Character Over Carnage: Dan Curtis (1928-2006)

Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis was happy to carry the torch for terror, arguing for character over carnage.

Dan Curtis was obsessed with three things. First and foremost, he was a World War II fanatic. He also adored Gothic horror, the kind forged out of fear, not splatter and gore. But his greatest passion was golf. From the time he was an NBC programs salesman in the 1960s through his leisurely later years, Curtis loved the links.

The 78-year-old Curtis succumbed to a brain tumor on 27 March, just two weeks after the death of his wife of nearly 54 years, Norma Mae Klein. Ever known for his energy and affability, he had just directed the made-for-TV movies Saving Milly and Our Fathers in 2005.

Born Daniel Mayer Cerkoss in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on 28 August 1928, Curtis loved to read as a child, laying the literary foundation for this love of all things spooky. After graduating from Syracuse University, he sold syndicated programming for NBC. On realizing the new medium could introduce American households to his favorite pastime, he created the TV show Golf Challenge for ABC in 1962. Featuring Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, the show proved successful, so much so that rival CBS bought a similar idea from Curtis. The CBS Match Play Golf Classic aired for a decade, winning an Emmy for outstanding sports programming.

But Curtis had more big ideas. He pitched a daily serial to ABC about a town called Collinsport and the eerie Collins family. When it first aired in 1966, Dark Shadows was devoid of supernatural elements and lumbered along for over 100 episodes. Curtis took his daughter’s advice to add a ghost to the storyline, and sure enough, the series took off. It became a moderate hit and, perhaps more importantly, a cult phenomenon.

Curtis went on to direct two Dark Shadows big screen adaptations (House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows a year later) and a couple of TV films based on classic horror novels (Dracula in 1973, Turn of the Screw in 1974). He produced Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde (1968), Frankenstein, and The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1973).

He and his friend, author Richard Matheson (who wrote the novel and script for The Shrinking Man [1956]), continued to challenge conventional TV horror with Scream of the Wolf (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and two of the most popular made-for-TV movies ever, The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel, The Night Strangler (1973).

Together, Curtis, Matheson (who adapted an unpublished story by John Llewellyn Moxey), and actor Darren McGavin reimagined the old-fashioned monster story as a crime drama with supernatural elements. The concept clicked with audiences, and soon Universal was clamoring for more. When the sequel also scored, the company greenlighted a series. But Curtis grew concerned that there wouldn’t be enough time or budget to do the character of Carl Kolchak justice. When negotiations stalled over his involvement, he dropped out, opting to concentrate on other projects rather than watch Stalker stumble through cut corners and studio meddling. It’s no surprise then that the show lasted only a single season.

During the late ’70s, Curtis worked in TV and film. He helmed the big-budget shocker Burnt Offerings (1976) and joined with Matheson again for the anthology Dead of Night (1977). In 1979, NBC programming chief Fred Silverman contacted Curtis about working on the pilot for a new series he had in mind. More or less a rip-off of The Love Boat, Supertrain became one of the most notorious flops of that fall season, though Curtis came away more or less unscathed. The failure was fortuitous, however, since it gave Curtis his chance at something else. And this time, the results would be monumental.

Curtis had been obsessed with Herman Wouk’s novel The Winds of War almost from the day it was published in 1971. A fictionalized recounting of the events leading up to WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it appealed to Curtis’ fascination with the conflict, as did its follow-up War and Remembrance (1978). By the early ’80s, Roots had taught television executives that the miniseries could be an enormous ratings earner, and every network was looking for the next sensation. Over at ABC, then programming head Barry Diller was delighted to gain the rights to Wouk’s books, with some substantial caveats from the author.

When Curtis heard about the project, he convinced Diller he was the man to direct. He took on the task enthusiastically – 1785 scenes, 962 scripted pages, 267 locations, nearly 14 months to film, and another 12 to edit – and delivered a Sweeps period home run. Though it would lose the 1983 Emmy to the extravagant reworking of Nicholas Nickleby, The Winds of War made Curtis bankable. He immediately went to work on the sequel, and in 1988, ABC offered audiences War and Remembrance. Coming in at 30 hours (the original was only about 15), the second time around was almost as popular. War and Remembrance won the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries, even as critics cited the overwrought production as a nail in the rapidly closing coffin of the miniseries as a genre.

After nearly a decade deep inside the particulars of the Great War, Curtis needed a break. Thanks to video and syndication, Dark Shadows was rapidly being rediscovered by a new fan base, and he tried to parlay that success into a new version of the show in 1990. Sadly, the revamp was unimpressive. Curtis turned his efforts toward preservation, overseeing the creation of MPI’s Dark Shadows DVD Collection, a compendium (23 volumes and counting) of every episode of the 1966-’71 series. Curtis was happy to carry the torch for terror, arguing for character over carnage. He remained true to his passions until the end.