Fifty years after "The Addams Family" debuted on TV in black and white, John Astin still has that wild gleam in his eye and the same mischievous grin.
With his thick mustache, albeit a white one, he could easily be Gomez Addams in his debonair golden years — minus the eyeliner, pinstriped suit and cigar.
Now 84, the veteran actor recently told a rapt audience of student thespians at Glenelg High School what most people familiar with the popular show already suspected — a lot of his personality went into creating the patriarch of one of the oddest families ever on TV.
Finding a part of yourself that you can meld into an authentic portrayal of a character is something all actors should pursue, he told the cast of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts' summer production of the Broadway musical based on the 1964-1966 series.
The students took a break from rehearsing Monday to hear Astin's insights from the original TV show as well as his tips on acting. The Teen Professional Theatre, whose student actors are chosen by audition, will hold performances July 24-27 at the school.
"We have a high caliber of talent since most of these kids have already been leads in their schools' productions," said Toby Orenstein, who founded CCTA as a nonprofit in 1972 at the request of Columbia founder James Rouse.
The theater has received five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, she said, as well as funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Howard County Arts Council and the Community Foundation of Howard County.
Glenelg's choir room filled with laughter and applause as Astin, a visiting professor of theater arts at the Johns Hopkins University, spoke for an hour and then graciously agreed to have his photo taken over and over.
The actor — whom Orenstein described as "sharp, fun and humble"— reminisced about his work in theater, movies and TV but conceded that Gomez is the character he is most remembered for, though he was originally envisioned in the role of the butler, who would later be named Lurch.
This lasting association is due, in part, because he and TV wife Morticia were "nuts about each other," as evidenced by their onscreen public displays of affection, something considered indecent in most TV broadcasts back then, Astin said.
Spencer Franco, 19, a blond theater major from Columbia who will dye his hair black to portray Gomez, asked what he loved most about Morticia.
"Well …" Astin paused, relying on his cheeky grin to play the moment to optimal comedic effect as the audience roared approval. "Is my face red? She was hot," he finally said of the late Carolyn Jones. He took the bit further by seizing the chance to introduce his wife of 26 years, Valerie, who was sitting in the audience.
Astin advised students to dig deep to find parts of their personalities that can be integrated into their roles. "Go into yourself so that what you say is genuine," he said.
The comedy series looms large in pop culture even though it was canceled after two seasons by a network executive who viewed it as "a fad at the end of its cycle" despite high ratings, Astin said. The TV show was based on nameless characters developed by New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams.
Astin surprised listeners when he said he'd been a math major at Hopkins in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was a few credits shy of completing his course work when he changed his major to English and began working in the theater department, he said. His father, a respected scientist, was heartbroken initially but soon supported his career choice.
"I was stunned by the wonders of the theater, and I still believe in its importance as a cultural institution," said Astin, who has also portrayed Edgar Allan Poe to critical acclaim. "Theater can tell us something about what it is to be human. It must exist, and that's why I'm at Hopkins now."
Astin is hoping to establish a theater major at Hopkins, which now offers only a minor, he said.
He also discussed the mechanics of comedy with the students.
"Humor is basically the breaking of context, and dying is the greatest break. When you don't die, laughter is the reaction. Funny is good."
He cited examples from Addams' cartoons: Morticia knocking on a neighbor's door and asking to borrow a cup of cyanide, and Uncle Fester signaling a driver behind his slow-moving vehicle to pass even as a big truck approaches from the other direction.
"This was a device of implied violence," he said. "No one got hurt, and we allowed ourselves to laugh.
"I reasoned that Charlie [Addams] was trying to wake people up to the wonder and magic of daily life" with his cartoons, he said. "That's the key."
Astin said the original scriptwriters had a real problem creating obstacles for the family to overcome because the characters got along so well despite their considerable idiosyncrasies.
"Gomez lies to Morticia [in this production] if I'm not mistaken," he said, directing his comment to director Kevin McAllister in the audience. "If you have to go that route, note that it doesn't work all that well" as a plot device.
Earlier, McAllister told Astin his vision for the play is "to stay true to the original idea of 'The Addams Family' while honoring the new version," which has now-teenage Wednesday Addams secretly dating a "normal" boy.
"I want to pull back on the concept of her teen angst while merging that into what the show calls for," McAllister said.
Orenstein, who also runs Toby's Dinner Theatre, spoke up from the audience during Astin's talk to ask him to address young actors' fear of taking risks.
"You have to fail," Astin said. "Be generous with your fellow actors about being bad, being wrong. Don't be afraid! If you make a mistake, fix it.
"Every single one of you has greatness within. Bring that forth, whatever it is."
After his remarks, someone suggested that the group sing for Astin. With musical director Ross Rawlings on piano, the students belted out part of a song from the play with fitting lyrics: "When you're an Addams, you do what Addamses do or die."
"Hooray!" Astin cheered. "You guys really get that out there. That was great."
If you go
Performances of "The Addams Family" will be held at 7 p.m. July 24-26 and at 2 p.m. July 26-27 at Glenelg High School, 14025 Burntwoods Road. Tickets are $20 for adults; $17.50 for seniors, students and military personnel. To purchase tickets or obtain group rates, call the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts at 410-381-0700 or go to CCTArts.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun