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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Back in the Shadows

Last June I finally got back to discussing what is, in my mind, the best daytime television program of all time, Dark Shadows. I had begun the topic a half-year before, and it took that much time before I got back to it. When I did, I spent one week talking about how the Sci-Fi Channel had, in its wisdom, given the venerable series a seemingly permanent home. And I spent another week explaining why Dark Shadows was so much better than the current (and superficially similar) daytime program Passions.

Now, you might have been thinking, great, now he’s gotten that out of his system and we won’t have to hear anything more about Dark Shadows. Well, if you were thinking that, then you were wrong. When I finally got back to the topic in June, I fully intended to keep it going for several weeks. Frankly, there is no way you can spend too much time or too much bandwidth talking about Dark Shadows. (I even toyed with the idea of changing the name of this web site to, but registering these domain names actually costs money.) The only reason I changed the topic after the two columns in June was that I got distracted by the movie Minority Report, the cancellation of Politically Incorrect, the passing of two prominent actors, the way summer movies keep saluting New York City, and the way some movie characters refuse to stay dead. Now that I’ve got all those superfluous ideas out of my head, I can finally get back to the important work of talking some more about Dark Shadows.

One way to appreciate the contribution of Dark Shadows to art and culture is to take a look at how many actors in the series went on to make their mark in the world. As with any daytime serial, legions of actors came and went during the series’ five-year run. Since the show was based in New York, there was more or less a revolving door for actors who went from one soap to another, earning money while waiting for (or in between) gigs on Broadway. Much of the cast was young and getting their first break. Some were veterans if not stars. One or two actually had established careers.

Far and away the best known was the titular star, Joan Bennett. She had had a successful career as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies in the 1940s. She played the matriarch of the Collins family, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. One of the longest running plot lines was the mysterious disappearance of her husband, a puzzle that was nearly forgotten before it was finally solved, almost as an afterthought. When the character of Barnabas Collins (a vampire villain who was meant eventually to be dispatched) was introduced, he proved so popular that the actor who played him (Jonathan Frid) eventually got second billing. The series became all about Barnabas, and Bennett was essentially reduced to minor character status even though she always continued to get top billing.

The other established actor was Grayson Hall, who was married to one of the show’s main writers, Sam Hall. Her most notable previous role had been opposite Richard Burton in the film The Night of the Iguana. On Dark Shadows she played the weird Dr. Julia Hoffman, who was introduced as part of the original Barnabas plot and became ensconced for the duration of the series as his loyal sidekick. In one of those story developments that always amused me, Dr. Hoffman came to Collinwood to investigate the mysterious vampire attacks but used the pretext of writing a history on the Collins family to explain her presence. The Collinses graciously offered her a room in the family mansion, and she stayed on literally for years. No one ever inquired as to how the book was coming or when she might be leaving.

The dominant actor during the series’ run was the aforementioned Jonathan Frid. He was a Shakespearean actor from Canada and was perfect for the role of the tormented Barnabas. It is impossible to imagine the series without him. I can’t recall ever seeing him appear in anything else before, during or after Dark Shadows, although I understand that he continued to have a stage career and has made a living at doing appearances as Barnabas.

The character whose train journey to Collinsport to become the governess for young David Collins kicked off the original story line (and who served as narrator in the early days) was a young girl who grew up in an orphanage. Her name was Victoria Winters, and she was played by Alexandra Moltke. Moltke eventually left the series, and the Victoria character was written out by having her go back in time to live with the love of her life, whom she had met during a previous time-travel adventure. Moltke later surfaced in a real-life drama when (under the name Alexandra Isles) she turned out to be the girlfriend of Claus von Bülow, who was tried for allegedly giving his wife Sunny a drug overdose. (He was ultimately acquitted.) The von Bülow story was dramatized in the film Reversal of Fortune, starring Jeremy Irons as von Bülow. Moltke/Isles was played by an uncredited Julie Hagerty.

Other actors to participate in the series during its run included David Selby (later of Falcon Crest), Roger Davis (Alias Smith and Jones), Kate Jackson (Charlie’s Angels), Jerry Lacy (Bogie in Play It Again, Sam), John Karlen (Cagney and Lacy), Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line) and Mitchell Ryan (Dharma and Greg). Among the myriad of actors who turned up in minor roles were the likes Conrad Bain, Barnard Hughes, Harvey Keitel, Marsha Mason, Kenneth McMillan and Abe Vigoda.

After all is said and done, however, a few of the actors really stand out for making the series what it was and allowing it to transcend its invariably incredible storylines. At the heart, of course, was Jonathan Frid. But others who created characters that remain vivid to this day are Lara Parker, the evil enchantress Angelique; the late Louis Edmonds, as the perpetually snide younger brother to Joan Bennett’s matriarch; and the late Thayer David, who played both the loyal but dim 18th century servant Ben Stokes and his erudite descendent Professor Timothy Eliot Stokes. I fear we will not soon, if ever, see their likes again on the small screen.

-S.L., 1 August 2002

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