Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin is good at playing father figures on screen. But for a while he didn’t know for certain who his own biological dad was. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that it could have been a number of different men. It sounds like the plot of Mamma Mia, but it was very much reality for young Sean. Eventually, he discovered the truth. But the story didn’t end there.
To know Sean’s father, first you’ve got to know his mother. Sean’s mom was the Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke. She passed away in 2016, but the star lived a fascinating and sometimes tragic life. Patty suffered from bipolar disorder and became involved in a string of controversial relationships.
Patty had reportedly been in three relationships when she became pregnant with Sean. As a result, she believed that any one of those men might be the child’s father. The guys in question were: Desi Arnaz Jr., the son of Lucille Ball; a man named Michael Tell who Patty had impulsively married for thirteen days, and John Astin of The Addams Family.
Of course, you might wonder why the relevant parties couldn’t just conduct a DNA test. But this was a time before that technology had emerged. So the family couldn’t have simply had one done – if, indeed, Patty would have even wanted that. To complicate matters, there was a fourth man involved eventually 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. After all, a beautiful actress having a child without knowing who the father was made ripe material for headlines. It was kept quiet from Sean himself, though. In 2001 John Astin told People magazine, “[Sean] basically grew up without any real knowledge of all that stuff.”
By the time Sean was 14 years old, he had already started his own career in Hollywood largely thanks to his appearence in The Goonies. And that year, his mother told him the truth about who she believed his father to be. Sean accepted this, but when he was 26 years old everything would change again.
Sean has always been open about his mother’s mental health issues. Her bipolar disorder apparently led her to do impulsive things. Yet it wasn’t until 1982 that the actress finally found help and began taking the medication that would help her. At that point, Patty was married to John Astin, and she’d had another child with him.
Patty had Sean, his younger brother MacKenzie, and Astin’s sons David, Tom and Allen to look after. But her mental illness meant she was ill-equipped to handle the situation. In 1999 Patty told People magazine, “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, as well. And that episode hinted at what was to come later. When she was still a teenager, the actress wed Harry Falk Jr. – a man several years older than her who had been assistant director on her television show. Though it lasted only two years in all.
In her 1999 interview with People magazine, Duke mused, “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, who Duke has alleged abused her. Reportedly, her own father was an alcoholic who she barely saw.
Patty told People that she’d normally only see her father at his preferred bar, but the actress nevertheless “worshipped” him. Though by 1963 – the same year she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for The Miracle Worker – he was dead. Patty was a mere 16 years old at the time – the youngest actress at that time to ever win an Oscar.
Patty’s mother was also not at the Oscars ceremony, but for different reasons. By that point, she had moved in with the Rosses, and they exerted an intense control over her life. Her mother Frances suffered from a mental health condition herself – namely depression. As a result, John and Ethel Ross reportedly forbade her from going to the Oscars over fears that she would embarrass the rising star.
According to Patty, the Rosses were so determined to make her into a star that they completely neglected her own mental health. Her birth name was actually Anna Marie, but she alleged in the People interview that one day Ethel told her, “We’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.”
Patty Duke was a star, but Anna Marie struggled terribly. During her life she alleged that both John and Ethel Ross sexually abused her. And in 1969 she faced down a horrible tragedy. Her friend Sharon Tate – who she’d appeared in Valley of the Dolls with – was murdered. Duke would have been having dinner with her that night if she hadn’t caught a throat infection.
So it’s not surprising that Patty found Hollywood life very difficult. The actress was only 20 years old when she divorced Harry Falk Jr. Then three years later she became involved in another headline-grabbing and controversial 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. She did absolutely not want her son dating a woman who was older than him and divorced. Yet he continued the relationship. He was Patty’s date at the 1970 Emmys, where her behavior made the media assume she was on drugs.
At that Emmy ceremony, Patty won an award for the TV movie My Sweet Charlie and went on stage to collect it. The actress 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, it was the first sign to the outer world that something was wrong.
