Wearing a gray newsboy cap and carrying a leather organizer, John Astin looks like the very model of a Johns Hopkins professor as he strides across the Homewood campus en route to lunch at the Brody Learning Commons cafe. And yet, this esteemed college campus—rife with Nobel Prize winners and eminent scholars—seems like an unlikely place for a star sighting of the actor who played Gomez, the loveably madcap father figure from the ABC hit series, The Addams Family.
But make no mistake, Astin is not on-location to play a pedagogue—he is one.
As director of the Undergraduate Program in Theater Arts and Studies, the 83-year-old actor is something of a rarity not only on this campus but on any campus.
“I don’t know one major university that has a known actor teaching every day,” says Astin, smiling from behind his trademark mustache, long grown gray.
Surprising as it may seem, the fact that Astin is now entrenched in the world of academia at one of America’s finest educational institutions is not really, as they say in the biz, playing against type. After all, Astin graduated from Hopkins in 1952; his father, Dr. Allen Varley Astin, was the director of the then National Bureau of Standards (and did his post-doctoral work at Hopkins), and his brother Alexander is considered one of the most influential scholars in the field of higher-education research.
“There are Ph.D.’s through my family, though I’m not one of them,” says Astin, who was born in Baltimore but raised in D.C. Though when it came to academics, Astin was far from a slouch.
A stellar student, Astin first attended Washington & Jefferson College on a scholarship, as a math major. He was so strong in the subject, he was able to complete an entire semester’s worth of work in one night. “It was a very tough course on differential equations,” he recalls between bites of a vegetable samosa. “I loved math as a kid and enjoyed it so much I thought I’d become a mathematician. I liked that there were definite answers to things.”
But after hitchhiking to visit a high-school friend at The College of Wooster in Ohio, Astin had a life-changing experience: He attended a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright peforming the role of the narrator.
“I had seen perhaps two plays in my life,” says Astin. “And I had the great good fortune to see this with Thornton Wilder, whom I had never heard of before.”
The experience of watching the play about the fragility of life overwhelmed him. As he made his way home, Astin recalls thinking, “What an incredible medium this is that my consciousness could be so influenced by spending two-and-a-half hours in that theater.”
In 1950, Astin decided to transfer to Hopkins, which was strong in math, closer to his parents’ D.C. home, and had a department of writing, speech, and drama. By the end of his first semester, Astin was well bitten by the bug and decided to officially change his major to drama.
“This was terrible for my father,” Astin admits. “It was a stunner for him.”
Still, after graduation, when success came quickly—as a submarine commander in Operation Petticoat, as the Riddler on ABC’s Batman, as an unemployment office clerk with Doris Day and Cary Grant in the film That Touch of Mink—it was hard for the elder Astin to hide his pride.
“My father was laconic,” says Astin. “But he told me that in the barbershop he used to be known as Dr. Astin and now he was known as Harry Dickens’s father”—from a comedic turn Astin did in the 1962 sitcom I’m Dickens . . . He’s Fenster.
No doubt, his late father would be smiling now, as well.
In late 2000, when longtime friend—and Hopkins humanities professor—John Irwin presented Astin with the prospect of a one-semester guest gig, the actor was easily convinced.
“I simply said to him, ‘This is your alma mater. If your schedule allows it, why don’t you consider visiting for a semester and teaching here?’” says Irwin, who met Astin years earlier when he came to campus with then-wife Patty Duke to do a poetry reading. “His initial reaction was, ‘When should I get on the plane?’”
At the time, Hopkins was looking to reinstitute the drama aspect of the Department of Writing, Speech, and Drama that had been eliminated due to budget cuts dating back to 1953.
“In some sense, he was the ideal person,” says Irwin. “He had so many skills in so many different areas—he’s been active in theater, in television and film, and as an actor and director his whole life.”
Astin, one of only a handful of drama majors to graduate from Hopkins, deeply felt the dearth of drama on campus, too.
“There was nothing, not even a minor—just student theater groups,” he says. “There was no program, no department, not even a single course. It was a wasteland.”
So what was supposed to last for a single semester quickly blossomed into a late-in-life second career.
“He enjoyed it,” says Irwin, “and the students enjoyed being taught by him.”
Twelve years later, Astin has a small fiefdom on the Hopkins campus in the lovely, 19th-century red-brick Merrick Barn, once used to house dairy cattle. The building contains Astin’s office (cluttered with plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and others), a scene-building workshop, his classroom, and the thing that seems to tickle him more than any of his professional accomplishments—the 100-seat The John Astin Theatre. (Longtime friend Ed Asner and Astin’s two actor sons, Sean and Mackenzie, were all on hand when the theater was unveiled in 2011.)
On campus, Astin teaches acting, directing, theater and stage management, contemporary theater and film, and theater history to roughly 150 students a year. He also directs (and occasionally even acts in) several productions each semester, from original plays to classics by Lanford Wilson and Samuel Beckett. Last year, in the ultimate meta moment, Astin and his wife, Valerie Sandobal Astin, even took a crowd of his kids to see a performance of The Addams Family musical at the Hippodrome Theatre.
And though his students were born long after the affable actor got his first big Hollywood break with a small part in the 1961 film West Side Story, they are aware of his fame.
“When I started teaching here, the kids knew who I was, and they still know who I am, which surprises me,” says Astin. “[Because] some students don’t even know who Marlon Brando is.”
Astin wants to make one thing clear: His class is no walk in the park. On a campus where science and engineering are among the most popular majors, students are often amazed by the rigor of Astin’s classes.
“I know that some students will take an acting course as a diversion from biomedical engineering and then they may become surprised there’s a lot more work than they thought there would be,” says Astin.
“Good acting is not simply a reflection of the character you are assaying—it’s [finding] the complete whole essence of the person and having the discipline to first [draw on your own emotions] and then let the external develop as it does with us in life.”
One visit to the barn and it’s clear that Astin’s students adore him—whether they wave to him from across campus, linger long after class is over, or engage him in side conversations about their craft. (“Enunciate,” he instructs one student. “Just do it. Don’t think about it. That’s the key to acting,” he tells another.)
“John is one of those people who takes you under his wing,” says senior Kristina Kelvy, a drama minor. “He teaches you much more than about the theater—he teaches you about life.”
Indeed, some students have told Astin that his presence on campus was the deciding factor in their decision to attend Hopkins.
Elizabeth Gilbert, who graduated in the Class of 2007, is one such student.
“He was the reason I decided to come to Hopkins,” says Gilbert, who landed a role on Broadway in A Man for All Seasons just a year after graduating and has been acting regularly ever since (her CV includes stints on The Young and the Restless and with the LA sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings). “I still look at my old notes from his class. He gave me the tools to look at any character and find myself in that character—he really inspired me.”
Astin, whose ultimate goal is to re-establish drama as a major, has learned from his students as well.
“The first semester you never could have convinced me that anyone can act,” he says. “But anyone can. Pick a student and I can teach that student to act.”
With so many fans on campus, Astin, who most recently earned accolades as Edgar Allan Poe in the one-man play Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight, says he and wife Val have no plans to hit the road any time soon.
“I turned down offers in New York to do Poe on Broadway and many other offers as well,” he says. “That will give you an idea of how I feel about the theater program. My mission is to create something with this program that will be permanent and will work when I’m not around.”