Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin is good at playing father figures on screen. But in an ironic twist, the movie star didn’t know for many years who his own biological dad was. In fact, his father could have been any one of a number of different men, which sounds like a scenario ripped straight from the movie Mamma Mia! But, eventually, Sean got to the bottom of the mystery – with a little help from a DNA test.
Of course, there’s no such uncertainty over Sean’s mom. And you may recognize her name, too. She was Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke, and she lived a fascinating and sometimes tragic life prior to her passing in 2016. She also wasn’t shy of dating several men at once.
Yes, Patty had reportedly been in three relationships when she became pregnant with Sean. And according to the actress, any one of those men could have been her son’s father. The guys in question were Desi Arnaz Jr. – the son of Lucille Ball – a man named Michael Tell whom Patty had impulsively married for 13 days and John Astin of The Addams Family fame. You shouldn’t necessarily read anything into John’s last name, either.
So, why didn’t the relevant parties just conduct DNA tests to begin with? Well, when Sean was born in 1971, that technology was a long time from becoming commonplace. That meant the family couldn’t have simply had DNA analysis done – if, indeed, Patty was even willing to let that happen. And to complicate matters further, there was a fourth guy involved as well. In 1986 Patty married a military man called Michael Pearce, who became Sean’s stepfather.
The media was obviously pretty interested in such a story. A beautiful actress having a child without knowing who the father was? It was practically tailor-made for tabloid headlines. The mystery of Sean’s parentage was kept from the boy himself, though. In 2001 John told People magazine, “[Sean] basically grew up without any real knowledge of all that stuff.”
Still, when Sean was a teenager – and already a rising star thanks to his appearance in The Goonies – his mother would tell him the truth about who she believed his father to be. And while Sean naturally accepted this, everything would change again when he was in his mid-twenties.
The question mark over his dad wasn’t the only matter Sean had to deal with, either. You see, Patty had battled against bipolar disorder, and it wasn’t until 1982 that she finally began taking the medication that would help her. At that point, the star was married to John Astin, with whom she’d had another child.
That meant Patty had Sean, his younger brother MacKenzie and Astin’s sons David, Tom and Allen to look after. But her mental illness meant she wasn’t well-equipped to handle the situation. In 1999 Patty told People, “It was terrible. I was a truly loving mom, but I didn’t have the tools to do the job.”
Patty had actually been married before becoming pregnant with Sean, too. When she had still been a teenager, the actress had wed Harry Falk Jr. – a man several years her senior who had been a crew member on her eponymous television show. But the union wasn’t to last. Just two years into the marriage, the couple called it quits.
In her 1999 interview with People, Patty mused on this ill-fated relationship, “I didn’t know how to be an adult. I had no preparation.” She herself had spent a childhood under the care of a married couple called Ethel and John Ross, whom Patty has alleged abused her. Reportedly, her own biological father, John Duke, was also an alcoholic she barely saw.
Patty told People that while she’d normally only encounter her dad at his preferred bar, she had nevertheless “worshipped” him. That must have made his death hard to bear. John Duke passed away in 1963 – the same year his daughter scooped a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for The Miracle Worker. Patty was a mere 16 years old then, making her the youngest actress to emerge triumphant at the Oscars at that time.
You’d assume that Patty’s mom would have been right there at the Academy Awards ceremony, pleased as punch. Sadly, that wasn’t so. Her mother, Frances, suffered from mental health issues herself, having gone through bouts of depression. And, alarmingly, the Rosses reportedly forbade Frances from going to the Oscars over fears that she would bring shame on her own daughter.
According to Patty, Ethel and John had also been so determined to make her into a star that they completely neglected her own mental health. She alleged in the People interview that Ethel had once told her, “We’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”
Yet while Patty became a name to watch, Anna Marie was struggling behind the scenes. During her life, she alleged that both John and Ethel had sexually abused her. And in 1969 she faced down a horrible tragedy. In that year, her friend Sharon Tate – with whom she’d appeared in Valley of the Dolls – was murdered. Patty would have been having dinner with Sharon that night if she hadn’t contracted a throat infection.
