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Scott Larson

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Barnabas Collins (1924-2012)

Another piece of my childhood—and this time a fairly significant chunk—has died. And I’m not talking about Dick Clark.

And the timing is extremely weird for legions of us fans. With the expected release of the new Dark Shadows movie less than four weeks away, the original and best and (let’s be real) only true Barnabas Collins has left us.

Word has been spreading on the internet—notably via a tribute by the actor who played his one true love and intended bride four decades ago, Kathryn Leigh Scott, on her web site—of the passing of 87-year-old Jonathan Frid in Hamilton, Ontario.

A classically trained actor who appeared on stage in his native Canada, as well as in Britain and the United States, he worked with the likes of John Houseman, Katharine Hepburn and Jean Stapleton and appeared on and off Broadway. His screen career is pretty easy to sum up. He was hired to play a villainous vampire for a story arc on the 1960s daytime gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. His character became so popular that he became the star of the show and appeared in nearly 600 episodes from 1967 to 1971. While almost every major cast member of the series played multiple roles during its run, Frid never played a character other than Barnabas Collins until the final story arc, in which he played Barnabas’s son Bramwell in an alternate timeline. He never appeared on another TV show (that I can find out about anyway), other than variety or interview shows.

On the big screen, he played Barnabas in the first of two spinoff movies, Dan Curtis’s House of Dark Shadows. He appeared in two horror movies in the early 1970s, clearly on the strength of his portrayal of Barnabas. He played the mute chauffeur Mr. Howard in Jeannot Szwarc’s TV movie The Devil’s Daughter, which starred Shelley Winters, Belinda Montgomery and Robert Foxworth and also featured Martha Scott, Joseph Cotten and Abe Vigoda. And he starred in Oliver Stone’s first feature film, Seizure, in which he played horror novelist Edmund Blackstone, who is terrorized in dreams by characters out of his book. And that’s it. That’s Jonathan Frid’s film career.

Wait, there’s one more credit. He, along with some of his fellow cast members from the original Dark Shadows, has a cameo in Tim Burton’s upcoming movie. How emotional is that going to be. What looked to be a stylish tribute to a 1960s pop culture phenomenon will now be an poignant, if lively, homage to the one true Barnabas Collins. I’m sorry, Johnny Depp, but that’s just how it is.

Other than the above mentioned work, Frid’s life was on the stage. He appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway in 1986 and subsequently on tour. In 1993 he directed The Lion in Winter in Georgia. In 2000 he performed in Mass Appeal in Ontario. In later years he performed a series of one-man shows across North America, raising money for charities.

I never had the opportunity to attend any of the numerous Dark Shadows festivals that have been held over the years and which have featured quite a few of the old cast members, but my understanding is that for a long time Frid stayed away from those sorts of appearances. Toward the end of his life, though, he attended several, to the delight of fans.

Frid returned to the role of Barnabas one final time two years ago for a recorded dramatic reading called The Night Whispers, produced by Big Finish Productions. Over the past several years, Big Finish has released a number of new Dark Shadows stories as audio plays and dramatic readings, featuring original cast members. Prior to Frid’s participation, the producers had worked around him by having Barnabas reincarnated into a new body and having him voiced by Andrew Collins (no relation?), who did a pretty darn good job of capturing Frid’s cadences. This makes Andrew Collins one of six actors, by my count anyway, to have played Barnabas. In addition to Frid, the famously reluctant vampire was subsequently played by Ben Cross in a short-lived 1991 NBC primetime series, Alec Newman in a never released 2004 pilot for the WB channel and, of course, Johnny Depp. (The sixth actor would be Thomas McDonell, who plays Barnabas as a child in the Tim Burton movie.)

What was there about Jonathan Frid’s daily performances as Barnabas that kept kids running home from school day after day to find out what happened next in his life—or afterlife? Speaking for myself, it had everything to do with the story about a man who was so in love with a woman that he kept looking for her even after they had both died. Much has been made of Frid’s Shakespearean training, and that really is the key. The story of Barnabas and his beloved Josette was not played as a soap opera but as a tragedy. Maybe the sets were sometimes seen to be a bit rickety and the actors, under the pressure of “filming live,” flubbed the occasional line. But the actors were totally invested in their roles, no matter how preposterous things got. This goes for Frid above all the others. You could see the torment in his eyes. You could feel his anguish. He made Barnabas a real person. And you could feel the magnetism that drew many a late walking barmaid to her doom.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Call me a fogey stuck in the past but neither your Salvatore brothers nor Bill Compton nor the entire Cullen family hold a candle to Barnabas, as played by Frid. Comparing him to various Draculas—e.g. Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Klaus Kinski, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella—is more problematic. But how wonderful that Burton’s movie not only provides a tribute to Frid’s work and allows two Barnabases to meet but that they also appear in a movie with one of the great Draculas of all, Christopher Lee.

I will have to have my own little ceremony to celebrate Frid’s life and career. At this point, I’m not sure what DS episodes or movie(s) I will pull out. Or whether I will actually forego scotch in favor of Bloody Marys. Actually, I received the perfect scotch to toast Mr. Frid on my last birthday, but sadly none of it remains. It was from the Isle of Jura and it was called Superstition. It even had a cross on the bottle. But I digress.

In her web site tribute to Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott spoke for many of us when she concluded, “I love you, Jonathan. Rest in peace.” So say we all.

-S.L., 19 April 2012

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