When you think about vampires (though we’re not exactly sure why you would be), odds are they’d be members of the undead desperate to reclaim some part of their lost humanity, whether it’s their soul (David Boreanaz’ Angel), eternal love (Edward Cullen in The Twilight Saga) or meaning in their own existence (Anne Rice’s Lestat). Few likely consider them blood-thirsty predators who look upon us as nothing more than cattle, which is the way it used to be until the arrival, in 1967, of a perfect storm: actor Jonathan Frid, vampire Barnabas Collins and Dark Shadows, the daytime horror soap opera.
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “I used to run home from school every day to watch it,” you’re well aware of what Dark Shadows was. If not, it was a pop culture phenomenon you’d have to have been there for to fully appreciate just how big it was. “Back then, on the weekends, I would make personal appearances,” Frid recalled in an exclusive interview prior to his death. “I did it for the money and for the ego trip — sure, I enjoyed it, but who wouldn’t? You know, going down the street and hearing the din of thousands of people anticipating your arrival. It was the time of The Beatles and I was getting almost the same kind of treatment they were.”
The creation of producer Dan Curtis, who claimed the concept of the show came to him in a dream, Dark Shadows debuted in 1966, set in the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine and focusing on mysteries involving the Collins family at their mansion (Collinwood). It was essentially a Gothic novel brought to life, involving a woman (Alexandra Moltke’s Victoria Winters) who comes to Collinwood to work as a governess for young David Collins (David Henesy) while trying to uncover secrets of her own past.
“The early episodes loved the idea of ‘mystery,’” muses Wallace McBride, creator of the premier site on the show, The Collinsport Historical Society. “They loved the concept so much that Dark Shadows was reluctant to ever resolve whatever mystery was at hand during its first year, including its most notorious dangling plot point: Who is Victoria Winters? Like Twin Peaks many years later, the mystery was the entire point, so it doesn’t bother me at all that we never got an answer to that question.”
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The real mystery is how Dark Shadows managed to survive on the air for more than a couple of months given its anemic ratings. Things did reach a point where the network (ABC) was getting ready to cut it off, giving Curtis just six months to turn things around. Deciding he had nothing left to lose, he figured he’d go for broke and threw a vampire into the mix. The idea was that this vampire — Barnabas Collins — would be inadvertently freed from his chained coffin and pass himself off as a distant relative of the family. On the surface, he seemed like this charming gentleman who had lived his life in England, but beneath that, there was indeed the need for blood, which was initially quenched by cows(!), but would come to include victims of the humankind.
Enter Jonathan Frid
Born John Herbert Frid on December 2, 1924 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, he served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, which is where the idea of acting first came to him. “It hadn’t occurred to me to be a professional until then and a friend of mine was definitely coming to New York after the war to become a professional actor,” he recalled. “The fact that I had a friend who was going to be an actor gave me the same incentive to be a professional actor. That was in 1945. The first play I was in at prep school, where I astounded myself, my family and my friends, was when I was a ‘budding actor’ in 1938 or 1940. So 1940 was my first inclination and 1945 I figured that if my friend could do it, I could do it. My family objected to the whole idea of it.” Not that that was going to stop him.
Frid would graduate from Hamilton’s McMaster University in 1948, enrolling the next year at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 1954 he had decided to move to the United States, where he would attend New York University and, in 1957, would receive a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the Yale School of Drama. Beyond various university productions, he began appearing on stage in shows such as A True and Special Friend and, as an understudy on Broadway, the 1964 production of Roar Like a Dove. His roles varied, ranging from The Rival’s Sir Anthony the Absolute to Father Barrett of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Dr. Sloper in The Heiress and Richard III among many Shakespeare parts.
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“I was playing inquisitors and priests trying to destroy this and that,” he laughed. “I’ve always played the heavy and I’ve had great delight in playing them. I’ve played comedy, too, though that’s a part of my life I have not fulfilled.”
