Mackenzie Astin

Photo by Jeff Lorch
Get Caught! I did and just wanna shout about it. That’s what seeing great theater does to me. Written by David L. Ray, Caught is a family dramedy about gay marriage; however, it’s far more encompassing. Currently playing at the trailblazing Zephyr Theatre on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the production has been extended five times since it premiered in early December 2010. My bet is that next year it’ll land on or near Broadway and I hope Mackenzie Astin, who is part of the skilled ensemble, goes with it.

The actor’s name may sound familiar since he’s appeared in such films as Iron Will, In Love and War, and Dream for an Insomniac. On the small screen he’s guested on episodes of Without a Trace, Lost, House, and Psych. He was even in the celebrated sitcom Facts of Life and TV movie, I Dream of Jeannie…Fifteen Years Later. He played Jeannie and Tony’s son. What a cutie!

Mack, as he’s better known, also hails from a well known acting family. His parents are Patty Duke and John Astin, and his older brother is Sean Astin. However, hear it from Ruby, this man needs no assistance from that talent pool. He stands on his own!

On my second trip to see Caught, and after its emotional and, at times, mirthful journey, which is followed by a standing ovation, I head backstage to a warm greeting by Mack.

Ruby Comer: Mack, it’s so nice to meet you. [He shakes my hand.] What an extraordinary performance! I’m still reeling from the impact. [He smiles graciously, and then leads me out to the street where we sit curbside in front of the Zephyr. I like his down-home approach.] What a lovely summer’s eve. Tell me, Mack, when I say “AIDS,” what comes to mind?
Mackenzie Astin:
Opportunity. There’s an expression in Japanese that I learned from my father that loosely translates to: “Turning poison into medicine.” And what I have seen in the last twenty-five years has been astonishing, both medically and culturally, but there continues to exist an opportunity to improve upon what’s been done.

To be sure, Mack. What impact has the epidemic had on you?
When I think of “the epidemic” and “impact” I’m apt to focus on the lives of people much more affected than mine. I know that my exposure to the nastiness and buffoonery exhibited by frightened and misled individuals within our society, our media, and our political landscape taught me a great deal about the ugliness of fear. I learned about the ferocity of some folks who know no better than to relentlessly attack that which they don’t understand. [He takes a breath, scanning the nondescript storefronts across the street.] However, I don’t think of these things as a consequence of HIV/AIDS having had an “impact” on me. I think that word is better reserved for people in whose lives HIV/AIDS has played much more than an intellectual role, people for whom words like “epidemic” deeply resonate. I could sit here and be self-important about how “impacted” I’ve been, Ruby, but that’d be horseshit. I’ve seen images of people dealing with the impact, I’ve spoken at some length with folks making an impact, but in real terms the epidemic’s impact is something I’ve only observed and tried to make some intrinsic sense of.

Very well said, Mack. So, I gather then that you have not lost anyone from this disease….
I have not.

Do you remember how you first heard about HIV/AIDS?
I remember two things, Ruby. First, I remember a pamphlet that went around the fourth grade homeroom at the Catholic school I was attending, that for some reason, I recall presenting the acronym as “Acute Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome” not “Acquired,” as I learned later it was. I also remember my mother, who for a number of years has been somewhat of an icon in the gay community, speaking quite frankly to her sons about what this new disease meant for so many people she had as friends and fans.

Bless your mom. I remember her many films, but I especially liked her as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls. What a delicious performance! [He nods and grins.] Were you taught AIDS prevention in high school?
Oh, of course. I went to school here in Los Angeles, and there was plenty of AIDS prevention education throughout health class, as well as a fair bit of coverage in the school paper. Southern California, it should come as no surprise, has been on the leading edge of AIDS prevention education and will, no doubt, continue to be. Thankfully, we are at the center of a massive industry whose fundamental product is the presentation of information, and when the focus of that information is education, the job can get done.

Yes, yes, yes. Have you always used a condom while playing, Mack?
I have not. I’m not exactly proud of some of the decisions I made given the tools with which I was equipped. I wish I could blame the booze, or the weed, or any other narcotics I may or may not have been under the influence of, but the plain truth is that the selfish and ego-driven parts of my nature allowed me to take a lot of risks for few, and very fleeting, rewards.

Thanks for your honesty, bub. Are you currently in a relationship?

Mackenzie Astin as Kenneth in Caught. Photo by Michael Lamont

Sure am! Just got married.

Smashing! Congrats! How long have you two been together?
Since early 2008.

Good for you. What has your involvement been with the HIV/AIDS community?
I’ve participated in a few events, donated some when I was above water [financially sound], sponsored a half-dozen walkers or so, and worn the ribbon a number of times at functions. I’m proud to be able to add that Caught has established a partnership with Aid for AIDS. The production donates twenty-five percent of its ticket prices to Aid For AIDS when people use code “AID4AIDS” on the ticketing site. It’s a simple tie-in, but reflective of the continued awareness that’s necessary to keep moving forward.

Bravo to your teammates. Let’s talk family now. Give me a sentence to describe your bro, Sean Astin.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Okaaaay….[I smile curiously.] And what is your favorite Patty Duke film?
It’s a tie between My Sweet Charlie and The Miracle Worker.

And how about your dad? Oh, wait. I have to put my two-cents in. I so enjoyed him in TV’s zany I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster with Marty Ingels and, of course, as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. And Mack!…his performance as the sleazy horny toad in the Doris Day-Cary Grant film That Touch of Mink was brilliant. He has created some wonderful characters through the years. So what’s your favorite John Astin performance?
Another tie, like Mom. This one is between a comedy from the early seventies called Evil Roy Slade—it’s less than ten bucks on Amazon and you will not be disappointed—and his one-man show about Edgar Allen Poe. It’s a masterpiece.

I need to check these out! Would love to see him portray Poe….Please comment on this play your involved with.
Well, I’ve had so much fun on so many different productions, but without a shadow of a doubt, “Kenneth Drift” [the character he plays] is the best part I’ve ever had.

I can certainly see why. What a meaty part….
I believe Caught has the ability to speak to an amazingly broad spectrum of people and instill in them a ray of hope. Hope towards authentic understanding between people that have more in common with each other than they are led to believe.

Will you stay with the production when it heads to New York?
I will be with Caught as long as they’ll have me. [He exudes a full smile.]

Yeah! See you again on the Great White Way then. Mack, anything else you’d like to comment on HIV/AIDS?
No matter what side of the political spectrum one falls, no matter what socio-economic strata one inhabits, no matter what orientation, creed, philosophy or practice, this virus doesn’t care. It is an equal-opportunity offender. It doesn’t discriminate. If we can learn anything from this disease, perhaps it is the fact that, in its eyes, we are all equal. In that context, it might be considered a great teacher.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].

September 2011