air for more than 50 years following that! I regard it as good fortune, really. It’s interesting. I’ll get a class of freshmen—I’m retiring now, but I’ve been teaching for the last 20 years—and I’d get a bunch of 17- or 18-year-olds, and I’d mention ... oh, let’s say Marlon Brando or Charles Laughton or Cary Grant. And they would not know who I was talking about. But they would all know what I did! [Laughs.] Which is a strange twist.
AVC: I found an interesting clip online, and when I mentioned it to Mack [Astin, John’s son], he said, “I think my father had a lot of fun during the height of the Addams Family press.” It’s of you performing the song “Wallflower Pete.”
JA: [Laughs.] Yeah, Gomez got so popular that I was just handed a recording contract from United Artists Records! And that’s what I did to fulfill the obligation. They wanted me to do another one, especially because “Wallflower Pete” got so many plays. That was actually the B-side, you know. [The A-side was “Querida Mia.”] But it got the plays, so they assigned a guy named Ernie Sheldon, who I found out was a very successful record producer, and he started writing stuff for me.
But then I guess something happened—I think I got Candy or something—and I left the project. It actually would’ve been a good idea to do a record. That’s a very healthy business. In other words, they make money. [Laughs.] But I kind of ran away and went to Europe. I’m pretty sure it was Candy I ran to. I’d have to look up my dates to be sure, but I think that’s what happened. In retrospect, I think if I’d honored that contract with United Artists, it could’ve become tremendously lucrative. But I had fun anyway, so I didn’t worry about it.
AVC: Well, the clip I saw was from Hollywood A Go Go, and you looked like you were having a blast.
JA: Oh, yeah, I did all those shows. Shivaree was another I did. And there was another show where they had really funky dancers. [Long pause.] Darn, I can’t think of it. I know it was on one of the local stations. But Hollywood A Go Go was the biggest one, I think.
AVC: Since you mentioned it a moment ago, how was the experience of doing Candy?
JA: Oh, well... [Starts to laugh.] The director was a lot of fun to work with. He was a resistance hero. In fact, I believe Marlon [Brando] named one of his kids for Christian Marquand. Sometimes we would do two shots a day, because I think he enjoyed those funny cigarettes. [Laughs.]
AVC: For the longest time, the predominant thing I knew about the film was that it was based on a novel co-written by Terry Southern. It was years before I actually saw it.
JA: Right! Did you read the book?
AVC: No, I’m aware that it was a book, but I’ve never read it.
JA: Yeah, Mason Hoffenberg was Terry’s co-author of the book. He did an outline for the film, but it wasn’t shootable. You couldn’t really use it to make a movie. With straight prose, Terry Southern was a lot of fun to read, but it would’ve been very difficult to shoot what he offered, so they brought Buck Henry in to write the screenplay.
So what do I remember of Candy? I just remember that it was a lot of fun. I had a good time in many ways. Part of it was off-camera. And it turned out during that time, one day on the Via Veneto, John Cassavetes stopped me, and he said, “Hey, man, Fellini wants you to be in a movie!” And I said, “Right.” [Laughs.] And I made some smart-ass remark. But he said, “No, no, I’m serious! I was at the studio, and he was asking to see film on you!” So eventually I had a meeting with Fellini.
The night before, I dreamt about it. I mean, Fellini was my hero! I’d studied his movies, so it was a big thrill to meet him, but I was embarrassed as hell. At first he wanted to do the interview in Italian, and...I had been learning the language, and for the time I’d spent, I was, I think, pretty good with it. But I wanted to have this interview in English if I could possibly manage it, so finally I prevailed, and we spoke English. And Fellini’s English was pretty good, and he told me about the film. It was The Journey Of G. Mastorna, and he wanted to have some humor in it. So we started talking about the film, and I got to know him, and also to tell him that I was putting together a short film that I hoped would be successful.
One day he called me in and said, “I’ve got bad news for you: I think my film is now out of date, and I’ve spent two million dollars of Dino De Laurentiis’ money, and I’m not going to do the film.” Interestingly, though, he said, “Why don’t you come over? I’m going to screen a film I just did, an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story.” And I, clinging to the relationship a little bit, said, “Certainly! I’ll be there!” And I saw it, and we had a drink afterwards, and...by this time, with Candy, we were going back to the States. And we did return, at which time I connected with Fellini and told him I would let him know how the film turned out that I was going to do. So when I came back, I was doing another film at the Italian studios—Viva Max!—and we didn’t have access to the interior of the Alamo, so they built one in Italy.
