He has become synonymous with Rudy, the scrappy, titular real-life character he played who defiantly walked on to the Notre Dame football team, and into history. He’s been immortalized on-screen as the selfless Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings; his unforgettable scene carrying Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is one of cinematic trilogy’s finest moments. Gen-Xers know him as Mikey in The Goonies, and to a whole new generation, he’s the gallant Bob Newby on the Netflix smash, Stranger Things.
But it’s Sean Astin’s mantle as spokesman for families dealing with mental illness that may be the most important role of his life. The actor has been on a mission to educate the public, with candid tales of his mother, actress Patty Duke, and her battle with bipolar disorder.
The award-winning character actor was in Houston as the featured speaker of The Menninger Clinic’s 2018 Annual Signature Luncheon. The event, which honored The Hamill Foundation, raised $350,000 to support the mental health care system’s transformative care and sustain programs that extend Menninger’s expertise into the Greater Houston community and across the nation. (Menninger is ranked among the top three psychiatric hospitals in the country according to U.S. News and World Report.)
Some 450 Houstonians packed the Westin Galleria to hear Astin’s panel discussion, moderated by host Deborah Duncan. After recognizing his brother Alan, an educator in Houston who was in attendance, Astin recalled his mother and his mother’s “galactic” personality, and how the actress would sometimes try to exit a moving car during one of her bipolar fits.
Astin’s dark humor wasn’t lost on the audience as he recalled his first acting job — with his mother — in a TV special called Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom (a topic that hit a little too close to home). The actor was surprisingly frank about dealing with Duke’s manic ups and downs and the relief when she was finally diagnosed: “It was a reputational get out of jail free card,” he recalled. Duke later became a champion for mental health issues, even writing a book, which many fans claimed saved their lives.
“We hated that book—it was a pack of lies,” he said of her memoir, Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness. Despite the book’s upbeat tone, Astin says his mother was “still having freak-outs” and that at one point, when she threatened suicide, he responded, “Then do it.” As the audience gasped, he offered a reminder to all those suffering from mental illness and seeking help: “You have to want it.”
Astin cheered on a Menninger patient who shared her rousing story of recovery, as well as Duncan, who revealed that she, too, had bouts of depression. The man known for his scrappy roles credited his mother's sense of determination that was imbued into him at an early age for his success.
The veteran actor encouraged the audience — and anyone fighting mental disease — to doggedly press on (as, say, one of his famous characters), to be a “spiritual warrior,” and to never give up: “You’re the CEO of your own body, mind, and spirit.”