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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Manifesting Greatness: A Conversation with John Astinby Jay Blotcher

I am calling this mid-May morning for veteran TV, film and stage actor John Astin. But the phone is answered by John Astin the academic, who, since 2001, has been teaching drama at Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore. For the better part of this hour-long interview, John Astin the professor dominates the conversation, discussing the history of modern theatre, its Russian antecedents, his unexpected seduction by the dramatic arts while in college, the invaluable training received by mentor Harold Clurman and his early days in the Group Theatre.

“[I spent] five years with Clurman and then fundamental training in theatre generally and (famous “system” educator Constantin) Stanislavski in particular,” Astin said. “I did not promote that in Hollywood because I think that would have cost me work.” He laughs. “Because during my first years in Hollywood, which were the 60s, the so-called ‘Method’ had a bad name.”

A classic acting pedigree—Astin also belonged to a Shakespearean troupe—has allowed him to infuse every role along his 60-year career, no matter how slight, with substance. Consider his teacher at the gym dance in the classic West Side Story, his one-man show as Edgar Allen Poe, or innumerable film roles (Get to Know Your Rabbit and Bunny O’Hare) and television appearances, which include guest spots on The Flying Nun, Batman, Operation Petticoat and Night Court.

No matter how absurd the personage, Astin brings humanity to his role. Especially so in the enduring 1964-66 series The Addams Family, where Astin brought a singular—and unlikely—charm to a libidinous, head-standing, cigar-smoking, cartoon of a man named Gomez. (“Tish, you spoke French!”)

“In fact, my principal tool in developing the character of Gomez Addams was—or part of it was—the use of Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture,” Astin said. “I didn’t tell anybody.” (Yes, Astin saw a preview of the current Addams Family Broadway musical. Diplomatically, he suggested that it did not merit the savage reviews.)

Astin is energetic and voluble as well as philosophical. (He is a practicing Buddhist.) The familiar John Astin voice still transmits youthful slyness and wonderment, even though the man marked his 80th year in March.

It is one week before the end of the school year at Hopkins. Astin must administer final exams and turn in grades. Only then can John Astin, academic, return to being John Astin, actor, and channel his energies into rehearsing for Guest Artist, a dramatic comedy that arrives at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville on June 25 for 15 performances.

Written by actor Jeff Daniels (The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Squid and the Whale, Terms of Endearment as well as Broadway’s current Gods of Carnage), Guest Artist finds rueful humor in that piquant moment when youthful idealism is ridden roughshod over by embittered experience, and art pales before the messiness of real life. Joseph Harris (Astin) is a fading personage. Once he was a celebrated playwright with a Pulitzer to his name. But his genius abruptly left him and even copious amounts of drink could not retrieve it. To keep afloat, Harris accepts speaking engagements. That is why, on this night in particular, he has arrived by bus in Steubenville, Ohio, for an artist-in-residence stint at a local theatre. He is met at the station by 20-something Kenneth from the theater, who still lauds this faded genius. That is, until Harris turns his scorn upon the bright-eyed intern.

While he acts infrequently these days, Astin was coaxed into this production by James Glossman, a fellow faculty member at Hopkins who teaches directing. Astin calls him “a wonderful director,” adding, “I think the extent of his talent is still a secret.” The two met in the early 90s, when Astin's friend, actor Ed Asner, suggested they speak. Glossman persuaded Astin to perform in a new play by Jeffrey Sweet tiled Bluff. (He did so, and reprised his role in a staging at Shadowland, also directed by Glossman.)

The same genial strong-arming happened again recently. Glossman had staged Guest Artist at Hopkins with former student Anthony Blaha playing Waters opposite Larry Pine as the embittered playwright. (Blaha reprises the role of Waters in this production.)

“James and Anthony have been after me for some time to do the play,” Astin said. Still immersed in classes, the actor only had time for a cursory look at the text. But on the strength of his colleagues’ recommendation, he accepted the role.

While Joseph Harris is an unrelentingly spiteful and dyspeptic man, Astin stressed the importance of infusing his character with qualities that garner understanding, if not complete sympathy.

“There’s humanity in everyone. No exceptions. Even the bad guys,” he said. “They’re people ultimately and they are a wonder. There’s something about the human being that can manifest greatness. Every single human being can; it’s just not manifest all of the time.”

John Astin stars in Guest Artist by Jeff Daniels. Directed by James Glossman. June 25 through July 18 at Shadowland Theatre, 157 Canal St, Ellenville., tickets at the box office or call 845.647.5511. Performances Th/Fr/Sa 8 PM, Su 2 PM

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