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.
This kind of thing doesn’t just happen to celebrities, either. When Rebecca Cartellone purchased her mom and dad DNA testing kits for Christmas, she thought that the trio could explore their family history together. Perhaps she and her parents could bond, too, over tracing their roots. At the time, though, Rebecca had no idea just how much trouble her well-intentioned gift would cause. You see, when the Cartellones received the results of their respective tests, they uncovered a dark – and completely shocking – secret.
Rebecca had been born in November 1994 to Joseph and Jennifer Cartellone, and she had remained the couple’s much-beloved only child even as she grew up. In time, though, the Cartellones’ daughter was eager to learn more about her unique family heritage, which was Italian on her father’s side.
With that in mind, Rebecca decided to gift her parents DNA tests so that they could all learn more about their roots. She would undergo the same procedure, too, so that she and her mom and dad could examine their shared heritage together. As Rebecca handed over the presents to her folks, though, she had no idea that the findings would come to tear her world apart.
It’s fair to say that at-home DNA testing has emerged as something of a phenomenon in the last decade. That rise seems to have been fueled, moreover, by the public’s interest in family history. In 2014, in fact, genealogy became the second most popular hobby in the United States. And the concept of tracing one’s heritage is now a billion-dollar enterprise that is catered to by a number of websites, books and TV shows.
Meanwhile, genetic testing kits as we know them today first hit the market in 2007 – the same year that 23andMe launched its saliva-based DNA test. Family history giant Ancestry followed by launching its own DNA service in 2012, and this has since risen to become one of the most popular such schemes in the world. It may have helped, however, that as of 2019 Ancestry has accumulated over ten million people on its database – thus making the chances of finding previously unknown relatives a distinct possibility.
So, how do these tests work? Well, naturally, they require a user to provide a DNA sample, and this typically comes by way of a spit cup, a cheek swab, mouthwash or even chewing gum. The customer then returns their completed kit to a provider, which subsequently analyzes the DNA to give an estimate of that person’s ethnicity. But while the results can give some fascinating insights into your heritage, there are nevertheless some risks to the process, too.
You see, as DNA genealogy testing has risen in popularity, occasional horror stories have emerged. There are people who have been given the wrong results, for instance, while others have made discoveries that have changed their lives forever. So while the equipment used in the analysis of your DNA is generally sound, the findings themselves may come as a shock.
For example, one man claimed online that he had unknowingly been dating his half-sister. According to the poster, the couple had known beforehand that they had both been born through IVF and sperm donation, and so they had each hoped to learn more about their paternal heritage. The anonymous Reddit user added that his girlfriend had therefore bought both of them DNA test kits for Christmas.
The Redditor said, however, that when the pair had received their DNA results, they had found that they were in fact half-siblings who shared the same father. It seemed likely, then, that both had been conceived using sperm from the same donor. And when sharing the news in 2019, the poster revealed his astonishment, writing, “I have to express what my mental state is now. To put it in simple words: I feel traumatized.”
The man in question also posted what appeared to be the results from the DNA service and claimed that he’d been torn between his love for his girlfriend and the notion that they’d been unwittingly committing incest. And as you can imagine, the discovery apparently left both him and his partner in utter shock and desperately seeking further answers.
Elsewhere online, there are countless stories of people who have found out the real truth of their parentage. For instance, in 2018 The Guardian relayed the story of a woman named only as Michèle, who had reportedly discovered that the man who had raised her as his daughter wasn’t her biological father.
Prior to sending off her DNA for analysis, Michèle had taken a keen interest in her heritage. In fact, she’d managed to trace her supposed father’s bloodline all the way back to the 1600s. When the results of the DNA test came back, however, they were at odds with what Michèle had learned; instead, they claimed that she was around half Italian. And, understandably, the puzzled woman duly went to her nearest and dearest for answers.
