Sean Astin – star of The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings – grew up in the spotlight as the first child of Hollywood icon Patty Duke. The pair soon settled into life with Duke’s new husband, John Astin, who starred as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family.

But the question of his paternity puzzled Sean Astin throughout his teen years. By his twenties, he had identified various men who could be his father. Via a DNA test, he determined that director Michael Tell was his biological parent – only after he’d built lifelong bonds with three other men, all of whom he still views as his “dads”.

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Born February 25, 1971 in Santa Monica, California, Sean Astin was the first child of Hollywood star Patty Duke. Astin would become a child actor at the age of nine, following in the footsteps of his mother, who first won fame at the age of 15 for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962).

Astin’s debut performance was alongside his mother in the made-for-television movie Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom (1981). He starred as the abused child of a violent parent, played by Duke.

Although Astin was very close with his mother, from a young age he struggled against her volatile and explosive behaviour. Duke had bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until the 80s. As a child star herself, she suffered a traumatic upbringing at the hands of talent managers who drugged and abused her.

Credit: Sean Astin via Instagram

“My mother did not have the tools to help herself, and we didn’t know what to do to help her,” Astin has described. “She’d have a freakout, she’d crash the car and she’d do something terrible.”

In fact, Astin would later learn that the circumstances of his own birth were embroiled in Duke’s mental health episodes. In the late 60s, amid her divorce from director Harry Falk, Duke has said she began drinking and partying each night, and recalled waking up next to men she didn’t recognise. She has attributed this behaviour to her bipolar disorder.

In early 1970, she started dating Desi Arnaz Jr, who was the son of famed actress Lucille Ball. She was 23 and he was 17. Ball disapproved of the relationship and the heavy press attention it drew, noting: “[Duke is] living in some fantastic dreamworld, and we’re the victims of it.”

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In spring 1970, Duke sublet her apartment to rock promoter Michael Tell, whom she then began dating.

Around the same time, she was also seeing actor John Astin, who was best known for starring as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family television show. This relationship remained secret because, at the time, Astin was still married to Suzanne Hahn.

In June, Duke discovered that she was pregnant. In what People Magazine has described as a “manic state”, she became engaged to Michael Tell and got married five hours later. They stayed together for only 13 days, and the marriage was annulled a year later.

Patty with Desi Arnaz Jr. (left), Arnaz Jr.’s mother Lucille Ball (centre), Patty with Michael Tell (right)

Duke was uncertain whether the father of her unborn child was Michael Tell, John Astin or Desi Arnaz Jr. Nevertheless, she ultimately began parenthood as a single woman, and took motherhood in her stride. She was the only parent named on Sean’s birth certificate.

Duke continued to date Arnaz Jr. on-and-off for the first few months of Sean’s life, which rankled with Lucille Ball. The question of Sean’s paternity hung in the air. “She hasn’t proved or asked for anything,” Ball commented. “I asked Desi Jr. if he wanted to marry her, and he said no. My daughter helped outfit the baby, whom Patty brought to the house. But did she ever say thank you?”

In 1972, when Sean was 18 months old, Duke instead chose to marry John Astin, who had recently divorced Hahn. At the wedding ceremony, the baby Sean looked at Astin and shouted out, “Daddy!” The priest then quipped, “Well, that about does it!”

Astin brought three sons from a previous marriage into this new family, and Duke and Astin later welcomed another son, Mackenzie, in 1973. Astin adopted Sean, who took the Astin family surname.

Sean Astin and John Astin shared a loving relationship, with John running Sean’s Little League team and giving him some acting coaching before his successful audition for The Goonies.

In her 1988 autobiography, Duke stated that she had always talked honestly with Sean about his uncertain paternity. After estimating Sean’s conception date, Duke felt sure that Astin was Sean’s biological father – but to the young Sean himself, it was a moot point.

Credit: Sean Astin via Instagram

“‘Dad’s my father because he’s been my father, because he changed my diapers and taught me Little League,'” Duke quoted Sean in her autobiography. “‘I believe that his sperm made me too, but even if it didn’t, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s my dad.'”

However, during his teen years, Sean became more curious about his biological origins. When he was 14 years old, a conversation with his mother led him to wonder if Arnaz Jr. was his real father.

With help from John Astin, Sean and Arnaz Jr. got in touch with one another in 1995 and developed a relationship of their own. “Desi Arnaz Jr. loves me, and I love him. We are so close,” Sean would later comment on the man he suspected of being his father.

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The plot thickened when Sean Astin – who had since starred in Toy Soldiers (1991) and Rudy (1993) – had a chance meeting with the niece of Michael Tell. She pointed out how similar Astin looked to her uncle and suggested that he take a DNA test, to discover if his mother’s ex-husband might be his biological father.

Around the turn of the century, Astin contacted all three candidates: John, Arnaz Jr. and Tell, all of whom agreed to testing. Sure enough, the DNA test proved that Michael Tell was indeed Sean’s biological father. Making up for lost time, the pair bonded fast. In 2005, Astin (then on a career high thanks to The Lord of the Rings trilogy) celebrated Passover with Tell’s family.

“I have a good relationship with Mike [Tell],” Sean later told the press. “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.”

Patty Duke and Sean Astin. Credit: David S. Holloway via Getty Images

John Astin divorced Patty Duke in 1985, but he remained very close with Sean. He has said that the “spiritual connection” he has with his adopted son supersedes blood. “The greatest treasures are the treasures of the heart and Sean is a treasure,” he noted. “We’re very close, we have a good time together.”

John Astin even warmed to Michael Tell, commenting: “[Sean’s] biological dad turns out to be a great guy and we’ve become friendly. He’s a good guy.”

Arnaz, meanwhile, also stayed in touch with Sean after their paternal link was ruled out. “My feeling is that I want to honor my relationships with the people who looked after me,” Sean had said, in particular highlighting John Astin, “who gave a huge amount of his time, energy and love.”

Patty Duke and Michael Pearce. Credit: Vince Bucci via Getty Images

Patty Duke alone has questioned the results of the paternity test, insisting that Michael Tell cannot be the father of her child. She says they never consummated their marriage.

“I don’t buy that test,” she told People Magazine in 2001. “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 [Duke’s birth name], you have been mistaken all these years,’ then I will consider it.”

Duke went on to advocate for better mental health care, encouraging people to seek help. She found lasting love with drill sergeant Mike Pearce, whom she wed in 1986. The couple remained together until Duke’s death in 2016.

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When his mother passed away, Sean Astin – who is married and has three children – set up the Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative, to promote better treatment and support networks.

The actor (who has since appeared in TV’s Stranger Things, Supergirl, Young Rock and Perry Mason) retained those lasting bonds with John Astin, Michael Tell and Arnaz Jr., and found yet another father figure in his stepfather Mike Pearce.

“I can call any of them on the phone any time I want to,” Sean has summarized. “John, Desi, Mike or Papa Mike … my four dads.”