The Road to ‘Dark Shadows’
In early 1966, Frid, at that point a resident of New York City, had plans to move to California to become a teacher. He had been on tour with actor Ray Milland in Hostile Witness and when it was over, he returned to Manhattan to find the phone ringing — in the days before answering machines — and ran in to answer. It was his agent, who he hadn’t told when he was returning. He was alerted about an audition for a soap opera, which would provide him with some extra money to go to the West Coast with.
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“I said, ‘I’ll never get it,’” he details, “and because I was in that attitude, I think I got the job. You know the rest of the story. It was just that freaky phone call. If I had been two minutes later, he would have figured I was still in Florida.”
Needless to say, Frid was cast as Barnabas Collins and the results were seismic. “That is exactly the word that describes the change that took place,” offers Mark Dawidziak, author of, among others, Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dracula and The Shawshank Redemption Revealed: How One Story Keeps Hope Alive. “Not only the impact that the character had on the show, but the impact that the character had on the pop culture and all of horror storytelling going forward.”
How Do You Play A Vampire?
“When Jonathan joined the show,” he continues, “nobody could actually tell him how to play a vampire. As an actor, the first thing you want to know is, ‘How am I supposed to play this?’ Well, how do you tell somebody how to play someone who’s been locked in a coffin since the 1790s? So Jonathan just did what actors do: he built an interior life.”
Though early on it seemed he didn’t need too much of that interior life in the sense that Barnabas was intended to be a part of the show for just three months, at which point they’d move on to another character. Dawidziak points out that the actor actually did know one thing: “He knew how it was going to end, which was with a big piece of lumber sticking out of his chest, because they were going to kill him off. He was just going to be like every other vampire predator — a threat that had to be eliminated. But because Jonathan did the work of trying to find relatable ways to play that part, the viewers picked up on it before the writers did. They found something very human in the monster and he became the most popular character on the show, which made him unkillable. It was a mistake, because they weren’t intending to make him the reluctant vampire or to give him a conscience.”
Interestingly, Barnabas came out of his coffin in 1967, exactly 70 years after Bram Stoker wrote his seminal novel, Dracula, and in all of that time the vampire had barely evolved from predator. “And the predator doesn’t question his own nature,” Dawidziak points out. “But Barnabas starts to ask the questions and starts to say, ‘Do I have to live this life? More importantly, can I change? Is it possible to reclaim my humanity?’ No vampire had ever thought that way.”
And the audience loved it. Dark Shadows became a bonafide phenomenon. The show’s ratings skyrocketed, the writers introduced a wide variety of other supernatural beings to torment the Collins family, vast amounts of merchandise were inspired by the show and there were two feature films, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971).
Living a Lie
The irony of all of this is that as far as Frid was concerned, the vampirism was the most boring aspect of playing the character. “I love to play horror for horror’s sake,” he explained. “The inner horror. The fang business with Barnabas — I never thought that I created fear, I always felt foolish doing that part of it, but the horror part I liked was ‘the lie.’ There’s nothing more horrible than looking someone in the eye who is tell you a lie and you know it’s a lie. Especially in a love relationship when you find out the person does not love you and is only pretending to. Somehow that scares me more than anything. In terms of the theater, I like the inner drama rather than the outward manifestation.
“An inner conflict or emotional confrontation is more of a drama to me,” Frid detailed. “That’s why with Barnabas there were many scenes I was thrilled to do and why the show came alive so many times for me. What scared me was Barnabas’ lie; that he was pretending to be something he wasn’t. That was something the actor playing Barnabas had to remember all the time. He got the lust for blood every once in a while, but what always preyed on his mind was the lie. And that played right into my own lie as an actor, pretending to be fully confident when I wasn’t. I was lying that I was calm and comfortable, just as Barnabas was lying that he was the calm and comfortable cousin from England. He wasn’t at all. He was a sick, unbelievable creep that the world didn’t know about. I don’t mean whether he was nice or bad. He was always nice, right from the beginning; he was never really bad. What was really bad was the lie.”
Santa Claus with Fangs
As the fan mail poured in, Frid made his public appearances and Dark Shadows was virtually everywhere, with the actor attempting to gain an understanding of just why people connected with the character the way that they did.
