Astin draws on iconic movie roles to find meaning of friendship

Actor and director Sean Astin sits in conversation with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill for his Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation Friday in the Amphitheater. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

For decades, millions have watched Sean Astin play the best friend on the big screen.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff where I’m kind of a jerk, but nobody remembers those,” he joked.

Astin is most remembered for his roles as Mikey Walsh in “The Goonies,” Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger in “Rudy” and Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. After all these years – or perhaps it was always there – the joyful camaraderie of these characters seems to have rubbed off on him. He shared how friendship has influenced his career, and his life, at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, closing Week One of the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme “On Friendship.”

Astin’s affinity toward friendship began before his acting career when his mother, actress Patty Duke, was raising him on her own. Shortly after his birth, Duke married actor John Astin who, along with bringing three boys of his own into the family, adopted the young Astin.

“There was all this kind of mixture of love, of family, and talent and drama,” he said, “… particularly going from being the one kid my mom had. … It was her and me against the world and then all of the sudden there (were) five boys.”

Growing up with that family dynamic encouraged him to give everything his best effort, whether it was playing baseball with his brothers (which he was never good at, but still wanted to try) or getting a scoop of mashed potatoes at the dinner table.

“I think who you are – who you really are – it comes with you to what you do,” Astin said. “I think that something about that earnestness that I cultivated, and a little bit of a twinkle, a little whimsy, is what Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner saw when they casted me in ‘The Goonies.’ ”

The 1985 comedy follows a group of kids who, while attempting to save their homes from foreclosure, discover a treasure map and go on an adventure to find the long-lost fortune of One-Eyed Willy. The movie – representing friendship, youth and courage – has become iconic in American culture. Astin said its theme of friendship is the most important.

“It’s ultimately a story about these kids not wanting to lose their homes to real estate developers. So, they’re on this quest and they’re trying to save their homes,” he said. “And what sustains them is their friendship.”

This experience of friendship, along with his father instilling in him a philosophy of caring for others, gave him “a lifetime of understanding deeply – in my bones – of what it means to have other people to rely on and what it means to be someone other people can count on.” 

Astin, known for playing what he calls “the best friend” in films like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Goonies,” shared insights from his life and work with Chautauquans. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Because of this, he entered every role with an “embedded sense of community.” With each movie, that community grew stronger. 

In “Rudy,” it was the support  Dennis “D-Bob” McGowan showed for his titular character that stuck with him.

“At the moment, the crescendo moment, the apex of (Rudy’s) success, (D-Bob) gets to see it,” said Astin. “And it’s pure. He’s not selfish, he’s like, ‘I love that guy! That’s my friend!’ ”

 Astin’s character in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Samwise, is considered by many to be the epitome of friendship. A loyal member of the Fellowship of the Ring, Sam is a steadfast companion and servant to Frodo Baggins along the hobbits’ journey to destroy the One Ring – even going so far as to carry Frodo when he becomes too weak to continue.

At one point, Frodo is deceived by Gollum and orders Sam to return home. He obliges – despite being despondent without his friend. Faced with his commitment to Frodo and his instinct to protect him, he returns after realizing Gollum has imperiled the hobbit. Together, they finish the journey.

Astin had a realization of the two hobbits’ bond while speaking with Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts, who co-taught a master class with Astin Friday.

In a masterclass offered through Special Studies, Astin speaks with the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts Sony Ton-Aime Friday afternoon in Smith Wilkes Hall. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

“We realized every journey is lonely; there’s a profound loneliness that comes with anything that we do that’s worthwhile, the sacrifice it takes,” Astin said. “When you come through it, and you reflect back, the pain of that loneliness makes it sweeter.”

As an actor, Astin is no stranger to loneliness; his schedule requires him to spend long periods of time away from family, especially his wife Christine, who he considers his best friend. But, he said, when the two of them come together, even when it feels as if the world is collapsing around them, their bond seems immortal.

“If we get to the end of our life, if we’re blessed to live a long life, and we can look back on the sweep of our life and know that we shared it together, that we experienced it together, … it’ll make dying easier,” Astin said.

Frodo and Sam’s friendship was inspired by author J. R. R. Tolkien’s batmen in the First World War. A batman was a soldier who, along with fighting on the frontline, was tasked with looking after their officer. 

Tolkien wrote in a 1956 letter to H. Cotton Minchin, “My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier – grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

Tolkien turned these experiences into bedtime stories for his son to teach him the importance of friendship; these bedtime stories became the first drafts of The Hobbit.

Astin said since starring in “The Lord of the Rings” he has met soldiers who need the books in their lives. Veterans have come to embrace Tolkien’s stories – ones of service and sacrifice – and some even get tattoos embodying Sam as a protector.

“My favorite thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ bar none … is that they became a locus for families and friends to communicate with each other,” he said.

In 2017, Astin starred as Bob Newby in the second season of “Stranger Things,” a show with a young cast he called “stone-cold professionals.” Now, he is no longer the young actor, but instead the seasoned veteran, sharing lessons he’s learned during his career with today’s young actors, filling the same shoes he once did.

His daughter, Ali, recently graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in dramatic arts and anthropology. And, while Astin jokes he didn’t provide her with enough nepotism, the two are working together as she starts her own film career. This summer, he will be directing her in a film that she wrote.

“If you go on a set and you work with young performers, there’s an obligation to protect them or offer them guidance,” he said. “We have to, from generation to generation, protect each other.”

In closing the lecture, Astin recited Sam’s speech from “The Two Towers,” which concludes: “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”


The author webchq