AVC: As one does.
JA: It was beautifully done, actually!
AVC: Oh, I’m sure it was. It’s just the idea of building the Alamo in Italy.
JA: [Laughs.] “Let’s build the Alamo!” So I was working on that, and I tried to reach Fellini. I had a print of my short film—I had to find him!—but it was really tough, because nobody would tell me where he was. This happened at Cinecittà, where he was doing Satyricon at that time. And one day I heard this voice: “John! Where you been?” [Laughs.] And it was Fellini! And I had left for him an ad or something with a bunch of reviews for the film. So we arranged a screening when he was looking at dailies, and we screened the short film that I had done. It was a half-hour film. And Fellini and I and his editor, Ruggero Mastrianni, Marcello’s brother, we watched the film, and Fellini really liked it.
In fact, he started showing it. He showed it to the Ingmar Bergman people, who were in town doing something, Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson. So I found myself among that group, and Max von Sydow said, “Can we get together? I want to ask you some questions about how you managed to do this.” So he and I had a long dinner together, and we really had a good time. And I learned a lot about Bergman from him and how they worked, and I gave him what information he needed, I hoped. But he said, “I want to do something like that. It’s terrific that you did that!”
So I had a couple more meetings with Fellini, and he said he had some thoughts about putting a couple of things with it. He said, “If you do this, you’ll have suceso grande!” You know, a great hit. So we talked about moviemaking and all that. I went through a lot of things with him and what I learned by watching his films, and he said, “This is my private phone number, this is my private address. I want to be your friend.” And I never followed it up. Freud would say I was wrecked by success!
JA: You know, The Addams Family has kept my name out there, but I’ve been able to do a great many roles—thinking of your feature’s title!—but if I’d done one show for six or seven or eight years, I would not have been able to do the different characters that I’ve been able to do. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to experiment and do characters like Buddy Ryan, for example.
I also had a few episodes that I did with Phyllis Diller on The Pruitts Of Southampton. They brought me in, I guess, to hopefully increase the audience. Which didn’t work. [Laughs.] But playing Phyllis’ brother... I had a whole lot of fun with her. She was a charming person to be around. The funniest thing we did...there was a writer named Lou Derman on the show, and when I was doing other stuff that Lou was involved with earlier, he said, “I’m gonna write something really good for you.”
It turned out that the “something really good” was a show with Phyllis in which we had, as costars, a whole flock of chickens. Indoors. And we were surrounded by chicken doo-doo. It was hysterically funny. I mean, we looked at each other, and all the chickenshit jokes wrote themselves. [Laughs.] I mean, we were filthy by the end of that thing. I may still have some flecks of it on me all these years later...and Phyllis may have taken some to her final resting place!
JA: Evil Roy Slade was a very successful character. Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall wrote it, and...I played it twice, actually.
AVC: I saw that on IMDb. Wasn’t it a pilot first?
JA: It was a pilot twice. [Laughs.] But it was a movie of the week the second time. And they gave me a bunch of hold money to hang around and not take anything else in case the first pilot [Sheriff Who] sold. Actually, it was scheduled, but Desi Arnaz had a deal with NBC and he reminded them of something in the deal that they hadn’t remembered, so they put on The Mothers-in-Law, and Evil Roy didn’t get on then. But he did get on later.
Actually, Lee Rich was partnered with the Mirisch brothers on that first pilot, and Lee got so mad that he quit the Hollywood business and went back to [advertising agency] Benton & Bowles. But my manager called me at one point and said, “Lee’s coming back!” Because he’d gotten a deal to start a company, which was called Lorimar, which he named after his kids. Anyway, they didn’t put on the first pilot, but then they made a movie of the week out of it. Sid Sheinberg told me that they really made a mistake with that. Sid thought that if they had just released it as a movie, it would’ve scored like crazy.
Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) / Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1990-1991) / Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! (1991) / Killer Tomatoes Eat France! (1992)—“Professor Gangreen”
JA: [Immediately starts laughing.] I had a lot of fun with that!
AVC: My wife and I rewatched your first film of the franchise—Return Of The Killer Tomatoes—and I’d forgotten just how completely insane it was.