“I was kind of like a dark Santa Claus,” he suggested with a laugh. “I don’t know if as a child you were taken to the department store to see Santa, who was supposed to be a friend, but he was a big man and he was frightening. You nevertheless wanted to get up there, because you wanted a present, but you were terrified. There was an instance on a weekend when I was in a tent and there was a mob of people — mothers and children — waiting to come up and see me. There was one child, before he even got into the tent, who was just screaming and terrified. The mother, who’d been waiting on line for an hour or two, said, ‘Sonny, I’ve had you in line for two hours so you can tell Barnabas exactly what you want to tell him.’ Finally, he figured that the only way he was getting out of there was if he told me, so between tears he said, ‘I like you.’ Talk about love-hate. Like I was going to turn into a bat or something, but it was a precious moment which really summed up, for me, what people thought of the character.”
Like most pop culture phenomena, Dark Shadows burned brightly but had a limited shelf life. The show had debuted in 1966 and came to a close in 1971 with a total of 1,225 episodes (remember, it aired five days a week). And by the time it did end, Frid was okay with it (despite missing the regular paycheck). “The end wasn’t really a great shock, because the writing on the wall was always there for me,” he shared. “Every time the show went up another notch, I figured it was peaking and that it would start to go down. I knew it couldn’t last. I’m a negative person in that way. So when the end came, I was fully prepared for it. It was like the stock market, it would go down and up. And it lasted a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would. It wasn’t the ordinary soap opera and they went through all the horror stories three or four times; we were repeating ourselves.
“We ran out of stories, gas and interest,” added Frid. “I think Dan Curtis, the show’s producer, had other interests. I was getting a little bored with it, I suppose, but everyone got bored with it. Work got sloppy, the writing got sloppy, the discipline got bad and the show burned itself out.”
Life Beyond the Coffin
Given how popular both Dark Shadows and Jonathan Frid were at the time, it’s a little surprising that the actor didn’t parlay that success into something more. Initially, he did return to the Broadway stage in 1971 in Murder in the Cathedral and Wait Until Dark. Then there was his role as a mute butler in the 1973 TV movie The Devil’s Daughter and Oliver Stone’s directorial debut, Seizure (1974). And then he returned home to Canada, before relocating back to New York in the early 1980s. All told, though, things were pretty quiet.
“I do, but I don’t miss the work,” he admitted. “It’s too much hard work. I was nervous and under a great strain. If I say nothing else important during this interview, every day of my first year on the show was sheer hell, just because of nerves. But at least those nerves worked for Barnabas, because the character was a nervous wreck. The truth is, I knew people were going to view me as Barnabas after the show ended, although there was nothing to typecast except the fangs. Frankly, if I worked harder I could have twisted it, though I may never have made it as big again. You see, being a star is a big, big job; you always have to be better than you were the time before or you’re out.
“I also knew I couldn’t make a career out of being a star, because I would have to make a commitment to the occult,” he continued. “I have no interest in that at all. If I did make a career out of it, I would have to become an honorary member of every occult society in the country and get into vampirism. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. Look at Bela Lugosi, the poor man. He died and had himself buried in his Dracula cape. I never wanted to get like that.”
Return to the Stage
In the 1980s he began developing a one-man show and, in collaboration with television producer Mary O’Leary (who also had a background in theater) and a guy named William McKinley, was able to hone it down and bring it to fruition. What they came up with was a concept that would put Frid — who always had a tough time memorizing lines — on the road armed with a music stand, stool and written material from which he would read/perform. As O’Leary told him, “It’s your voice and all your facial expressions that bring all these characters from the page to life for the audience.”
Cleverly, they brought the show to various Dark Shadows conventions, which turned out to be a great way to work out the kinks, though there the presentations would include Barnabas-related material, which would ultimately be removed from the show when performed elsewhere. He was actually hesitant to feature what he called “spooky stories” he would read, but saw that, given his image, it would be wise to include them. So he did, among them one written by Stephen King, and even incorporated elements of comedy, which he brought to additional conventions and colleges.
