Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid 1924-2012

                "Our Revels Now Are Ended..."

Dark Shadows # 2, August 1969

Like the comic books, music and movies of the 1960s, television was very much a part of my childhood, and Dark Shadows was one show that left a distinct and lasting impression on me. The series had a lot in common with the comic books I absorbed, mainly the serialized adventures of the Marvel heroes. The trials and tribulations of characters such as Peter Parker or Ben Grimm were not very different from the struggles of Barnabas Collins as portrayed by Jonathan Frid,. Like the Marvel heroes, Barnabas was given special "powers" but he didn't want to have them, and didn't revel in his vampire role. To him it was a curse, and he only wanted to live like a normal person. These type of characters greatly appealed to me.

The character of Barnabas Collins was never created to be an ongoing part of the gothic soap opera. He was only brought on as a ploy to elevate ratings. It turned out, though, that Frid's portrayal was more popular than producer Dan Curtis could have imagined, and the writers had to find a way to make an amoral killer part of a continuing series. This led to an origin and softening of the character, eventually curing him and turning him into a supernatural Sherlock Holmes and defender of the Collins family.

Frid was not your typical leading man. He had a quirky nature that suited the character of a 175 year old vampire set loose in a world he didn't understand. He admitedly had a hard time learning lines, since the five day a week schedule was grueling, and the show was practically live, as it was then costly to reshoot  scenes, but the hesitancy of Frid the actor sometimes worked for the character of Barnabas, who was supposed to be trying to hide his true existence from the world around him. Barnabas was given to soliliques and introspection, not unlike a number of Marvel heroes. He was a decidedly sympathetic character and was wildly popular for the shows five year period.

The show instilled a sense of imagination in me, with its time traveling (past, present and future) glimpses of parallel worlds, and houses with secret rooms and passageways. Around every corner there existed witches, warlocks, werewolves, mad scientists and ghosts. All in a never never land somewhere in Maine.

Yes, the show could be deadly dull at times and had a number of poor actors and weak storylines, but at its best it featured offbeat characters and atypical situations. It was of its time, and most attempts to replicate its success have failed. The new movie very possibly may have the same problem.

Dark Shadows was translated to comics in 1969, when Gold Key bought the rights to the series. Since vampires were not allowed in a Comics Code approved  line such as Marvel or DC (even though kids could see vampires on TV every day in Dark Shadows and countless horror movies) Gold Key, which did not carry the Code seal, was able to cash in on the success of the show. Writers included Don Arneson, John Warner and Arnold Drake, and the book was drawn by Joe Certa. In 1971 a comic strip appeared, nicely drawn by Ken Bald, with assistance by talents like Wally Wood.

I had the pleasure to meet Jonathan Frid at conventions a few times, and he was an affable and charming person, with a great sense of humor. At one con a fan asked where the famous Wolf's Head cane he used on the show came from. He answered "Sam the Umbrella Man on 57th St" very matter of factly, which made us all laugh. And it was true. The store was still there in the 1980s, and they sold umbrellas and canes of all types, including the "famous" cane. Frid continued to do recitations and even had a website where he wrote about Dark Shadows, acting, his stage career and his current interests. Frid was always on the fringes of celebrity and never quite understood what all the fuss was about. He was a man thrust into the spotlight for a few short years, but he was very much a regular guy.   

A lot has changed in the 40 years since Dark Shadows has left the air. Television, movies, music and comics are very different, often slicker and more sophisticated. Still, there was a special feeling in the air that fades with the passing of each individual who brought their own personal stamp to the work they produced.


Barry Pearl said...

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Jeff Clem said...

When you write that Dark Shadows was translated to comics in 1960, is that a typo? The show began in 1966 and ended in 1971, I think.

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks for pointing out the typo. I've corrected it to the proper date: 1969.


Guy said...

Enjoyed your post, Nick! I felt the same connection you describe between comics and Dark Shadows! Very insightful. Thanks so much! Guy

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks fot the kind words Guy. Its nice to see that others had the same feelings about the show.

Kid said...

Nick, I don't know if the show ever aired in the UK as I've never seen it, 'though I remember the comics ads for the model with rubber arms.

Saw the trailer for the Dark Shadows movie a couple of weeks back and I see they're going for a comedy approach.

Nick Caputo said...


I don't think I'm going to care for the humorous approach in the new movie, but I'll give it a look. There is no way to transplant a soap opera into a 2 or 2 1/2 hour movie, so there has to be a reworking of the concept.

How does one accomplish this on a critical and commercial level? That is the problem screenwriters have; sometimes they succeed with smart ideas and the ability to take the essence of what made the original work, other times they fail by losing that ingredient.

Comicsfan said...

Have you had a chance to check out the "coffin" packaging for the collective MPI vids of the show? :)

Going back through those early Frid episodes is delightful. As a new player, he'd had sufficient time to learn his lines before taping (all before he became a "regular" and thus had more screen time demands), and his performances were very unique and enjoyable.

The vids include some excellent interviews with him that show him exactly as you describe--with a delightful insight and affable personality.

Nick Caputo said...


I haven't seen the new packaging as yet, but I agree with you that Frid was very good in those early episodes. Not only did he became the center of attention, but his speechs were usually long. As John Karlen has noted in interviews, he had a lot of lines compared to others, and once the special effects were used more ofter that also took time away from learning lines and r eading with fellow actors.

There is a slower pace and a special charm to the early episodes that Frid worked on.