But while Michèle’s mother claimed not to know anything about her daughter’s Italian ancestry, another family member appeared more clued up. You see, the Ancestry database suggested that Michèle had first cousins with an Italian surname in her hometown of Syracuse, New York. And Michèle’s aunt was able to link her niece to the strangers, too.
In fact, Michèle’s relative recalled something astonishing: when Michèle’s mom had been 18, she’d had a prom date who happened to possess the same last name as the cousins in Syracuse. And while, sadly, this man had since died, it nonetheless seemed likely that he was Michèle’s biological father.
Yet genealogist Debbie Kennett knows that Michèle’s experience is not all that uncommon. Indeed, Kennett told The Guardian that DNA testing may actually open up a “can of worms” for certain people. She added, “There have been a lot of secrets covered up in the past, and they are starting to come out.”
Revealing what happens in such cases, Kennett continued, “When people get these unexpected findings, they tend to distrust the science at first… But even close matches can only reveal so much in isolation. The DNA on its own doesn’t give the science; you need the contextual family information as well.”
As a result of such cases, then, Catherine St Clair launched the NPE Friends Facebook group in 2017. “NPE” stands for “Not Parent Expected,” with the community itself being a place that people can join after DNA testing reveals that their mothers or fathers are not who they believed they were. St Clair created the group, moreover, after she discovered that the man who had raised her was not her biological dad.
Describing how she had felt when she had unearthed her true parentage, St Clair told the New York Post in 2018, “You feel completely alone and isolated. It’s like having an infection that’s deep under your skin that keeps festering. And it’s painful, and it’s getting worse and worse. Only after it’s exposed to air can it start to heal.”
It’s safe to say, then, that some people who’ve partaken in at-home DNA testing have discovered more than they bargained for. And as it happens, the Cartellones would find themselves among that unfortunate group. Yes, after they had received the results of their individual genealogy kits, the tight-knit family came to see that they had been living a lie.
It only became clear that something was amiss, however, when Rebecca, Joseph and Jennifer’s DNA results came back in February 2019. These findings showed that while Rebecca appeared to be matched to her mother, there seemed to be less of a link with her father. In fact, it appeared that Rebecca and Joseph had no genetic makeup in common.
And when talking to Good Morning America in August 2019, Joseph revealed what had subsequently transpired. The distraught dad said, “When we looked at the results, what we immediately noticed was that there were no traces of Italian DNA in [Rebecca’s results] at all… And her DNA matched my wife’s pretty closely.”
At first, then, Joseph believed that there had been some kind of mistake with the DNA results, and this led him to call the kit’s maker. In response, though, the company explained the process that the samples underwent. And, ultimately, Joseph began to realize that there was a chance he and Rebecca weren’t related after all.
So, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, Joseph and Rebecca took a paternity test together. And when the results of that study came back, the pair’s greatest fear was realized: they were not biologically connected at all. Joseph went on to explain to Good Morning America, “My disbelief turned quickly to shock and then ultimately to anger that this could possibly be the case.”
In an attempt to find answers to his questions, though, Joseph had to go all the way back to 1993. During that year, he and Jennifer had visited what was then named the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health after they had experienced difficulties conceiving. And after seeing what offers they had on the table, the couple had decided to try in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
As many will know, IVF involves an egg being fertilized with sperm in a lab environment before it is implanted inside a woman’s uterus. And before the Cartellones underwent the procedure, they had been assured that Joseph’s sperm would be used to inseminate Jennifer’s eggs. So, just what had gone wrong?
Well, in light of Rebecca’s DNA results, it appears that sperm belonging to someone else was used during the IVF process. Naturally, then, the Cartellone family felt as though they had been betrayed. Speaking at a news conference in August 2019, Joseph explained, “This has been extremely difficult for my family.”
Joseph continued, “I never would have imagined the Christmas gift of a home DNA kit would unveil this kind of abuse of our trust. For our daughter Rebecca, it’s even tougher. She’s experiencing significant emotional stress and confusion concerning her own identity.” It appeared, too, that the results had also had a major impact on the man who had previously assumed he was Rebecca’s biological father.