The project definitely gaining speed, Frid actually thought he was being derailed when O’Leary was contacted by agent Bob Waters, who told her that the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace would be going out on a national tour and he believed that the actor would be perfect for the character of Jonathan Brewster. She did away with Frid’s concerns by pointing out that once they had the tour schedule, they could schedule engagements on the road. So he joined Arsenic —costarring along with Marion Ross, Jean Stapleton, Gary Sandy and Larry Storch — from 1986 to 1987.
Relates O’Leary, “Jonathan said it was the most wonderful year of his life, because he got to do a long run of a play and he was an actor who constantly would work and look for some nuance he didn’t know in the beginning. And once he was comfortable with Arsenic, we started booking his show.”
Embracing His Roots
When he wrapped Arsenic and Old Lace, Frid’s agent told him that he wanted to start submitting him to different projects, which he was completely against. Explains O’Leary, “Jonathan said, ‘Wait a minute, this was an incredible time, but I really want to focus on my one-man show.’”
The evolution of the personal shows continued, from Jonathan Frid’s Fools and Fiends to Shakespearean Odyssey and the heavily comedic Fridiculousness. “He just kept going; he was amazing and kept finding audiences in all these little towns,” she warmly recalls. “Then I was getting promoted at work and he was getting close to 70, and he said, ‘I think I’m going to retire back to Canada.’ So for the first time ever he bought a house up there and embraced the fact he’d always loved gardening.”
O’Leary, whose friendship with Frid lasted until the end of his life, adopted a child and moved to Los Angeles, while he enjoyed a retirement that still allowed him to perform his show in Canada, which is where his last stage role took place in the form of 2000’s Mass Appeal. He did embrace his Dark Shadows past by attending a number of conventions in New York and California between 2007 and 2011, and he reprised the role of Barnabas for the first time in the 2010 audio drama The Night Whispers. “I was kind of talked into doing it and really wasn’t sure what I was doing at first,” he related. “But once we went into the studio, I found that I enjoyed it and we went back a second day to perform it again after I was comfortable. And with how Barnabas is now, I guess he’s just older and a little more tired … like me.”
Frid and Dark Shadows co-stars David Selby, Lara Parker and Kathryn Leigh Scott were flown to England to appear in the 2012 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie version, but that was a disaster. “They got there,” says O’Leary, “and there was no script. I think they were just flying by the seat of their pants and the movie crew didn’t know what to do with them. It was unfortunate.” And their appearance was of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety.
On April 14, 2012, Jonathan Frid died at age 87 from a combination of pneumonia and complications from a fall. Notes O’Leary, “Jonathan definitely still had energy. He would still get on his website and tell the fans, ‘I can’t wait until the next Festival to see you all again.’ He had the energy and the passion, but, of course, as with all of us, his body didn’t cooperate.”
The memory of Jonathan Frid and Dark Shadows continues to live on, with a new version of the show in development and the appeal of the original continuing to touch people who hand it down from generation to generation.
Wallace McBride comments, “Dark Shadows functions on a lot of different levels simultaneously. It sounds simplistic, but how many horror movies have you seen that weren’t scary? Or comedies that weren’t funny? Entertainment is hard work … statistically speaking, it’s almost impossible to make anything that’s not forgotten by the end of the week. But we keep trying, because when it works, it’s literally magic. We’re still talking about Dark Shadows for the same reasons we’re still talking about Casablanca, Star Wars, and The Twilight Zone … they all have a lot of gears working in unison that sing to us on levels deeper than just ‘personal.’ Fandoms tend to crop up around these kinds of properties because they provoke a shared experience that’s transcendent, and we gather together to try to prolong that experience. Religion probably started for the same reasons. Here endeth my TED Talk.”
Looking back at it all towards the end, Frid commented, “Dark Shadows was something unexpected, but really quite amazing. I was too busy when it was all happening to make sense of it, but I’m having a good time with it all now.”
And there are a lot of people who still are.