The Untold Story of Sean Astin's Four Dads
| LAST UPDATE 04/09/2023
His face is recognizable as the companion to Frodo, yet what a lot of people don't know about actor Sean Astin is that he has four dads. You read that right! Here's his incredible story.
Real-Life Mamma Mia!
When actor Sean Astin was growing up, he had three possible fathers. And yes, this does sound exactly like the plot of the musical Mamma Mia! except this is real life. Who was Sean Astin's real dad?
It would take years before he would finally find out the truth. Yet, through everything, he had his mom, who was a famous actress in her own right, by his side. Patty Duke was one of the most recognizable faces during her peak. And she was involved in quite the scandal…
A Short Marriage
The tabloids could not get enough of the scandal that actress Patty Duke found herself in. She had become pregnant, and she had no clue who the father of her child was. To complicate things even further, it could have been any one of three possible men.
In the summer of 1970, Duke married a man by the name of Michael Tell. He was a music promoter and a writer who was subletting a room from her at the time - but otherwise, a complete stranger. Unsurprisingly, their marriage only lasted 13 days. The two other possible baby daddies may be a little more recognizable.
Around the same time that Duke fell pregnant, she was involved in a love affair with Desi Arnaz Jr. His mother, the famous Lucille Ball, was opposed to their relationship. However, that didn't stop Arnaz and Duke from seeing each other. They continued their relationship whenever they could.
It was pretty controversial, though. Not only was Duke older than Arnaz by six years, but Arnaz was also only 17 when they were together. Arnaz even attended the Emmy Awards with Duke. Was it possible that Sean Astin was the grandson of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball? It's possible. Who could the last option be?
The Astin Family
He's not creepy, kooky, mysterious, or spooky, but he did play Gomez Addams on the television show The Addams Family. A role that he continued to reprise in multiple productions since its original run from 1964 to 1966. Before becoming famous, he fell in love with and married Suzanne Hahn.
They had three children together, David, Allen, and Tom. Yet, things weren't all roses for the couple. John had become involved with Duke while he was still married to Hahn - talk about a spicy affair! This made him the third potential option for Sean's dad.
Who Was the Father?
Any one of three possible men could have been Sean's dad. So, who actually was it? Most readers might be thinking, all Patty needed to do was ask each of the men to agree to a paternity test. They would all give some of their DNA to a lab and know, once and for all, who Sean's dad was.
However, as easy as that would have been, it wasn't an option for them. DNA testing wouldn't be invented for another 13 years. A British professor and geneticist would end up pioneering DNA testing in 1984. Despite not knowing who Sean's biological father was, Patty was determined to create a family for her son.
A Family of Their Own
Even without DNA testing, Duke was confident that her baby's father was actor John Astin. There was only one minor snafu. Astin was still married to his first wife, Suzanne. So, Astin and Duke decided to keep their relationship a secret. For two years, they hid their affair.
After two years, Astin finalized his divorce from Suzanne, and baby Sean was born. In 1972, Astin and Duke married each other. At the ceremony, toddler Sean cried, "Daddy!" to Astin. The priest exclaimed, "Well, that about does it!" They created their own family unit and added to it with the birth of their son, Mackenzie.
A Happy Childhood
Although the mystery of who Sean's father is was the talk of the town, it didn't change his life in the slightest. Astin told PEOPLE magazine in 2001, "There was a lot of stuff in the press early on. [Sean] basically grew up without any real knowledge of all that stuff."
To him, Patty was his loving mother, and John was his supportive father. Those were his parents, and Sean didn't think of anything else. He ran around like any other kid and went to school. Except, part of his childhood wasn't like the rest of the kids in the neighborhood.
The acting bug had bit Sean. When he was ten years old, he landed his first acting role. He played a child with an abusive mother in the television movie Please Don't Hit Me, Mom. He acted alongside his actual mother. Sean didn't have to wait long for his big break.
Only a few years later, he got the role of a lifetime. Sean landed the starring role of Mikey in The Goonies. The 1985 adventure comedy is now a classic and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. Not a bad way to start his acting career.
Although Patty tried hard to provide and create a stable environment for her family, some things were out of her control. Patty would experience manic episodes. In one instance, she was filled with so much rage that she threw her Oscar across the room and shattered it, per PEOPLE.
The actress told the magazine about life during those years with Astin, "It was terrible. I was a truly loving mom, but I didn't have the tools to do the job." Then, in 1982, she finally had an explanation for her behavior. Patty was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The Truth Comes Out
With this new diagnosis, there was an answer to Patty's mood swings, but one mystery remained. Who was Sean's father? Patty had a gut feeling about who it was. When Sean was 14 years old, she sat him down and told him that the father who raised him wasn't actually his dad.
