John Astin was initially afraid he couldn't do justice to Gomez Addams
Even though The Addams Family only lasted for two seasons in the mid-Sixties, Gomez Addams remains one of the most memorable TV characters of all time because actor John Astin refused to play him as a cliché.
When the "kooky" TV show based on the popular one-panel cartoon first hit airwaves in 1964, a reviewer for The Ventura County Star-Free Press expressed pitch-perfectly what everyone who tuned in saw in Astin as the show's star: "to see him sporting a mustache and grinning slyly with a long cigar in a corner of his mouth, and looking passionately at his wife as though spoofing every bad Latin movie lover with flashing eyes, is a show in itself."
For Astin, reviews like that must've been a huge relief, because when he initially got cast as Gomez, he was scared he'd never live up the role.
"I was skeptical at first about taking on this series because I wasn’t too sure whether I could do justice to Charles Addams's cartoons," Astin told The Baltimore Sun in 1964. "I didn't want the characters to come off like ghouls or monsters. Addams's cartoons are almost indescribable – except to say 'It's Addams.' They imply violence, yet they're not violent. They somehow permit a person to release aggressive feelings without feeling guilty."
To create the TV version of Gomez Addams, Astin said was a particular challenge because, "All we had to start with was a physical idea, which I couldn't follow at all … because I didn't resemble the Addams characters."
The only way Astin resembled the Addams Family father (remember — "Gomez" did not have a name until the TV show) was in the distinctive mustache the actor was already sporting before he got cast. Perhaps that perfect mustache was what sealed the deal for series creator David Levy, who told The Sun, "There was no one I wanted for the part of Gomez other than Astin."
To further develop the role, Astin decided it would take more than a mustache. He looked deep into his own childhood, growing up in a "big old house, not unlike the Addams Family's."
He remembered when he first started getting interested in being an entertainer, he would perform magic tricks in the "dark corners of his big old basement." He said tapping into those memories helped him step into Gomez's very particular shoes, ready to sashay or swordfight at the drop of a hat.
"I've tried to capture in Gomez the spirit of the cartoons which makes him a nonconformist," Astin told The Tribune in 1964. "The only thing Gomez is afraid of is the cliché."
By rejecting portraying Gomez as a cliché, Astin, of course, become quite iconic, and the first year the show was being produced, The Selma Times-Journal reported that practically the whole crew had styled their faces to sport Gomez mustaches.
Sometimes Astin would get so lost playing the character that he would actually burn his fingers on Gomez's signature cigar. If you watch "The Addams Family Tree," in the early scene when Gomez helps Pugsley wrap a present, he burns a finger on his cigar. You can spot rare moments where the actor breaks character to peek at his sooted fingertips.
Astin's stylish portrayal of Gomez sparked a craze that reignites every Halloween as costumed fans continue doing their best impressions, decades later. There was one moment in the interview with The Tribune where Astin's personal beliefs about how actors should act seemed to show a side of him that rivaled the passion that we more commonly associate with Gomez. And that passion perfectly sums up why Astin was just perfect for the part, despite initially fearing he'd be inadequate.
"If you're playing a death scene, you must die with life," Astin explained. "Even negative ideas must be played positively. All the best actors have been able to do that."