The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Sean Astin
By Mother Brain
Every great movie has to have a character who serves as the heart of the story. They may not always be the center protagonist. But what they offer to the protagonist as well as the audience is a sense of trust and likability. Ever since he hit the scene in 1985’s The Goonies, Sean Astin has been one of the most loved actors in the world. As a child actor, he avoided the pitfalls of crime and drugs that affected most of his peers and has created of body of work not only as a successful actor but also a producer/director.
The son of Hollywood legends John Astin (Gomez on The Adams Family) and Patty Duke (The Diary of Helen Keller), Astin was born in Santa Monica in 1971. Controversy surrounded his parentage as Hollywood gossip reporters suggested that Astin was the son of Desi Arnaz, Jr., who briefly dated Duke (his biological father, Michael Tell, would be revealed by way of paternity test in 1994). He was also the half-brother of another up and coming star, Mackenzie Astin. Being surrounded by show business from an early age, Astin naturally caught the acting bug while attending school. In 1981, he made his acting debut opposite his mother in the after school special, Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. The role proved difficult for 9 year old Astin who had to take physical abuse from his real life mother on camera. Rather than crying in his early scenes, he would laugh hysterically. Eventually, Duke would take her son aside, teach him how important it was to sell their performances, and made him cry for the cameras.
After appearing in a few television films, Astin got the biggest break of his early career when he was cast as Mikey Walsh in the Steven Spielberg production of The Goonies. Under the direction of Richard Donner, Astin was cast alongside Corey Feldman, Josh Brolin, Martha Plimpton, and countless other young stars in the story about seven kids in a neighborhood on the brink of foreclosure who go seeking pirate treasure while avoiding a band of fugitives known as the Fratellis. With all the adventure and excitement of the film with its chaotic special effects, dazzling production design, and red hot soundtrack lead by Cyndi Lauper, The Goonies would leave an enduring legacy for generations to come. Much of its success had to do with Astin’s performance as the de-facto leader of the pack willing to risk everything to make such an amazing discovery. One could say he was to the Goonies what Michael Jackson was to the Jackson 5 (ironically, Jackson would visit the set of the film and invite the cast to the 1984 Victory Tour).
I personally love the scene in the wishing well when the Goonies want to return home and he encourages to continue the adventure to save their town. Everytime I see it, I would nearly shed a tear:
Following the success of The Goonies, Astin would work steadily for the rest of the 80s while attending high school at Crossroads High School For the Arts and later studied at Stella Adler. He would go from the Wargames-style Disney movie, The B.R.A.T. Patrol, Kirk Cameron’s best friend in Like Father Like Son, a city kid guided through the wilderness with Kevin Bacon in White Water Summer, and the teenage son of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.
While studying for his degree in History and English at UCLA in the early 90s, Astin transitioned into more teen roles with some edge. He became a young man of action as part of the ensembles for 1990’s Memphis Belle, followed by 1991’s Toy Soldiers. The latter film, a cross between The Goonies and Red Dawn, featured Astin as a bad boy prep school student who has to lead his fellow students to safety after their campus gets raided by Columbian terrorists. Besides engaging in the film’s intense action sequences, it is the only movie on record where Astin’s bare backside is shown! There’s was also a return to more lighthearted comedic fare with the 1992 hit, Encino Man, opposite Pauly Shore and newcomer Brendan Fraser as the title character. Astin took a more serious turn as a drug addicted teenage runaway in the indie drama Where the Day Takes You. He was part of an ensemble of actors who accepted small salaries against their agents’ advice and spent time with real life runaways on the streets of L.A. to prepare. The film would be more known today as Will Smith’s feature big screen debut.
Astin’s next role earned him worldwide acclaim playing the physically short and dyslexic college football legend Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger in Rudy. While not a huge financial success, Rudy has gone on to become considered one of the best sports movies not only of the 1990s but of all cinema history. Rudy’s story of defying adversity in playing football for Notre Dame inspired generations thanks to the sense of heart that Astin had dedicated to nailing his performance.
Other highly visible character-driven performances soon followed in such films as Courage Under Fire opposite Denzel Washington, Warren Beatty’s Bullworth, and the title role in the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Harrison Bergerson. During this time, Astin took on the title as director with his debut short film, Kangaroo Court. The film starred Gregory Hines, co-produced by Astin’s spouse, Christine Astin, and went on to get nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars.
With so many accomplishments in his young career, however, Astin was still primarily associated with Mikey from The Goonies. That changed in the early 2000s when Peter Jackson cast him as the Hobbit, Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The long overdue project was a four year journey for Astin and his ensemble cast. Much like The Goonies, Astin bonded with fellow castmates including Frodo himself, Elijah Wood. The relationship between Astin and Wood’s characters served as the heart of the trilogy with Samwise as the overprotective friend doing everything humanly possible to prevent Frodo from getting mentally twisted up by the Gollum and the power of the One Ring. The role also proved to be the most physically demanding for Astin who had to gain nearly 40 pounds and walk barefoot throughout the series. At one point during shooting, Astin stepped on a piece of glass when he ran to save Frodo in a lake and was rushed to a nearby hospital. On the brighter side, Astin not only used his time on set to produce his second short film, The Long and Short of It, featuring many cast and crew members, but he also persuaded Jackson to hire his real life daughter Alexandra to play Samwise’s daughter, Elanor.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy made Astin instantly recognizable to a new generation of moviegoers and he took advantage of his renewed career. He befriended Adam Sandler who cast him in his hit comedies, 50 First Dates and Click. He worked frequently on television appearing in hit shows like 24, Monk, NCIS, Law & Order, and directing episodes of Jeremiah and Angel. Astin also lent his voiceover talents on a wide variety of projects including Hercules in Kingdom Hearts, Men of Valor, Balto III, and frequently reprising Samwise in a series of Lord of the Rings video games. His most famous of all the voiceovers, however, is that of Raphael in the all-new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.
As for the future, there’s plenty more acting and directing plans for Astin including The Boys of Abu Ghraib and an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. What’s looking to be less and less of a reality is the long awaited Goonies sequel which Astin and his fellow castmates had campaigned hard for since reuniting for the DVD audio commentary in 2001. But as he said in that 1985 film, “Goonies never say die,” and Sean Astin’s body of work rings true to that phrase. You never quit when the going gets tough. That is what makes him the heart of most of the movies he’s in.