The return of Gomez Addams

Professor Anthony Elliott with John Astin who played Gomez in The Addams Family. HUMANITIES
Professor Anthony Elliott with John Astin who played Gomez in The Addams Family.

The Addams Family is a rare phenomenon, a TV show with cross-generational appeal which transitioned from our black and white TV screens to the big screen and then the stage.

An American sitcom about an eccentric and macabre family created originally by American cartoonist Charles Addams, its cultural impact far outstripped its two series run in the mid-1960s, thanks to its catchy finger-clicking theme and array of memorable characters including Morticia, Uncle Fester, Lurch and Thing.

Gomez Addams is the family patriarch and the actor who portrayed him, John Astin, reveals how the character was developed in the latest edition of ‘Hawke Talks’ – an online video series from the flagship Hawke Research Institute. The series of online video interviews comprises in-depth discussions with world-renowned public intellectuals in the fields of social sciences, humanities and the creative arts.

Although widely celebrated as Gomez, Astin’s career has spanned TV and film roles in shows as diverse as West Side Story, Batman and The Love Boat. Today, at the age of 85, Astin is back at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, where he is Professor of Drama and Director of the Hopkins Theatre Studies Program.

It was there that Hawke Research Institute Director Professor Anthony Elliot travelled to interview Astin, an opportunity that he describes as ‘magnificent’.

“It was an opportunity to interview one of the great comic geniuses out of the United States in the past century,” Prof Elliott says.

“I interviewed him on the stage where he first performed as an actor in the 1950s, before he was in films such as West Side Story. The theatre was renamed the John Astin Theatre by Johns Hopkins University.

“He’s had an incredibly prolific, diverse career but globally he is best known for one role – Gomez in The Addams Family.”

The interview finds Astin in a reflective mood as he reveals how The Addams Family was conceived and how the character of Gomez owes a slight debt to the Marx Brothers and Nat Perrin.

“Nat Perrin, the producer of The Addams Family had scripted with the Marx Bros in Hollywood and there is a connection between Gomez and Groucho; their physical similarities are apparent,” Prof Elliot says.

“It is interesting to hear John Astin talk about this. The difference is that where Groucho was razor sharp, quick witted, worldly wise and jaded, Gomez actually believes in people, he is witty, yet inspiring, stressing new possibilities.

“It’s a show which has transferred generation to generation because there’s something about that show that transcended the time of its era.”

That ‘something’ is reinforced by fans of The Addams Family, whose online comments and fan blogs show how the comedy holds up well as a social commentary.

Regular episodes often find outsiders visiting the Addams House and departing abruptly after encountering a family so strange and spooky. Yet despite their alternate lifestyle the Addams family is a loving family who find the outside world strange.

“The people around them were leading conventional lives that were stilted and cut off but the Addams family had spontaneity and love,” Prof Elliot says.

The non-conformist message of living your life in your own way and respecting the rights of others to do the same, finds easy parallels in the beatnik and burgeoning hippy culture of the era, with the show’s final broadcast being a year before the Summer of Love came to San Francisco.

Particularly Gomez, in his relationship with Morticia, leapt the generational divide, transcending the more traditional and staid portrayal of TV matrimony in the early-mid 1960s.

“It was the most egalitarian, democratic and inspiring relationship on TV in the mid-60s. It was Astin’s idea that the relationship should be erotically charged and really intense,” Prof Elliott says.

It’s a point that Astin expands on in the interview.

“I felt that Gomez and Morticia should have this intense relationship and thought the romance should be worn in a grand manner, that we were passionately in love which was unusual for TV in those days,” Astin says.

“We could have real children; it was a real relationship – whereas in other shows it was the stork that truly brought the baby in.

“I used to joke we were the best adjusted couple on TV.”

The irony is that the public affection with which Gomez and Morticia are held has ensured the longevity of the show, which as recently as last year was performed on stage in Adelaide, drawing a new generation to appreciate its peculiar power and positivity, a legacy in no small part attributable to John Astin.

The full interview of Prof Elliott talking with John Astin can be viewed below.