A major boyhood injury led John Astin to become an actor
It took Astin two years to recover after tripping over a tree root. As Gomez, he was known for gymnastic feats and effortlessly smooth moves.
Toward the end of The Addams Family episode "Gomez, the Politician," you’ll see Gomez lying on the floor, his legs twisted into a pretzel above his head.
He rocks a few times and springs forward onto his feet with a dancer’s grace.
In many ways, John Astin made The Addams Family the most fun to watch. It was the limber and unpredictable way he moved, like a living spring you expect to go boing-oing-oing, he elevated the energy of the entire sitcom.
Gomez is the kind of character you never expect to make a misstep, and it’s Astin’s unique portrayal that pulls the character off so effortlessly. If you’re a fan of Astin’s, you might have to ask Dick Van Dyke to step aside as you think of John Astin as the Fred Astaire of sitcoms.
And that’s why this story from Astin’s childhood comes out of left field for the actor, considering this image.
When Astin was 13 years old, he didn’t want to be an actor. He instead dreamed of becoming a violinist, or a baseball player.
As active as a kid as he was to watch as Gomez, the teen could always be found playing in the garden at his family’s home, often joined by his father and brother.
This was how he spent his young adolescent days until one fateful day, when Astin was tossing a baseball around with his dad and brother, and he lost his grace for a split second and had an accident so bad, it took two years to recover.
What happened is at once more gruesome than all of Wednesday and Pugsley’s childhood games, and somehow also more wholesome.
Astin was chasing down a ball while his father and brother watched, and he wasn’t looking closely at the garden grounds as he ran. Suddenly, his foot caught a tree root and he crashed into the grass with all his body weight and momentum he’d been using propelling toward the ball.
His arm snapped.
According to The Baltimore Sun in 1964, "The injury to the arm was unusually troublesome, requiring two years to heal. An active teenager forced into inactivity, he underwent what he calls a painful reassessment of himself."
Up to that point, Astin had flirted with show business. When he was 5 years old, he got so good at sleight-of-hand, he started performing shows for his friends. He continued these kinds of diversions for the next 10 years.
After breaking his arm, though, Astin had to set aside the violin, baseball and performing onstage. He saw his injury as fate showing him the way to becoming an academic, like his father. He figured his last talent he had left was in math, so maybe he’d study that.
Off he went to college, bound to be a mathematician.
But then he got a chance to play a different oddball character, a role which convinced Astin that acting could still be his future.
He joined a summer theater group when he got cast as "a tall invisible rabbit" that serves as an eccentric old man’s best friend in a production of Harvey. Next, he took on the role of the Wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood."
These were the characters that led him to play Gomez, but it wasn’t a straight and easy road.
Astin had to learn to bend on command, just like we watched Gomez do, hoping to convince directors he was the right man for the unusual roles he pursued.
In his career, he felt like his striking, unique appearance made him look like "a nobody" in the eyes of these directors.
We’d argue it was Astin overcoming that impression that ended up pushing him to become such a big somebody— by proving he had what it took and forcing each director to reassess him based on what he could do, just as he had painfully reassessed himself after his injury so long ago.
"I wasn’t good-looking enough to be the leading man or ugly enough to be the heavy," Astin said. "I was nobody’s preconception of anything."
That’s ultimately what made Astin a star.