jonathan frid (1924-2012)

I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Frid, who died a week ago.

On one hand, there’s his cultural influence, which is significant. He played Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows, and Barnabas was the first “reluctant vampire” (or at least the first to have broad impact – I don’t know if he was the first or not). Ordinarily I’d try to give some of the credit to the writers of the show, but in this case it really wasn’t their idea. They thought Barnabas would appear for one storyline, imperil and attack the Collins family, and then be destroyed so that the show could move on to something else.

But Barnabas caught on, because of the way Frid played the character, and he took over the show (similar to Popeye, who was supposed to be a one-storyline character in the comic strip Thimble Theater – and eventually the strip became known as “Popeye”).

I found out about Dark Shadows after Barnabas was introduced, and, like Johnny Depp, I was one of those kids who rushed home every day to watch the show. I had a friend who was also a fanatic (I forget if he introduced it to me or vice versa or if we discovered it separately), and we always discussed the previous day’s episode in gym class the next morning, while running laps.

Full disclosure: Barnabas was not actually my favorite character. I preferred Quentin Collins, Professor Stokes, and Angelique (the witch who cursed Barnabas in the first place). Quentin and Stokes were later characters, and they had a certain mordant wit about all the goings-on, a quality which was mostly absent in the characters who were introduced earlier in the run.

I think one factor in Frid’s performance was that he was (at best) ambivalent about being so successful at playing a vampire on a television soap opera. He was a serious actor in his forties, and becoming a teen idol was not his idea of professional success (and I’m sure he realized fairly early on that he was going to be typecast forever). I wonder if that was a factor in his performance (I remember reading one critic who thought that one reason Sean Connery was so great as James Bond was that he didn’t bother to conceal his contempt for the whole thing – instead he used that in his performance).

A few different actors have played Barnabas since Frid, on television and in audio plays, but two yeas ago, Big Finish (which produces an excellent series of Dark Shadows audio plays featuring the original cast) persuaded Frid to come back and play Barnabas one more time. They asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he would like to do a two-hander with John Karlen, who played Barnabas’s servant Willie on the show (“long-suffering” is an understatement as far as Willie goes).

The story was called “Night Whispers” and I have to report that, forty years after he’d last played Barnabas Collins, Frid nailed the character as nobody else ever has. Barnabas treats Willie far better than he did on the show (the master and servant have obviously grown old together), but when another element enters their world, he’s every bit as much of a bastard as he ever was. Capable of great concern and even self-sacrifice for others, he’s nevertheless never a nice guy. He may feel bad about things he’s done, but he will never apologize.

I’ve also been thinking about what I got out of the show, why I watched it so obsessively, and what I learned from all those afternoons watching the world’s first “Gothic soap opera.”

1. Serial stories are great. I already knew that (I’d been reading comic books for several years when I discovered Dark Shadows), but this was another lesson. I write serial stories, and I always gravitate towards them when I can find them to read.

2. Don’t worry about perfection. Dark Shadows was famous for its flubs – the show was shot “as live” on videotape, meaning that once the camera started shooting each half-hour segment, it didn’t stop for anything. Actors flubbed their lines, props fell over, “eternal” flames blew out, stagehands wandered by in the background, boom mikes descended into frame, it didn’t matter. The show must go on indeed. Trust me, when you write and publish serially, there will be a few little glitches.

3. Don’t be limited by reality. Dark Shadows was a fairly Gothic soap opera from the beginning, but the supernatural was only hinted it, never explicitly stated. But ratings were low and getting lower, so series creator Dan Curtis decided to go for it and introduce a real vampire. The rest is, as they say, history. People knew who “Barnabas Collins” was at that time even if they’d never seen a episode of the show. (For purposes of comparison, I know who Snooki is even though I don’t own a television – yes, he was that famous.) So, I have no problem writing about a very small teenage girl with superhuman strength, or three incestuous siblings who are (perhaps) aliens.

4. Even the most outlandish characters can have a full human inner life. I certainly try to apply this, whether it’s to a lunatic mass murderer, or a famous amateur detective, or the most powerful entity in the universe.

Some of these lessons I was already learning from comic books, but Dark Shadows carried them further (particularly #2 and #4). And I think I’ve specifically drawn on Barnabas in writing starling, who has killed a lot of people, and who would prefer not to kill any more, unless she has to (but is perfectly willing to kill or torture if someone she cares about is threatened), and who may feel bad about some of the things she’s done but who never apologizes.

I do have to mention the upcoming Dark Shadows movie. It has unnerved me by apparently being a wacky comedy, but I will see it. I’ve seen every movie Burton and Depp have made together (plus this one has Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Moretz), so I’ll see it, but I’m still ambivalent (though, in fairness, I’m not sure what I would have proposed instead – it would not be possible to do what the show accomplished in over 500 hours of television in a two-hour movie).

Also, four of the key actors from the show will have cameo roles in the film, so that will be nice. If they can be in it. I can certainly see it, and it will go down as Jonathan Frid’s final screen credit, so I guess that’s appropriate.

Here are three posts from Kathryn Leigh Scott’s website:

In the last one, she links to this article, which tells the story better than I just did – I’m glad I didn’t read it until I’d already finished the post. 🙂

To paraphrase a line that’s going around: Mr. Frid is survived by Louis de Pointe du Lac, Lestat de Lioncourt, Angel, Edward Cullen, and even Eli.

In other news, more of the story Stevie One is posted. We’re now starting Part Four, which is called “Jan Sleet.” And, yes, I guess I am still trying to apply all the lessons I learned from watching Dark Shadows every day after school.

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4 Responses to jonathan frid (1924-2012)

  1. sonje says:

    I read Tina Fey’s autobiography last summer, and she says that one of the best lessons she ever learned from Lorne Michaels was when she was a writer for SNL, and he told her (something like), “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.”

  2. Yes, exactly. When Stephen King said he would publish The Green Mile in serial form, he had to get a section done every month on schedule (and there was at least one goof in there, which he fixed when it was published in a single volume).

    As I was just commenting over at Emma Burcart’s blog (, my tolerance for small imperfections was probably also influenced by my experiences as a musician. There, also, the show goes on when the curtain goes up, not when the band is ready 🙂

  3. It might interest you that NPR talked about Dark Shadows and the influence of Barnabas Collins on the modern interpretation of the Vampire this morning:

  4. Stephen: Sorry for not replying before. I read this comment at work, made a mental note to listen to the audio when I got home, and then the mental note went the way mental notes often go. 🙂

    Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out today.

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