JA: Yeah, I loved the whole wacky nature of the whole thing. Just the idea that a tomato could be dangerous...unless you’re an actor on the stage and they throw one at you! [Laughs.] But an army of tomatoes coming after you? I like tomatoes! I think everybody likes tomatoes.
AVC: I’m sure you had no idea when you went into Return that it was going to lead you subsequently into two more sequels and an animated series.
JA: Uh, no. [Laughs.] But I made lots of wonderful friends in the course of doing them. Especially with the animated one, because all of those wonderful voice actors. I was privileged to join that group for awhile.
JA: Beyond Killer Tomatoes, I did the Addams Family animated series, and then I did stuff like Taz-Mania! You know, they gave the Tasmanian Devil his own series. That was Jim Cummings who played Taz, and I actually got to play Bull Gator, the small alligator who was cruel.
AVC: You got to work with Rob Paulsen on that.
JA: Yeah, Rob played the alligator that I abused!
JA: Oh, he’s a great guy. I love Rob. We’ve worked together a number of times. And if you know Rob, then you must also know Maurice LaMarche as well.
JA: One time, I forget when, but we were probably doing Killer Tomatoes, and this recording of Orson Welles doing a commercial for peas... Maurice was always trying to imitate Orson Welles and do a little replay of that tape that they snuck out of Welles’ reach. [Laughs.] So Maurice’s opportunity finally came with Pinky And The Brain, because the Brain is basically Maurice doing Orson Welles. And Rob, of course, is Pinky. They’re both so creative. When let loose, there’s no stopping them. It was a lot of fun to meet and work with those guys, and Jim. And Miriam Flynn, who played Taz’s mother, was wonderful, too.
Oh, and speaking of voice acting, this is something you don’t know about. Before I was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, there was a child on the way, and I needed money. So I wrote about a dozen sample commercials, and then I recorded all the voices in those commercials and edited the tapes - I was handy with sound machines and that sort of thing - and I put together a record which I sent out to all the agencies. Alan Arkin and I lived in the same building during this period, and he knew about the record I’d made, and he said, “You know, there’s a guy named David Shepard who’s translating a lot of cartoons from Eastern Europe. I didn’t get the job, but you’ve got that record, you might get it.” And sure enough, I did.
We went to New Jersey to record them, and I did all the voices in probably a hundred cartoons. Sometimes I just left my larynx on the floor of the studio. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, I wasn’t a member of the union then, but I made them pay me at SAG rates. I just didn’t get the overtime and all that stuff, which would’ve been terrific. I know that the guy who was doing it was constantly on the “Do Not Work For” list, so my job with him ended when I joined the Guild. But I did all those voices! I couldn’t do anything like that after I did The Addams Family, though, because my voice became so well known. I guess the timbre of it or whatever was such that when I called Information to get a number and said, “Thank you,” more often than not, the operator would say, “You’re welcome, Mr. Astin!”
AVC: Your game show host character was decidedly Richard Dawson-esque.
JA: Yeah, well, I had a great model. [Laughs.] Amy Heckerling wanted it to be all-out.
AVC: I’d say you achieved that.
JA: Well, I went to the young woman who was playing the daughter—Dana Hill—and told her what had been suggested, or ordered, by Amy, who was the director. I said, “Are you okay with that?” And she smiled and said, “Yes.” [Laughs.] She was terrific. We miss her. She was really good...and, fortunately, she was over 18!
JA: Batman came about because I got a call. I was at home, we had just finished The Addams Family, and they said, “Do you want to do the Riddler for a couple of episodes?” And I said, “Sure!” You know, I always had a fantasy of running around in my underwear. [Laughs.] And that was a chance to realize it...and get paid for it!
Fortunately I’d been working out. There was a baseball player named Jim Lefebvre, and it was fun to see Jim there. He took a lot of ribbing from his teammates, saying, “The Riddler’s in better shape than you are, Jim!” Because he was wearing the underwear, too. But he was a very good hitter!
JA: I never expected to get all the interesting stuff written for me in that. I thought I was just going to do the pilot film and that was it. But I ended up doing a number of episodes for Brisco, and I really loved what they wrote. All that exciting stuff. The muscle women, the inventions that Professor Wickwire made up... I had a good time with that! That’s an underrated series, I think. Bruce Campbell handles that stuff very well.
AVC: He’s great at a playing a hero who doesn’t seem as though he should be as impressive as he is.
