Long before Anne Rice, the Post had its own interview with a vampire: Jonathan Frid—the brooding, tortured, but definitely romantic lead in the most popular soap opera in 1968.
Dark Shadows… the top-rated daytime attraction with females between the ages of 12 and 34… has become something of a national fad. Barnabas Collins board games, posters, Halloween costumes, masks, capes, coloring books, and bubble-gum cards are being rushed on the market. One entrepreneur is even preparing Barnabas Collins plastic fangs, adjustable to any juvenile mouth.
Until the character of Barnabas was introduced last year, the program’s darkest shadow of all was a cancellation notice lurking in the wings. Surveys made early in 1967 showed that it was being watched in only 2,750,000 homes, as against a whopping 4,480,000 today. The story had originated as a straight “‘soap” with Gothic trappings and old, dark house on the Maine coast; a young governess menaced by unspecified evils, etc. Topping the cast was former movie actress Joan Bennett.
“We were really bombing,” admits Dan Curtis, the independent producer who packages the show, “so I figured, to hell with it. If I’m going to fail, I’ll at least have a good time. I went wild, tossed in witches and ghosts, you name it. But that vampire made the difference. Two weeks after he came on, the ratings began to climb.”
“That vampire” is, in reality, a 44-year-old Canadian actor named Jonathan Frid, a tall, attractively homely man with a face like a gardening trowel.
I first met him in the Dark Shadows studio.
Frid was in full costume: black Inverness cape; long hair plastered down in spiked bangs; tombstone-white skin; large, slightly cruel gray neyes. He was asked if he had any personal theories on why his character bad become such a success. “To be frank, I haven’t thought about it much.” he said in his somber, dramatic voice.
Paradoxically, his off-screen mannerisms—sweeping gestures, eyebrows arching almost to the hairline—are more florid than his acting style. Frid’s vampire is restrained almost to the point of rigidity, as if fighting to hold himself back from some dark, nameless act. “There is the fan mail, of course,” he went on. “It’s up to two thousand letters a week now, mostly from women. They even send me nude pictures of themselves.
“I suppose women see Barnabas as a romantic figure because I play him as a lonely, tormented man rather than a Bela Lugosi villain. I bite girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drives me to it. And I always feel remorseful later. In the story,
I was murdered and turned into a vampire by a jealous witch back in 1796. Actually, my main interest is curing my condition. It’s even happened occasionally, like the time I was given massive transfusions by mistake. They made me a normal human. Unfortunately, there was a side effect—I actually looked 172 years old. It was either bite girls in the neck again or die of old age. , ,
The scripts of Dark Shadows are tailored to make Barnabas Collins sympathetic in spite of his more antisocial tendencies. “He does terrible things,” says Gordon Russell, one of the writers, “but we always give him a good reason ”
“Personally, the success of the show hasn’t meant all that much,” he said… “The trouble, I guess, is that soaps are rather subterranean. The people you want to impress are working while you’re on. Somehow, this sort of thing just isn’t real…”
If Jonathan Frid can’t quite come to grip with his offbeat celebrity, it’s understandable. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, trained m his craft at London’s Royal Academy and the Yale Drama School, he’d spent nearly two decades as one of the hundreds of New York-based actors who, somehow, just never make it. Respected by other professionals, they fill out the years between Broadway roles in regional theaters, touring with road companies, playing small parts in Shakespeare summer festivals.
During the four days I’d followed the shooting, he bad been in virtually every scene, a feat requiring countless hours of rehearsal and memorization. “The worst part is that I’m a slow study,” he said, “You can’t always be looking at the Teleprompter. The audience notices.”
On Monday, after a weekend’s rest, be had delivered his lines with energetic authority. By Thursday, the accumulated strain showed in slurred or misread speeches and ill-timed movements. “I was awful today,” he said. “We never retape, no matter how many fluffs the cast makes. Not even when scenery falls over. Costs too much.”
He collapsed into an armchair. His face was still pale and haggard, his eyes shadowed. It was the first time I’d seen him without makeup.
He looked remarkably the same.
Next month, Johnny Depp will play Barnabas Collins in a movie version of Dark Shadows. Fans of the old soap opera—who, of course, don’t look nearly old enough to have been alive back then—will be measuring his performance against the high standards set by Mr. Frid.