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Sean Astin eyes another ring

Future may hold Oscar, bigger roles

Sean Astin in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." His performance is attracting Oscar talk.

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Sean Astin
Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Life is a little unsettled for Sean Astin, who plays hobbit straight arrow Samwise Gamgee, or just plain Sam, in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

In fact Astin, who turns 33 in February, told Reuters, "this is kind of a make-it-or-break-it moment for me" for a career that has seen several highs and lows.

The current period is way up there. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- the final of the three-part trilogy of fantasy films about a war for middle-Earth among humans, wizards, elves and orcs -- is shattering box office records and has amassed over $700 million in global ticket sales.

More important to Sean, he finds himself fielding a large number of job offers and maneuvering through a Hollywood Oscar campaign that he hadn't expected.

"I'm uncomfortable with that idea," he told Reuters. "I don't want to be seen as shilling for awards."

"I want the work to stand on its own," he added. "(But) I'm not going to pretend I don't care about this environment because it's something that's meaningful to me."

Astin is winning praise because of the emotions he exudes as Sam, the hobbit who aids his friend Frodo in their quest to save middle-Earth from a dark future, only to be betrayed. Then, Sam must re-establish his loyalty and save Frodo's life in the final leg of their long and arduous journey.

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick writes, "Astin emerges as the epic's emotional center in a beautiful performance," while Access Hollywood's Clay Smith says Astin is "more than deserving of an Academy Award nomination."

Recognition from community

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, is the central character. Viggo Mortensen, as Aragorn, becomes the king in "Return of the King," and Sir Ian McKellen has already earned a Screen Actors Guild award for his role as the wizard Gandalf. Sam is just the simple-minded sidekick.

Frodo and Sam
Astin's Sam is a loyal friend to Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood).

Astin said one reason the awards are important is that he is a long-time member of the Hollywood community, having started acting as a child, and these honors are an acknowledgement from his friends, peers and even family members.

He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, the U.S. film industry's highest honors. He was nominated for an Academy Award for a short film he directed, "Kangaroo Court," in 1994.

And Hollywood is in his blood. His father, John Astin, a veteran actor perhaps best known for playing Gomez on "The Addams Family" TV series, is an Academy member. His mother, Patty Duke, won the supporting actress Oscar for 1962's "The Miracle Worker," and is an Academy member.

While an Oscars would be cherished, Astin said the prize he covets is the Screen Actors Guild trophy for best ensemble performance.

Breakthrough in 'Rudy'

Awards boost acting careers, for one reason, because they bring name recognition that sells tickets.

Before "Return of the King" opened in December, Astin said he didn't think his name had yet become marketable to movie studios. In recent weeks, however, his Hollywood star has risen fast with the reviews and Oscar buzz. "There is a kind of heat and attention on me, more than ever before," he said.

50 First Dates
Astin (left) is co-starring with Adam Sandler (center) in "50 First Dates," due later this year.

His small stature and youthful face enabled him to extend his child-acting career, which began a couple TV movies and 1985's "The Goonies." At age 22, he got a big break in 1993 in the title role of TV film "Rudy," about a bench-warming college football player who finally gets a chance to play for the team. The film flopped in theaters, though it did better on video.

What followed were years of independent films and minor roles that kept Astin working, put him and his wife through college, allowed them to start a family -- they have two daughters -- but never made him a star.

In the 1990s, he started directing, which led to the Oscar nomination for his short film. Then, came the role of Sam.

When "Fellowship of the Rings" hit big, job offers flowed in and Astin has worked steadily since October 2002 on TV and in films such as the upcoming "50 First Dates" with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.

Right now, he doesn't have any plans or contracts for other jobs. He's seeing how high this new round of buzz will boost his recognition. Yet he's all too aware that when the "Rings" hype settles, his career could suffer another let down.

"I want to take the temperature of the business and build a career as best I can," he said. "Right now, it's an environment of opportunities. It's being the toast of the town," which is as new and unsure for Astin as Mount Doom was for Sam.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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