At least Patty could fall back on the love and affection she received from men – although this wasn’t without its issues, either. Three years after her split from Harry, she became involved in another headline-grabbing relationship. She began dating Desi Arnaz Jr., who was only 17 years old at the time.
Desi’s mother, Lucille Ball, was a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. And, perhaps understandably, she did absolutely not want her son dating a woman who was both older than him and divorced. But Desi continued the relationship anyway. He was Patty’s date at the 1970 Emmys, where the actress’ behavior made folks assume that she was high or otherwise intoxicated.
While accepting her award for the TV movie My Sweet Charlie, Patty mumbled a few sentences but mostly just stared at the audience in terror. She reportedly hadn’t slept for three whole weeks before the awards took place and was in the middle of a manic episode. Sadly, this was the first sign to the wider world that something was wrong.
Desi stood by Patty’s side nonetheless. And in 1991 he even cleared up a misconception about their relationship, telling Woman’s Day, “Although the press made them out to be enemies, mom actually liked Patty Duke. What she didn’t like was the idea of me, at 17, having a relationship with a 23-year-old divorcee.” But while Patty eventually parted ways with Desi, the star made an alarming discovery after the break-up: she was pregnant with a boy she would call Sean.
In the grip of another manic episode, the actress then married a man she barely knew. Patty’s new husband was rock ‘n’ roll promoter Michael Tell, who had been subletting an apartment from her. And as you may expect, that marriage, too, was short-lived – at less than two weeks.
In 2018 one of Patty’s friends, William Jankowski, spoke to Closer Weekly about that incident. He claimed that Patty had desperately called Anne Bancroft, her co-star from The Miracle Worker, for assistance. And her fellow star obliged. Jankowski said, “Anne got her on a plane back to LA and into a psychiatric hospital. The marriage was annulled, and Patty remained grateful to Anne for standing by her.”
All the while, Patty believed that the father of her baby was John Astin. She’d been involved in an affair with him, although the two apparently came to an agreement: John would divorce his wife, and he and Patty would get married. That happened, too, in 1972, and at the wedding baby Sean reportedly called John “daddy.”
John then adopted Sean, and the boy grew up believing he was his biological father. But the relationship between Sean’s parents soon began to change. There was the age gap to contend with, for starters, as John was 16 years Patty’s senior. And there were tensions when John became a Buddhist in 1984. He was determined that his whole family also convert, but Patty wasn’t having it. So, the following year, she left him.
Then came the first revelation about Sean’s paternity. When the fledgling actor was just 14 years old, Patty told him the man he believed was his father wasn’t actually related to him biologically. According to her, Sean’s real dad was actually Desi Arnaz Jr.
So, Sean started seeing and eventually befriending Desi, and the two of them began to bond. At the same time, though, he was also forming a relationship with his new stepfather. Following her divorce from John in 1985, Patty had married Michael Pearce just a year later. Sean would have been 15 years old at that time.
And, thankfully, this last relationship stuck – even in the face of tragedy. In 1992 Patty’s mother – who had moved in with her – died. Then, six years later, Michael’s daughter and Patty’s stepdaughter Raelene drowned in an automobile accident. But it didn’t break the couple apart.
In 2010 Patty told the website HollywoodChicago.com, “Mike and I are coming up on our 25th wedding anniversary, which is amazing – particularly for someone who is bipolar. When we’re undiagnosed, we have a hard time hanging onto anything. In my history, I married three really lovely men, [but] I just wasn’t marriage material. Thank god when I became marriage material, there was my husband. He was waiting for me.”
Of course, there was another Mike who had been part of Patty’s life, and he was about to enter Sean’s as well. When Sean was in his mid-20s, he was approached by a relative of Michael Tell. This person suggested to the actor that there was a high chance that Michael – not Desi – was Sean’s biological father.