Patty revealed to Sean that his dad was Desi Arnaz Jr. Upon discovering who his birth father was, Sean developed a relationship with Arnaz. Even though he didn't help raise him, the two created a lovely bond. Years later, Astin told ABC News, "Desi Arnaz Jr. loves me, and I love him. We are so close."
Patty had her diagnosis, and while it did explain her actions, it couldn't save everything. Her marriage with John was on the rocks. Duke said, "We had gone as far as we could." Then, in 1985, they decided to end their union. However, Patty wouldn't stay single for long.
She met Seargant Michael Pearce on the TV movie set she was acting in and he was consulting on. Pearce recalled the first time he spotted Patty to PEOPLE, "She looked like a tomato, in her green suit and a red hat [on]the obstacle course." The couple tied the knot in 1986. Now Sean had four father figures in his life.
Years went by, and life proceeded as normal. Astin continued to act, landing roles and getting jobs. He even landed the role of Rudy in the 1993 sports biopic Rudy, now considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Things were looking up for the actor when a chance encounter would change everything for Astin.
By pure coincidence, he ended up meeting Michael Tell's niece. She suggested to Astin that his biological father may actually be her uncle and not Desi Arnaz Jr. or John Astin. Astin's mother had been married to Tell for 13 days. Would Astin take this stranger's advice?
Finding His Father
Years before Astin would go on a journey as Samwise Gamgee to find the ring to rule them all, he had his own quest to embark on first. He had to figure out who his biological father was. Astin was an adult by this time, and technology had rapidly improved.
He was 26 when he had this chance encounter with Michael Tell's niece. It prompted him to seek out DNA testing to know the truth, once and for all, finally. So, who was his dad? Was it a man he never knew? Or was it the one who raised him? Or could it be the guy his mother believed it was? Soon enough, he would find out.
All three men - Michael Tell, John Astin, and Desi Arnaz Jr. - agreed to partake in the DNA testing. They each gave part of their DNA for a paternal test with Sean. Who would it be? This was truly a real-life moment out of the musical Mamma Mia! Cue the ABBA soundtrack.
The shocking truth was revealed at last. Sean's biological father was indeed Michael Tell. The DNA test solved the mystery that gripped the nation's headlines only two decades prior. While it was most likely a relief for Sean, Patty held a different feeling. She told PEOPLE, "I don't buy that test."
A Complicated Past
Her pregnancy scandal was not Patty Duke's first battle with the media. She led a life full of ups and downs. Her difficulties began when she was only a child. Her father suffered from alcoholism, while her mother was diagnosed with clinical depression.
When she was only eight years old, her parents decided to give her up and place her in the care of talent managers John and Ethel Ross. They were not only in charge of her care, but they also took responsibility for her career. However, their methods were extremely controversial.
The Rosses changed Patty's name from Anna Marie to Patty, hoping that they could replicate the success that Patty McCormack was experiencing. They would give her alcohol and prescription drugs. They would also take high fees from what Patty made. They were unfair and treated the child star poorly.
Despite the hardships at home, Patty was a talented actress. Her first major role came in a Broadway play called The Miracle Worker. The play chronicled the life of Helen Keller. The play was turned into a film, later landing Duke an Oscar. At 16, she was the youngest to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The First Marriage
After winning an Oscar, Patty starred in her self-titled series, The Patty Duke Show. While working on that show, she fell in love with an assistant director who also worked on the production. His name was Harry Falk, and he was 14 years older than her.
They married in 1965, right before Duke turned 19. However, the marriage didn't last long. Patty said later about her marriage, "I didn't know how to be an adult. I had no preparation." Her mood swings increased, and she battled drug abuse and anorexia. After three years of marriage, they divorced.
After her marriage with Falk dissolved, Patty Duke spent a few years single. Then, she found herself in love with another young actor, Desi Arnaz Jr. When they were dating, Desi was 17, while Duke was 23. However, not everyone was on board for their romance.
Desi Arnaz Jr.'s mother, Lucille Ball, vehemently opposed their union and was quite vocal about it. The tabloids went wild for the drama and publicized every detail about the feud and the romance they could get their hands on. While the world loved Lucy, Lucy did not love Patty.
His Own Family
So, Patty became pregnant and believed that her baby's father was Desi Arnaz Jr. While it turned out that wasn't the case, Sean Astin never let his scandalous birth story stop him from having a family. Similar to his mother, he did so at a young age.
Astin was only 19 when he met Christine Harrell. She was an assistant at the talent agency where he was represented. He proposed to her within the first five minutes after they met! She told PEOPLE, "He was terribly brazen." They would go on to get married in 1992 and have three daughters.
While Astin had been acting since he was young, it wasn't until he was 30 years old and already a father that he would get the role of the century. He auditioned for the part of hobbit Samwise Gangee in the Lord of the Rings. He packed on 30 pounds for the part and moved to New Zealand for filming.