JA: Exactly! And that’s Brisco. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I had a really good time doing... I don’t know how many episodes I ended up doing. Six or seven, something like that. I would’ve done it for nothing, frankly! It was just fun to do. It was a ball. Particularly the one where we’re inside the blimp or dirigible and we all started sucking in hydrogen at a high rate. [Goes into a Chipmunk-y voice.] And we all started talking like this!
That Touch of Mink (1962)—“Everett Beasley”
Operation Petticoat (1977-1978)—“Lt. Commander Matthew Sherman”
JA: That was a big thrill. What you may not know was that I did a schtick when I was on the phone with Doris Day. I did something that got a big laugh. Cary [Grant] thought it was in bad taste...and the director, Delbert Mann, would not redirect it. Everybody liked it, as far as I could tell, except for Cary. He really didn’t like it. So I put up no argument at all. I just did what they told me to do. And I shot something that replaced it, and it was mildly amusing, but it wasn’t the big roar that the audience came up with in its original form.
But Cary was so nice to me after that. When he screened the picture at the Directors Guild with a big party that he paid for, I was sitting next to him at the head table, and he told me that the reaction I got at Radio City Music Hall was huge. And even years later, when I did [the TV version of] Operation Petticoat, he sent word to me that he was “tickled pink” that I was playing his part. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s actually what I was wondering: if he’d had anything to say to you about following in his footsteps in that role.
JA: Yep! And it was very positive stuff. And I’ll tell you something else that I never forgot. Norton Simon gave this big party for Mrs. Carter when she was the First Lady, and if there was ever an “A” party, this was it, because you had the President’s wife there. There were a lot of people in this anteroom where the guests entered - not the dining room, but an open room, no chairs, just paintings on the wall. Fragonards and stuff like that. I mean, this stuff was just gorgeous. Anyway, there was a crowd, and Danny Kaye is sort of holding court and so on...and then Cary Grant walks into the room. And everyone flocks to Cary. And he sees me...and makes a beeline directly to me. Some people were flabbergasted, but my heart was warmed. He was the perfect gentleman, and I will always be grateful to him.
JA: Edgar Allen Poe had pretty good sense of humor, which I found very useful in putting together the show that I did on him, Once Upon A Midnight. Of course, he had so much tragedy in his life also. I remember when I first began to perform the evening of Poe, a good friend of mine with whom I’ve acted and directed and so on—my friend Sidney, who I mentioned earlier—he said, “Johnny, it’s a very good performance, but I know you, and what you’ve got to do with this is go through the whole play and particularize everything.” And what that means... It’s a Sandy Meisner expression, which is personalizing, really. Making everything personal. And I said, “Good grief, Sidney, it’s gonna take me a long time to do that!” I mean, there’s so many events through his life that are tragic. He said, “Well, I’m suggesting you do it.” And so I did. And, of course, it made the play much easier to perform. I didn’t have to fake anything. It was all there. So I did it for about seven years. It’s funny: we thought that the combination of Gomez and Poe would be good, but people weren’t really interested in Poe.
AVC: I’m surprised.
JA: As was I, I can tell you that! But eventually the word got out on the play, and it was very successful. We sold out everywhere. It was just that there was so much there once we made it real. It became commercial.
AVC: Is there a full-length filmed version of it?
JA: Well, we took it outside the country, too, and when we were in Australia... It was a sit-down run. A lot of the time it was a one-nighter here and a one-nighter there, but when we were in Australia, we sat down for a month. And toward the end of the run, I hired three... I’ll call them cinematographers. It was Beta that they used, and it was in PAL. I don’t know if you know the difference, but there are different formats used by different countries, and European and the English-speaking parts of the [British] empire, I guess, use the PAL format instead of the NTSC, which is what America uses. So I’ve got to get the stuff transferred...or digitized, actually. Once that happens, I have a lot of experience in editing, so I’ll edit it myself. But the last time I edited anything, it was on a 35mm Moviola!
I got into the editing business at one point and ended up with a lot of equipment which was very good, very expensive, very heavy... [Laughs.] There was one graphics machine that did beautiful work, but it became obsolete. I wanted to give it away to somewhere that it could be used—I think it cost me $50,000!—so I tried public television and all kinds of places, but nobody wanted it. So one day one of my kids and I went and hauled the machine to the junkyard. It’s a tough business!