Requiem for a Forelorned Monster

Jonathan Frid (1924 - 2012) and 'Dark Shadows'

by Bill Gibron

20 April 2012

In some ways, he was much more than Barnabas Collins. In many ways, that's all he was.

Okay, so his connection to cinema is specious at best. He starred in the first motion picture adaptation of the classic late ‘60s horror soap, and supposedly has a cameo in the new Tim Burton reboot. He appeared in a single TV movie, and Oliver Stone’s first full length feature (the schlocky Seizure). After that, nothing. No long running role on a nightly drama. No standing sitcom part as the quirky next door neighbor. Aside from personal appearances and stage work, Jonathan Frid was famous for one thing and one thing only - Dan Curtis’ insanely addictive Dark Shadows. As Barnabas Collins, the time-hopping vampire cursed with both a lust for blood and a romantic’s heart, he became an instant household icon. But beyond his supernatural stardom, there remained the typical actor’s tale.

Frid was born in Canada. He served in the military and graduated from McMaster University. He then attended The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and received a Masters Degree in directing from Yale. While a student, he won a role in a play by William Snyder, and he would up spending the next three decades in the theater. Hoping to parlay his performances into a bit more financial gain (he planned on becoming an acting coach), Frid prepared to move to Hollywood. As luck would have it, his agent called informing him of the role on Shadows. Needless to say, he stayed put in NYC and, within weeks, became the talk of daytime television.
Unless you were alive during the era (and especially if you were elementary school age or older), you can’t comprehend the impact Dark Shadows had. It was so unusual, so outside the boundaries of the typical housewife melodrama that it instantly became a bastion of considered cool. College kids cut classes to see the latest installment of the five day a week spectacle, while those younger ran home from their school (or bus stop) to catch the further macabre mishaps of the Collins clan. With its legendary theme and baroque Northeastern location, the entire experience came across as something akin to Hammer’s House of the Seven Gables. It was steeped in Gothic givens, but thanks to creator Curtis and his clever casting, it became a pure pop phenomenon.

And sitting front and center was Frid. From his dapper mannerisms and classically trained voice, to the numerous presupposed subtexts his character represented (why was Barnabas always berating poor meek and timid Willie Loomis…), Barnabas was unlike anything the medium had seen. Sure, television had attempted to turn the horrific into the humorous with such laugh track anomalies as The Addams Family and The Munsters. But Dark Shadows represented the first time a series skirted the boundaries of the supernatural while trying to maintain something more than a monster-of-the-week dynamic. Sure, the show eventually devolved into whatever creature the writers could come up with (what, exactly, are the Leviathans again???) for their continuing storylines, but few could forget Frid, or his frighteningly forceful performance.

With fame came frequency, and then massive merchandising. There were books and magazine spreads, toys emblazoned with Barnabas’ image and even a board game based on the show. Popular chat show broadcasts by Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin always seemed to have time for Frid and his friends, and even the occasional variety hour found a way to work in the lonely vampire now and again. Few remember the series outside of the lovelorn member of the living dead. Mention Burke Devlin or the pre-ghost story plots about car accidents and reckless revenge and only the die-hards will nod in appreciation. When he arrived around episode 210, Barnabas changed everything. The show went from novelty to well known, and its star from mystery to major league name.

So it’s strange that Frid couldn’t - or perhaps, wouldn’t - parlay that place into something more sustainable, celebrity wise. Stereotyping could be to blame, as could clueless studio suits. Sure, he was the major attraction at any Comic-con style convention he attended and his aura projected something beyond his role as a melancholy neckbiter, but that wasn’t enough. Even during latter attempts to revive Shadows, few could see the selected stars - Ben Cross…Alec Newman…and perhaps the best choice of the three, Johnny Depp - as being better than Frid. The reason, of course, was quite obvious. Thanks to MPI’s decision to release every single episode of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s series on DVD, fans could obsess over their favorite entertainment abnormality and its mythic monster.

In turn, Frid became even more majestic, his every nuance and artistic construal appreciated and interpreted over and over again. Today, many read a homoerotic overtone to his byplay with Willie, while others use the reticent romantic for an entire subcategory of Anne Rice/Twilight inspired twaddle. There is no arguing his place in horror’s history - he was the post-modern magnification of everything Bram Stoker envisioned when he brought the bedeviled creature to the page. Sure, the Peace Generation gestures and unusual nature of the concept may have confused many, but as time tempered the overall idea, Dark Shadows became a classic. Frid was as integral in that process as the premise built for him. Luckily, Barnabas lives forever.

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