Astin brought Christine and their eldest daughter, Alexandra, to the set with him. Astin joked about life on set to PEOPLE, "I was the old married guy of the hobbits. They would go out clubbing. I was maybe good for one night a month of that." No matter what, his family always came first.
After the Ring
The Lord of the Rings became a global phenomenon. The last movie of the trilogy, The Return of the King, won eleven Academy Awards. The cast became like a second family to each other. They even got matching tattoos of the word "nine" in Elvish. Astin's tattoo is on his ankle.
After filming was completed, Astin continued to work nonstop. He worked with Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates and Click. He also made guest appearances in TV shows like 24 and Law & Order. One of his most recent roles was Bob Newby in the second season of the sci-fi hit Stranger Things. There's no stopping Astin!
Astin has also worked as an advocate throughout his acting career, just like his mother. When Patty Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she became one of the first public figures to speak out about her experiences. She lobbied the United States Congress and even went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss her experiences.
Inspired by his mother, Astin has joined town halls and launched campaigns spreading awareness. He told PEOPLE, "The pain that my family endured because we were living with someone with a mental health condition actually has become an important ingredient to my being able to offer support to other people."
Enjoying the Quiet Life
After marrying Michael Pearce, Patty Duke left Hollywood for a simpler lifestyle. While she acted occasionally, she was no longer involved with the rumors and drama of her previous life. Duke and Pearce settled in Coeur d'Alene, a small town in Idaho, with their four dogs.
Patty and Michael adopted a son, Kevin, together. Astin told PEOPLE, "She was able to build a new identity for herself, one that was not built on show business or her stardom. It's a small town, everybody knows everybody." Yet, a storm was coming for the happy family.
Patty found herself in the headlines again, except this time it was because of something that happened with her stepdaughter, Raeline. Raeline was studying to be a dental assistant at North Idaho College. She and a few friends were camping when they realized they needed more cigarettes.
However, things did not go to plan. The car skidded off the road and plunged into the river. Tragically, Raeline drowned in the accident. Duke said the tragedy "drew our family closer together but there isn't a day that goes by that some part of you isn't anguished."
A 30-Year Love Affair
However, despite everything, Patty and Michael had each other. Through the hardships and the happy times, they had love to get them through everything. They could rely on each other through the highs and the lows. Finally, they got their happily ever after.
Sean Astin told the Associated Press, "He became her 30-year project, and she finally in her life had a protector. And so she showed him the world and he took care of her [...] they were connected with a bond that is impossible to describe." What's more, is that Sean had four fathers.
While only one of them is his biological father, Sean Astin has four men who he can consider his dads. He told ABC News, "I can call any of them on the phone any time I want to. John, Desi, Mike or Papa Mike... my four dads." Yet, it is John Astin, who raised Sean, that Sean considers his father.
He told PEOPLE, "If you want to know who I am, John Astin is my father, Michael Tell is my biological father." He has not just one fantastic father, but four. Astin also shares a love for his adoptive son, saying, "We're very close, we have a good time together."
A Tearful Farewell
On March 29, 2016, Patty Duke gave her final bow. She passed away in the morning due to sepsis from a ruptured intestine. Her legacy includes an Academy Award, three Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, enduring advocacy for mental health, and a career that spanned six decades.
She was only 69 years old when she passed away. A statement released to USA Today read, "Anna 'Patty Duke' Pearce passed away this morning... She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed."
Losing an Icon
She was definitely going to be missed, especially by her son, Sean. He wrote on his Instagram, "I love you mom." He continued to share, "This morning, our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch and exquisite artist, humanitarian, and champion for mental health, Anna PATTY DUKE Pearce, closed her eyes…"
"…quieted her pain and ascended to a beautiful place. We celebrate the infinite love and compassion she shared through her work and throughout her life." The family was accompanied by fans and colleagues who wept for the loss of such an iconic actress.
When the news broke of Patty's passing, celebrities shared their memories with the actress and her impact on their lives. Her costar Melissa Gilbert told PEOPLE, "She helped raise me to be the woman I am today. She was so loved by so many people including me."
The Academy tweeted, "Thank you Patty Duke for all that you've given us. You'll be missed." Sean's Lord of the Rings costar, Elijah Wood, wrote on Twitter, "My heart goes to @SeanAstin and the entire family. #PattyDuke." Her legacy will live on through her children and her grandchildren.
An Unconventional Family
While their family situation may be unconventional, Sean and Patty made it work for them. From multiple marriages to four potential dads, they deal with things most people never dream of. While Patty's life was filled with controversies, she was proud of one thing - her son.
She told ABC News, "He is at the core the decent, generous, loving, respectful man that I hoped he would be." Meanwhile, her son said, "What I love the most about my mother is that she's a survivor." There's no business like show business, and there's undoubtedly no family like this one.