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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Big Lou’s book

It was a big week for me. I finally finished reading another book.

This is a major event for me. I never get enough time to do all the reading I want to do. And when I do get some reading time, I always feel obliged to catch up on what the libraries call periodical literature, i.e. newspapers and magazines. Book reading seems to get relegated to slow periods in our house, when and if they occur, or holidays that are leisurely enough to allow time to open a book—usually during onslaughts of rain in the wilds of southwest Ireland. Also, the way I approach book reading may slow things down a bit. I have a bunch of books loaded into my Sony e-reader, and I tend to bounce from one book to another as the mood strikes me, so I rarely read one book from beginning to end without switching to another one or two or three for a while.

Anyway, the other day I finished Big Lou: The Life and Career of Actor Louis Edmonds by Craig Hamrick (published by iUniverse). Now, Louis Edmonds is either a name that you know or you don’t. And most people won’t. He was one of those New York actors who was almost always performing on some stage or other and who found his most long-lasting employment in daytime television. There really isn’t anything too remarkable about his life and career, compared to all the other actors who have trod the boards in the Big Apple over the years. It is certainly tame stuff compared to, say, another biography I have going that jointly chronicles the wild, boozing escapes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. So why would someone write a book about Louis Edmonds and why would I read it?

Longtime readers are way ahead of me. Edmonds was an integral member of the cast of my cult fave TV show, Dark Shadows. He was one of only two actors to appear in both the very first broadcast and, 1,224 episodes and a bit over 57 months later, in the very last one. The other cast member to share that distinction was Joan Bennett, the series’s marquee name star. Nancy Barrett would have also shared the distinction, but her first appearance on the show was in the series’s second episode.

When I first discovered Dark Shadows, Edmonds was playing the father of about-to-become-a-vampire Barnabas Collins. He was not a particularly likable character, and in fact most of the characters Edmonds played during the series’ run were not particularly likable. His original and main role was as Bennett’s younger brother, the snobbish and craven Roger Collins. He was central to all the action in the beginning, but with the arrival of Barnabas and the shift to more heavily supernatural themes, Edmonds was relegated to supporting roles. His final part was as a vengeful ghost punishing the Collins family with a Shirley Jackson-inspired lottery that terrorized everybody.

Hamrick’s book is clearly aimed at the Dark Shadows fan base. The author himself was an admitted fan of the show who wrote other books about the series. He also became a close personal friend of Edmonds during his final years, and the book is as much a tribute as a biography. Edmonds’s other claim to fame was playing the role of Langley Wallingford, the con man who became the husband of longtime character Phoebe Tyler played by Ruth Warrick, on the soap All My Children. He played Langley for something like a decade and a half.

Edmonds lived to be an actor and, as must be the case with most professional actors, he had his share of frustrations in his work over the years. But as long as he working somewhere, be it on TV soaps or on the stage or in a handful of movies (small roles in the Troy Donahue vehicle Come Spy with Me, the violent crime flick The Exterminator and the straight-to-video Next Year in Jerusalem), he seems to have been content.

The nature of Edmonds’s life and work more or less guarantees that a biography would consist largely of passages that state, he was in this play and then he was in that play, etc. And so that is how much of the book reads. We learn about the man’s origins in Louisiana and the early death of his mother, his stint in the Navy, and then a half-century of hunting down acting roles and playing them on stage and on screen. We learn about the two great loves of his life and his beloved weekend home on Long Island where he entertained fabulously. And about how he was stricken with throat cancer in his late 60s and went into decline until his death at the age of 77 in 2001.

Beyond those details, the book is about the work, in great detail. Surprisingly, the section on his time with Dark Shadows seems to go by quickly. But we learn which colleagues were his close friends (Bennett, his onscreen sister, and Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas) and which were not. Grayson Hall (whose bio I wrote about four Thanksgivings ago) got off on the wrong foot with him. Coincidentally, she had earlier replaced him in a play (1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping) from which he was dropped because the producers decided to replace his character with the character’s mother.

One way Hamrick keeps the book interesting is to detail virtually every famous person Edmonds ever crossed paths with. The list is quite lengthy and not only makes up much of the narrative but also comprises a lengthy appendix. He even includes the actor Robert Taylor, whose only interaction with Edmonds was to let him take a chair from his table in a restaurant. In his drama student days, Edmonds went out with Sada Thompson (later an Emmy winner for the TV series Family) and she was even romantically interested in him until she realized he was gay. Two other notable women in the list include Carol Burnett, who played his daughter in a bit of stunt casting for All My Children, and Lucille Ball, who sat next to him at an Emmy Awards ceremony but changed seats when he proved to be too fawning for her taste.

There is a current of poignancy that runs through the book, and not only because of the sad, drawn-out manner of Edmonds’s death and the fact that he died single. The book tells of many of the actor’s friends and colleagues (and even his own nephew) dying early deaths from AIDS in the 1980s, including one of his exes and some of the Dark Shadows cast. In fact, the book implies that without the gay community Dark Shadows might well never have existed. Hamrick’s entry on cast member John Karlen (who would go on to star in Cagney and Lacey) says that he was an object of both male and female lust, as one “of the relatively few straight male actors on Dark Shadows.”

Ultimately, the book is sad because, before the book was published, its author was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died in 2006, five and half years after Louis Edmonds. His book is as much a tribute to himself as it is to his friend.

-S.L., 25 November 2010

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