So in the ’90s – just before he found mega-fame as Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – Sean underwent a DNA test to finally discover who his biological dad was. And the results were remarkable. John Astin wasn’t his father, nor was Desi Arnaz Jr. He was, in fact, Michael Tell.
And there was another neat twist to the story: finding out the truth changed surprisingly little about Sean’s life. You see, he already considered the man who raised him to be his dad. In 2001 he told People, “If you want to know who I am, John Astin is my father, [and] Michael Tell is my biological father.”
In fact, Sean maintained good relationships with all three of the men who’d been in the running. He explained to People, “I have a good relationship with Mike [Tell]. That’s who I am. I don’t fault anybody, I don’t fault myself or with Desi, who is like my godfather. I have such a powerful love bond with this man. He’s a gorgeous human being.”
What was Patty’s take on the DNA revelation? Well, she wasn’t so sure about any of it. The star told People that same year, “I don’t buy that test. I can support [Sean’s] truth as long as my truth, if not supported, is respected. I have told him I know what I know to be true. When God looks me in the eye and says, ‘Anna Marie, you have been mistaken all these years,’ then I will consider [Michael Tell’s paternity].”
It was a good outcome for John Astin, too, as it turned out. In 2001 he told People that he had a “spiritual connection” with Sean before adding, “We’re very close. We have a good time together.” And he even had a bond with Michael Tell. John told the magazine, “[Sean’s] biological dad turns out to be a great guy, and we’ve become friendly.”
But what did Sean make of the whole thing? Well, in a 2004 interview with 20/20, he claimed that he was still “so close” to Desi and still thought of John as his father. He also revealed, “I can call any of them on the phone any time I want to. John, Desi, Mike or Papa Mike… my four dads.”
And Sean likely had those men to turn to after Patty’s death. The Oscar-winning star sadly passed away in 2016, following a lifetime spent not only coping with mental health issues but also advocating for others in the same position. Honoring his mom that year, Sean told the Los Angeles Times, “Above all, the way that I think of my mother – the thing that gives me such joy and reverence for her – is that above all else, she was a warrior.”
In 2018 Sean also spoke about his mother’s life at The Menninger Clinic’s annual luncheon. He said, “She became – because she was extremely famous – this champion for mental health issues. She knew that her salvation [was] in disclosing to people her own pain and suffering.”
And Sean’s a parent himself now to daughters Alexandra, Elizabeth and Isabella. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll know that Sam becomes a dad in the end and is seen on screen with his little daughter Eleanor. Eleanor was portrayed by Alexandra, who was still a toddler at the time.
The actor’s since taken on other “dad” roles, too. In season two of the hit show Stranger Things, he portrays Bob Newby – a father figure to main character Will and an all-around nice guy. Bob became a breakout character, in fact, and so fans were devastated when – spoiler alert – he was devoured by a monster.
And the increased interest in Sean’s career after Stranger Things has led to more people discovering his paternity story. In October 2017 a Bob fan tweeted at Sean, “In a world where step-parents are vilified via film, there is finally a hero!” The actor then responded, “My mom married an actual Drill Sergeant, SFC Michael Ray Pearce… best step-dad a kid could hope for.”
That very same day, Sean also replied to a tweet saying, “I’ve spent all October watching John Astin (and being him for Halloween).” The star declared, “Time well spent. My pops is second to none in the world.” And in 2018 Sean posted a pic of himself and Astin on the Goonies set, accompanying that shot with the caption “Dang, my old man looks good in this pic.”
Now Sean has taken all the fatherhood lessons he learned as a kid and applied them to his own life. When speaking to People about his mental health advocacy in 2020, he explained how it extended to his own children, saying, “We’re a talky family. We share our feelings. If someone has an issue, there’s no judgment.” And family, of course, is more than just the people linked to you by DNA.