In 1991 Desi spoke about Patty to Woman’s Day magazine. He said, “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.” Patty actually split from Desi… but then the star found out she was pregnant.
Headlines screamed out that the still-teenage Desi had fathered Patty’s unborn child. And she then experienced another manic episode. The actress suddenly married a man she barely knew – rock ‘n’ roll producer Michael Tell, who had been subletting an apartment from her. But that marriage, unsurprisingly, lasted less than two weeks.
In 2018 one of Patty’s friends – William Jankowski – spoke to Closer Weekly about that incident. He said that she desperately called her co-star from The Miracle Worker: Anne Bancroft. After that, “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.”
But despite the two-week marriage, Patty still thought the father of her baby was John Astin. Even though he had been married at the time, she’d been involved in an affair with him. Though the two apparently came to an agreement – John would divorce his wife and they’d get married. Reportedly, during their 1972 wedding the baby Sean called John “daddy.”
John adopted Sean, and the boy grew up believing he was his biological father. But the relationship between John and Patty soon began to change. He was 16 years older than her, and in 1984 the former became a Buddhist. He was determined that his whole family convert too, but Patty wasn’t having it. And the following year she left him.
Then came the first revelation regarding Sean’s paternity. When he was 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.
Sean started seeing and eventually befriending Desi – the man he believed was his father. And the two of them grew close. But at the same time, he was forming a relationship with his stepfather as well. After divorcing John in 1985, Patty married Michael Pearce just a year later. Sean would have been 15 years old then.
Patty was happy with Michael, and their relationship lasted despite some more awful tragedies. In 1992 the former’s mother – who had moved in with her – died. Then six years later Michael’s daughter and Patty’s stepdaughter Raelene drowned when her car fell into a river. But it didn’t break them 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, I just wasn’t marriage material. Thank god when I became marriage material, there was my husband, he was waiting for me.”
But there was another Mike who had been part of Patty’s life, and shortly he was about to enter Sean’s as well. When the latter 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 the father, though nor was Desi Arnaz Jr. It was, in fact, Michael Tell.
But there was another remarkable twist to the story – it changed surprisingly little about Sean’s life. He already considered the man who raised him to be his dad. In 2001 he told People magazine, “If you want to know who I am, John Astin is my father, [and] Michael Tell is my biological father.”
But Sean maintained good relationships with all three of the men who’d been in the running for biological father. And that’s whether they were actually related or not. He told 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.”
But what was Patty’s take on the DNA revelations? 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 his 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].”
Yet it was a good outcome for John Astin too, as it turned out. He told People in 2001 that he had a “spiritual connection” with Sean and added that “we’re very close, we have a good time together.” Plus, he had befriended Michael Tell as well. He told the magazine, “His biological dad turns out to be a great guy and we’ve become friendly.”
Sean spoke about his multiple fathers to the ABC News 20/20 show in 2004. He was still “so close” to Desi Arnaz Jr. and still thought of John Astin as his father. But, he said, “I can call any of them on the phone any time I want to. John, Desi, Mike or Papa Mike… my four dads.”
Patty sadly passed away in 2016 – after a lifetime spent not only coping with mental health issues but also advocating for others in the same position. Upon her death, Sean told the Los Angeles Times newspaper, “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.”
Interestingly, Sean now campaigns for mental health himself. In 2018 he spoke at the Menninger Clinic’s annual luncheon about his mother’s life. 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. He has three 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 with his little daughter Eleanor. The latter was played by Alexandra, who was still a toddler at the time.
Sean’s become noted for taking on other “dad” roles, too. In 2017 he played the role of Bob Newby in season two of the hit show Stranger Things – a father figure to main character Will and an all-round nice guy. He became a breakout character and fans were devastated when – spoiler alert – he got eaten by a monster.
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.”
And that very same day Sean replied to a tweet saying, “I’ve spent all October watching John Astin (and being him for Halloween).” He declared, “Time well spent. My pops is second to none in the world.” The following year he posted a pic of himself and Astin on the Goonies set, writing, “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 DNA.