John Astin was one of Hollywood's most instantly recognizable actors, known especially for genially twisted characters with slightly mad smiles.
He was born in Edgar Allan Poe's hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, but was raised in nearby Washington, D.C., where his father was the Director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards.
Astin originally wanted to become a mathematician. He enrolled at Washington and Jefferson University as a math major. However, when he appeared in a school drama as an extracurricular activity he discovered he had a love for the stage. He went to the University of Minnesota as a graduate student in drama and appeared in dozens of plays.
He traveled to New York in an effort to break into acting. In typical fashion, he took a variety of other work. One of his jobs was as a sweeper in the theater of an off-Broadway theater, which housed the classic first New York production of Kurt Weill's The Three-Penny Opera in its then (1952) new English translation. Eventually, he got a part in the production, and appeared on the original cast album issued by American Decca. (The recording was remastered and re-released on the Decca Broadway label in 2000.)
In 1956 he married another actor, Susanne Hahn. (They had three children, all sons.) He continued doing small roles, and earned money doing television cartoon voices. He also landed a job understudying the great Charles Laughton in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. When he got a chance to play it on-stage, the performance was rated as "electrifying."
His friend Tony Randall urged Astin to move to Hollywood with the promise that his agent would help Astin get work. Astin obtained parts in The Pusher (1960), That Touch of Mink (1962), The Wheeler Dealers (1963), and Move Over, Darling (1963), most of which were light comedies. He also got his first starring role in a television series, the short-lived 1962 effort I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. This led directly to his career-defining role, as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (1964-1966), with Astin portraying the always-eager character with a twisted smile that escaped being evil because of its boyish spirits. It was only a modest ratings success in its first season on ABC, though now regarded a classic series. It was ambushed the second season when CBS, ripping off the Addams' idea of a macabre family, placed the more slapstick series The Munsters opposite.
For better or worse, Astin was now typecast. (He said he didn't mind: "I love that character and I'm happy to have that identification.") He played a wide range of characters in numerous films, TV projects, and theatrical production, but a notable percentage of them had the mock-evil or off-center quality of Gomez. One of them, the TV movie Evil Roy Slade (1971), is a cult classic and one of the TV shows most requested for video release. He appeared in a number of Killer Tomato movies, National Lampoon's European Vacation, and a number of comedy-supernatural shows such as Teen Wolf Too, Freaky Friday, and Mr. Boogedy, and had a recurring role on the TV series Night Court (1988-1990). Beginning in the late '90s he frequently appeared in a one-actor play, Once Upon a Midnight, based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe.
His marriage ended in divorce in 1972, the year he married the award-winning actress Patty Duke, with whom he had two more sons. The couple divorced in 1985. In 1989, Astin married Valerie Ann Sandobal. Two of his sons, Sean and Mackenzie Astin, have enjoyed success in major motion pictures.