Tickled to Death Scrooge: Far from despising Gomez Addams as the character who pigeonholed him, John Astin is thankful for that ghost of TV seasons past.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This Baltimore native's first movie was "West Side Story." He co-starred in an episode of "The Twilight Zone" with Cliff Robertson. A short film he wrote and directed was nominated for an Oscar. He played a theater critic in a TV series starring Mary Tyler Moore. He's had guest shots on "Night Court" and "Mad About You." And, beginning tomorrow evening, he'll be playing Scrooge at the Morris Mechanic Theater through Sunday.

Give up? How about one more clue?

He was the original Gomez Addams.

Oh, yeah, John Astin. That guy.

"I consider myself very lucky," Mr. Astin says of his continued identification with a series that went off the air three decades ago, but lives on in reruns and theatrical films. "I am deeply grateful for the experience. I feel it was an expression of my own spirit, something I really wanted to communicate to others. It's something that transcends money or show business or anything like that."

Far from being fed up with the mustachioed, effervescent Gomez, Mr. Astin, 65, sounds genuinely pleased that so many continue to remember him so fondly. Small wonder; not only was "The Addams Family" a consistently funny show -- has any TV series ever done a better job of transferring a cartoon's spirit from paper to screen? -- but few characters have ever been portrayed with more elan than the head of the Addams clan (that's the two-D Addamses, not to be confused with those pesky one-D Adamses in Massachusetts).

Whether he was bouncing on his trampoline, blowing up trains with his Uncle Fester, parrying swords with Lurch the butler or speaking French to his beloved Morticia, Gomez Addams personified the idea of joi de vivre, of living life to the fullest and enjoying every second if it. He was the nutty uncle everyone wished they had.

His turn as Scrooge may come as a surprise to some of his fans.

"I think you'd have to look pretty hard" to find any trace of Gomez on stage at the Mechanic, Mr. Astin says with a laugh. "Gomez is really the reverse image of Scrooge. Gomez understands the joy of life. Everything Gomez has, Scrooge is missing."

Which shouldn't imply that he's enjoying Scrooge any less than he enjoyed Gomez. In some ways, acting in a "Christmas Carol" is something he's been preparing for most of his life.

"I have always loved this story," Mr. Astin recalls over the phone from Branson, Mo., his touring company's penultimate stop before closing its season in Baltimore this week. "Listening to Lionel Barrymore do it over the radio when I was a kid was part of our seasonal ritual."

Until he took on the role of Scrooge last year, Mr. Astin was probably one of the few actors to have never performed in an adaptation of the Dickens classic. "Not even in grade school," he says in a Gomez-like aside, using a tone of voice that can't help but have an exclamation mark at the end of every sentence.

Still, he's hardly new to the story. What human being is? And he has some thoughts on what has made "A Christmas Carol" the holiday staple it is.

"I don't think there is anything in this story to turn off anyone," he says. "The message is universal, absolutely pure -- that life itself is extremely important, that the dignity of every individual human life must be acknowledged, must be understood, if we are to experience true happiness. The implication of this story is that no one is a hopeless case, not any of us. Dickens takes this seemingly irredeemable character in Scrooge and allows us to see how he is transformed virtually overnight."

Plus, he adds, the story's appeal "is universal. Though it is nominally [a Christian story], it is really something that's acceptable to virtually every religion. I don't think it's restricted at all in that way."

Mr. Astin has seen and heard scores of Scrooges over the years, and Lionel Barrymore isn't the only one he remembers fondly. As youngsters, he and his brother bought their mother a 78-rpm record of "A Christmas Carol," with British stage actor Eustace Wyatt as Scrooge. Along with Barrymore and Alastair Sim's definitive film version, it has remained a point of reference for Mr. Astin's characterization. His brother, he believes, still has the record.

But Baltimore theatergoers should not expect a carbon copy of his predecessors, he stresses. Every actor brings a different shading to the role, and this staging of "A Christmas Carol" allows Ebenezer Scrooge to transform gradually from a humbug skinflint to a man who promises to "honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."

There's a reason, Mr. Astin believes, that Scrooge has to be visited by three ghosts before he renounces his old ways. Each advances the transformation a bit. Christmas Past, which visits first, takes Scrooge back to his childhood home -- "blows him away," the actor says -- but only begins the process.

Scrooge does not renounce his ways immediately, but continues to try "to justify some of his past life," Mr. Astin says. "You can't have an immediate conversion."

It's not until Christmas Future, and the visit to the graveyard, that the new Scrooge fully emerges.

"This adaptation allows the transformation to take place gradually," Mr. Astin explains, allowing the audience to watch "a very interesting development of Scrooge throughout the piece."

Any Baltimorean who was a devoted theatergoer in the early 1950s has, no doubt, been able to watch a very interesting development of John Astin over the years. Although the Astins moved from the city shortly after John was born on March 30, 1930 (his physicist father, Allen, lost his fellowship at Johns Hopkins and took a job in Washington with the National Bureau of Standards), he returned here in 1950 to attend college.

As a math and theater student at the Johns Hopkins University, he acted in productions ranging from Lillian Hellmann's "The Little Foxes" to "Macbeth," "Our Town," T.S. Eliot's "The Family Reunion" and others.

"I prowled those streets quite a bit," he recalls, spending a year in a rented room on 34th Street and signing up for 27 credit hours of classes his senior year.

It was, he admits, "rather chaotic," but it led to a career -- not as the mathematician he had once planned on becoming, but in the theater.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Astin took the stage as an understudy in Charles Laughton's Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara." Tony Randall saw him, was impressed, and offered the young actor a part in a summer production of "Good-Bye Again."

Soon after, he landed what his bio identifies as his first motion picture role, in "West Side Story" as director of the youth center where Tony and Maria first meet. Mr. Astin laughingly admits, however, that his real first role was in a deservedly forgotten film, "The Pusher," in which his only scripted line was, "Right, lieutenant." No wonder that movie has been erased from his filmography.

Five years after "West Side Story" was released, he landed the television role that would elevate him from actor to pop-culture icon. And he's been enjoying the ride ever since.

Fans still send him mail, Mr. Astin says, and they're always asking him to do Gomez. And if he's never been able to escape the character's shadow, who cares?

"There may have been roles that I would have gotten had 'The Addams Family' not aired, because people said, 'Oh, well, everybody knows him as Gomez,' that sort of thing. If that's true, so be it," Mr. Astin says, certainly sounding like he means it. "I have not the slightest hint of a regret."

'A Christmas Carol'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday

Tickets: $17.50, $25, $29.50 Tuesday through Thursday; $20, $27.50, $35 Friday through Sunday

Call: (410) 625-1400

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