Sean Astin had starred in ten movies, directed a short film, and formed his own production company all before his 21st birthday. The elder son of actress Patty Duke and actor/director John Astin, he knew the hazards of Hollywood life: As a popular child star, Astin refrained from drinking, drugs, and narcissism. He juggled acting with attending classes at Crossroads High School for the Arts and Los Angeles Valley College, eventually graduating cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles with dual degrees in History and American Literature and Culture. When his younger brother, fellow kid actor Mackenzie Astin, temporarily fled Los Angeles to pursue journalism, Astin doggedly remained in town -- he once half-heartedly considered a law career, but could never part with being an entertainer.
Astin was born in Santa Monica, CA, on February 25, 1971. His famous parents actively supported his childhood ambition to become an actor, and Astin was cast in TV specials, movies, and even series until 1983. Barely a year later, screenwriter Steven Spielberg handpicked the 13-year-old Astin to star as Michael "Mikey" Walsh in Richard Donner's children's adventure film The Goonies (1985). Astin earned his first Young Artist Award for his work on the film and went on to act in a host of teen pictures. He headlined the Disney Channel television movie The B.R.A.T. Patrol (1986), joined Kevin Bacon for the wilderness adventure White Water Summer (1987), and appeared with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron in the comedy Like Father, Like Son (1987).
In 1988, Astin directed his first short film, a Vietnam picture about the unexpected relationship between an American GI and a Viet Cong soldier titled On My Honor. Astin's own production company, Lava Entertainment, financed the film. While continuing to develop projects through Lava Entertainment, Astin starred with Dermot Mulroney in 1989's Staying Together. He won his second Young Artist Award for his performance in the picture. Also in 1989, Astin portrayed the teenage son of feuding couple Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses. He finished off the '80s by enlisting in the all-star cast of Michael Caton-Jones' World War II drama Memphis Belle (1990). The film -- which also features Matthew Modine, Harry Connick Jr., Billy Zane, and Eric Stoltz -- followed the crew of the Memphis Belle bomber on their harrowing final run over Germany. Astin's stocky build and comic timing lent well to his incarnation as the group's tail gunner, Sergeant Richard "Rascal" Moore. When Astin initially lost the lead role in his next picture, Toy Soldiers (1991), to Wil Wheaton, he treated the film's director, Dan Petrie Jr., to a screening of Memphis Belle. Petrie was so impressed by his work that he relegated Wheaton to a supporting part and cast Astin as Toy Soldiers' hero, a rebellious student who saves his prep school from South American terrorists.
In the spring of 1992, Astin starred with Pauly Shore and Brendan Fraser in Encino Man, a comedy about two California high school students who discover a caveman. He then reunited with Dermot Mulroney in the drama Where the Day Takes You (1992), which also stars Will Smith, Christian Slater, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Ricki Lake. 1993 saw Astin play the title character in Rudy, the memorable film about a tenacious boy determined to play football for Notre Dame despite the fact that he is too small. Football coaches around the United States still show the film before games to inspire their players, and, to this day, strangers still chant "Rudy! Rudy!" when they spot Astin on the street.
After filming Safe Passage (1994) with Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard, Astin appeared in the independent film The Low Life (1995), for which he won the Best Actor Award at the 1995 Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. That same year, he wrote, directed, and produced his second short film, Kangaroo Court. The picture tells the story of a police officer who is put on trial by an inner-city gang and stars Gregory Hines and Michael O'Keefe. It earned Astin an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film (coincidently, John Astin was nominated in the same category for his film Prelude in 1969).
Astin continued to work steadily throughout the '90s. In 1995, he starred in Showtime's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s futuristic short story Harrison Bergeron. In 1996, he made a cameo as a doomed soldier in the first feature film to depict Desert Storm, Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire. In 1997, he directed and starred in an episode of HBO's Perversions of Science called "Snap Ending" and was one of several narrators in the Academy Award-winning Holocaust documentary The Long Way Home. In 1998, Astin took a small role in Warren Beatty's Bulworth and began work on a string of independent films -- including Boy Meets Girl (1998), Dish Dogs (1998), Kimberly (1999), Deterrence (1999), and Icebreaker (1999).
The decade also brought changes to Astin's personal life. On July 11, 1992, he married Christine Astin (born Harrell) at Patty Duke's Idaho farm. The couple met when she worked at Astin's talent agency and they co-founded Lava Entertainment together. Then, in 1994, Astin underwent DNA testing that revealed rock promoter Michael Tell to be his biological father (Patty Duke and Tell had been briefly married before her engagement to John Astin). Though the actor is friendly with Tell, he still considers those who raised him to be his parents. Two years later, Astin and his wife had their first child, Alexandra Louise, in November of 1996.
In the summer of 1999, Astin landed the coveted part of portly hobbit Samwise "Sam" Gamgee in Peter Jackson's highly anticipated three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Auditions for the role were held over several months in every English-speaking country in the world. Astin's father had appeared in Jackson's horror film The Frighteners, and the veteran actor's fondness for the director made Astin determined to get the part. When he found that his only competition was an overweight English thespian, Astin gained 30 pounds to secure the role. All three installments of the trilogy -- The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003) -- were filmed simultaneously over an 18-month period in New Zealand. Astin's wife and daughter accompanied him to the shoot and Alexandra made her acting debut as a young hobbit in Sam Gamgee's family. The couple had a second child, Elizabeth Louise, between the release of the first and second films. ~ Aubry Anne D'Arminio, Rovi