Speaking candidly at the news conference, Joseph said, “It’s hard to explain the shock and agony when you find out that someone you love and care for — your own daughter — is not genetically related to you… There’s a mix of anger, pain and confusion that comes along with having to accept this and having to break the news to our family.”
And while speaking about Jennifer’s reaction, Joseph revealed, “She has to deal with the fact that this clinic… fertilized her eggs with a complete stranger’s sperm and placed them in her body… She’s profoundly disappointed that she can no longer give birth to a child with both of our genetics… And that’s exactly why we sought the help of doctors… in the first place.”
So, after making their shocking discovery, Joseph and Jennifer filed a civil lawsuit against The Christ Hospital Health Network, Ovation Fertility Cincinnati and what is today called the Institute for Reproductive Health. In particular, the Cartellones alleged that the original lab that had helped them conceive Rebecca had in fact used another man’s sperm.
The law firm representing the family, Peiffer Wolf Carr & Kane, specializes in taking on fertility clinics for alleged misconduct. And while speaking at the Cartellones’ press conference, managing shareholder Joseph C. Peiffer said of the family’s case, “This is a massive betrayal of trust and an unthinkable break of trust.”
According to the firm, moreover, only one of five people could be Rebecca’s biological father – with a doctor at The Christ Hospital allegedly among these individuals. Crucially, The Christ Hospital had previously been associated with the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health, where Joseph and Jennifer had undergone IVF.
Commenting on Rebecca’s potential paternity, the Cartellones’ lawyer Adam Wolf told the Daily Mail, “The defense should go through their records and find whose sperm they used to create the embryo… We have no idea if this was intentional or a horrifically negligent accident. We’ve asked, but we’ve been met with radio silence.”
And as you would expect, Joseph and Jennifer had signed a contract with The Christ Hospital before the procedure went ahead. However, according to an August 2019 report by CNN, the medical establishment was withholding comment owing to the pending litigation. Instead, The Christ Hospital simply stated that it was “evaluating the allegations surrounding events alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s.”
The affiliated Institute for Reproductive Health, by contrast, issued a statement that said it hadn’t been in operation in 1994. Any possible error, then, lay at the feet of The Christ Hospital’s former lab. The message to CNN read, “Because this alleged incident occurred in The Christ Hospital’s laboratory before our practice and laboratory existed, we cannot comment on what may or may not have occurred in their laboratory.” But perhaps it’s not that straightforward.
You see, Wolf has claimed that the lab director and doctor who had previously worked at the original Greater Cincinnati Institute were now based at the newer Institute for Reproductive Health. Even so, neither of those people were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges negligence and breach of contract.
According to CNN, the lawsuit also asserts that Jennifer was the victim of battery, as she hadn’t agreed to have her embryo fertilized by a stranger. With that in mind, the Cartellones were seeking financial compensation of an unknown sum; the couple have also requested the name of Rebecca’s biological dad along with his medical history.
In addition, the Cartellones are apparently eager to know if Joseph’s sperm was used elsewhere. In August 2019 Wolf told NBC-affiliated channel WCMH-TV, “If you provide sperm to create an embryo, and you find out that sperm was not used for your daughter, you have to wonder, ‘Where did your sperm go?’”
Plus, Wolf and his clients have called for a change in the way in which the fertility industry is run in the United States. The lawyer explained to the Daily Mail, “There needs to be mandatory inspections of facilities, consequences if something in the facility [goes wrong] and certification requirements for fertility clinics… In most states, you don’t need even need to be certified to run. In Ohio, you can open up a center in your basement.”
The Cartellones’ suit continues to make its way through legal proceedings, although it may be a long journey to the truth. And in the meantime, Rebecca can only wonder about who she is and whether she has further biological relatives – ones that she may not have known about if it hadn’t been for an at-home DNA test.