One of my heroes died today, Jonathan Frid, a.k.a. Barnabas Collins, the vampire with a soul. Actually, and fittingly for a horror icon, he died on Friday the 13th (of April, 2012) — but his family released the news today, the day after the anniversary of his first appearance on Dark Shadows. (April 18, 1967.)
Dark Shadows was my favorite TV show as I kid. I don’t think there was even a close second. (Maybe Star Trek.) Like millions of kids, I raced home from school every day to catch the latest episode. We were lucky, my brother Mark and I; we lived between Boston and Providence, so we got the show on 2 channels, right after each other. And somewhere in the run, the two stations got out of sync, so the 4 o’clock show (as I recall) was the newest, and the 3:30 show was the one from the previous day.
That meant we got a full hour of Dark Shadows every day, and we got to watch every episode of Dark Shadows twice. (Our youngest brothers missed out on this first-time-around, being born during the show’s run.) So that’s what Mark and I did, every day for as long as the show ran — watched it twice, every day we could. I don’t think we ever missed an episode.
After the local station moved the show into the afternoons, that is. I remember discovering Dark Shadows when the local station had it on around 9am. I found it while home sick one day. Naturally, more sick days followed. (Some of the time, I was even actually sick.) I loved the werewolves and witches and ghosts and, of course, the vampires. And one vampire in particular.
Barnabas Collins was the vampire to end all vampires. He was the first “vampire with a soul” — a man fighting as hard as he could against an affliction he could not control. I suppose, as a kid with chronic health problems, that maybe meant more to me than it might have to most — an idea that didn’t occur to me until just now when I wrote it. At the time, though, I just thought Barnabas was the coolest thing ever. Sure, vampirism was a curse, but who wouldn’t want to walk the night as an immortal, able to change into a bat and vanish at will. Who wouldn’t want to be completely irresistible to women? Who wouldn’t want to have Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) under his power? Certainly not this pre-teen.
The Barnabas character was supposed to be a short-lived stunt. He was brought in as a desperate attempt to shore up the show’s failing raitings — a last-gasp attempt, as it were. And boy, did it ever work. Barnabas soon turned from a one-shot heavy into the heart and soul of the show. Though the show’s writing was good, I have to give nearly all of the credit to Mr. Frid. A practiced stage actor, Jonathan Frid brought an intensity and gravitas to the role in a way seldom seen on TV, never mind in a soap opera.
He also brought a poignant stranger-in-a-strange-land quality to the character that fit in perfectly with the 200-year-old vampire he was playing. Some of it — most of it, probably — was certainly due to Mr. Frid’s acting talent. Another portion, though, I later found out, probably had to do with the strictures of TV and the crazy live-on-tape nature of the production. Frid, used to the stage, didn’t have the time to prepare and memorize as he would like, because every day was a new play. This, I think, added to that “lost boy” quality Barnabas had, which was one of the things that made the character so endearing.
Who, as a child or teen (or even an adult), hasn’t felt lost amid the turmoil of the modern world?
It’s maybe ironic that on Dark Shadows the best-trained stars (Mr. Frid and Joan Bennett) seemed the most likely to flub their lines. But just watch what they, and especially Mr. Frid, brought to the screen — an intensity and presence perhaps never before seen in daytime TV. Which is not to cut down the considerable acting talents of the rest of the cast. Dark Shadows was a repertory company filled with incredible actors. Every day they brought 30 minutes of horror-based drama to TV, and — because they had only a brief time with the expensive master video recorder — there were pretty much never second takes.
To sustain making such a production over a week would be a tough job; to sustain it across 1225 episodes (all of which are available on DVD) is nothing short of astonishing. Mr. Frid was not in all those shows, but from the moment he appeared, Dark Shadows was his show. And we were his fans, as loyal as any of the thralls whom Barnabas had bitten on the neck.
I was, and continue to be an immense fan of both the actors and the show. In 1996, I dedicated the original publication of the second Frost Harrow novel to Mr. Frid (and Kathryn Leigh Scott & Darren McGavin). The book was in e-format only (yeah, I was doing e-books before people had e-readers; bad marketing move), so I doubt he ever knew it. I also doubt that he and the other cast members knew they made a tribute appearance in Hardy Boys #173 — Speed Times Five (as Robert Frid, Quentin Curtis, and Maggie Collins).
I know many other authors and creators have paid tribute to the show, and I suspect that even more have sneaked in subtle winks like the one above. I had hoped to send Mr. Frid a copy of the new version of Frost Harrow #2: Die With Me when it comes out (hopefully later in 2012). Sadly, that will not now be possible.
However, despite not being a convention goer (I became a gaming pro too early to relish going back to fan after 1980), I did have some contact with Mr. Frid via his website, and earlier this year I got an autographed photograph from him (the one I’m sharing in this post).
I have only two autographed photos in my collection, both from Dark Shadows stars. One is from him, the other is from Kathryn Leigh Scott, his co-star on TV and film. Happily, she is alive, well, publishing great books, and keeping the Dark Shadows legend alive. You can follow her on twitter here:
As for me, I’ll continue doing work inspired by Mr. Frid and Dark Shadows for as long as I live, including Frost Harrow and, I suspect, many other projects as well.
So thank you, Jonathan Frid, for Dark Shadows, for conflicted vampires that don’t need to sparkle to have a soul, and for everything. Long may you be remembered, and may you Rest In Peace.
With Love, Your Fan,
Stephen D. Sullivan
(An author who knows he’s just stepped on his newest book announcement, which he just put up yesterday. Click here to make his publicist and his wife happy and see said announcement.)