Jonathan Frid, 1924-2011… The Original “Reluctant Vampire”Posted: April 20, 2012
**On April 13th, a Friday the 13th, Jonathan Frid passed away due to complications of a fall, he was 87.
As I write this sentence I wonder if of you were fans of the man who turned vulnerable sensitive vampires into a work of art. Then I realize, most of you would remember his most famous role of Barnabas Collins, on the TV series Dark Shadows, which aired daily from 1966 to 1971. Jonathan Frid was a Shakespearean actor, who reluctantly found celebrity and fame as,
…the vampire Barnabas Collins on the sanguinary soap opera “Dark Shadows,” died last Friday, April 13, in Hamilton, Ontario. He was 87.He died from complications of a fall, said Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played several characters on the show. Mr. Frid, who lived in Ancaster, Ontario, leaves no immediate survivors.
Barnabas was originally meant as a temporary character on the TV series produced by Dan Curtis.
…with ratings slipping, the show’s executive producer, Dan Curtis, chose to inject an element of the supernatural. Enter Barnabas, a brooding, lovelorn, eternally 175-year-old representative of the undead. Today TV vampires are legion, but such a character was an unusual contrivance then.
The ratings shot up, and not only among the traditional soap-opera demographic of stay-at-home women. With its breathtakingly low-rent production values and equally breathtakingly purple dialogue, “Dark Shadows” induced a generation of high school and college students to cut class to revel in its unintended high camp. The producers shelved the stake.
Swirling cape, haunted eyes and fierce eyebrows notwithstanding, Barnabas, as portrayed by Mr. Frid, was no regulation-issue vampire. An 18th-century man — he had been entombed in the Collins family crypt — he struggled to comes to terms with the 20th-century world.
He was a vulnerable vampire, who pined for his lost love, Josette. (She had leaped to her death in 1795.) He was racked with guilt over his thirst for blood, and Mr. Frid played him as a man in the grip of a compulsion he devoutly wished to shake.
Jonathan Frid was far from being the average kind of teenage heart-throb during my generation. I was born in 1970 and did not see the show Dark Shadows while it ran “live” on ABC, but I was fortunate to have a mother and cousin who loved the show. By the time they turned me on to Barnabas and the rest of the extraordinary cast of Dark Shadows, the show was on late night syndication on the local TV station in Tampa, Channel 44. This was the same station that broadcast such shows as Creature Feature with Dr. Paul Bearer…so it was already a frequent choice on my TV dial.
I could not help but to fall in love with the character I saw in black and white on my static ridden television screen. As I said, my mother and my cousin Irene were big fans and they helped me to develop an appreciation of Dark Shadows, Jonathan Frid and the rest of the cast, and eventually it grew to epic proportions. (I even had a pet cockatiel in college that I taught to “sing” the tune of the show’s opening credits…like I said, I really loved the show.)
I may have missed out on being one of the fans who ran home after school to catch the show live on the tube, but I’d stay up late watching my favorite characters on the screen, Barnabas, Dr. Hoffman, Maggie and Angelique…even recording the show with its awesome campy soundtrack on my old tape deck. When I played the tapes back, you could hear my laughter at the marvelous bloopers the show was well-known for.
Dark Shadows was aired live, so not only would props or whole sets fall down at times, lines would be forgotten, and you could hear the cues being given off stage…Joan Bennett was famous for forgetting her lines.
As Jonathan Frid once said in an interview from twelve years ago,
“I’d get this long-lost look on my face,” he told The Hamilton Spectator in 2000. “ ‘Where is my love? Where is my love?,’ it seemed to say. Actually, it was me thinking: ‘Where the hell is the teleprompter? And what’s my next line?’ ”
Another blooper that always got me squealing with laughter was that single fly who would land on the actors as they performed their scenes. That studio must have had flies all over the place. Grayson Hall, the actress who brought life into Dr. Julia Hoffman, seemed to especially attract any fly on the set. They would buzz around her constantly and she would blink her eyes even more than usual. Which I gotta tell you, was comically overdone in the first place. It was almost as if she was wearing hard contact lenses and she had to keep blinking to keep them inside her eye sockets.
Jonathan Frid and the rest of the cast were inspiration to me. I started writing stories about this sad vampire and my mom, my cousin and I would make up songs about Barnabas and Julia Hoffman and Maggie and other characters on the show. Popular songs like “Bette Davis Eyes” became “Julia Hoffman Eyes.”
Barnabas Collins thinks she’s a spaz,
She’s got Julia Hoffman Eyes!
Her eyes flutter…you’ll love her, she’s got Julia Hoffman eyes!
Another song we would make fun of was “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League, we turned into a duet between Barnabas and Maggie…
You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar When I met you I picked you out, I shook you up, and turned you into someone new…
But I have wandered a bit…away from the man who was my idol and who was center stage on my teenage wall of posters. There in black and white, among the images of Sting and The Police, Howard Jones, Rod Stewart, Level 42 and The Thompson Twins was Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins. Flashing that vampire smile and holding the silver wolf head handle on his cane, showing off the fabulous black onyx ring he wore on his finger.
Jonathan Frid was the original reluctant vampire, who was brought to his knees in tears when the ghost of his little sister Sarah told him he was a bad man. He also had a strange sort of sensuality about him. As this quote below from the NY Times states,
Mr. Frid received nearly 6,000 fan letters a week. “I wish you’d bite ME on the neck,” read one, from a woman in Illinois.
Others contained snapshots of the letter-writers’ necks — and everything on down — laid bare.
All this, Mr. Frid said in 1968, was exquisitely ironic in that “the other vampires we’ve had on the show were much more voluptuous biters than I am.”
His New York Times obituary continues:
It was also an exquisitely unimagined career path for a stage actor trained at the Yale School of Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Mr. Frid, as he made plain in interviews, was as conflicted about his calling as Barnabas was about his own.
The son of a prosperous construction executive, John Herbert Frid was born in Hamilton on Dec. 2, 1924; he changed his given name to Jonathan early in his stage career.
After service in the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II, Mr. Frid received a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University in Hamilton; he later moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy and appeared in repertory theater. In 1957, he earned a master’s degree in directing from Yale.
Mr. Frid spent his early career acting in North American regional theater, appearing at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. On Broadway, he played Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, in “Henry IV, Part 2” in 1960.
His film career included:
…the 1970 feature film “House of Dark Shadows”; the few other screen roles that came his way also tended toward the ghoulish. He starred opposite Shelley Winters in the 1973 TV movie “The Devil’s Daughter,” about Satanism; the next year he played a horror writer in “Seizure,” Oliver Stone’s first feature.
Jonathan Frid remained active in the theater after Dark Shadows stopped airing in 1971. According to his obituary in the LA Times:
Frid had an extensive stage career, including a Broadway and national tour of “Arsenic and Old Lace” in the mid-1980s.
Frid began organizing staged readings of plays, poems and stories at “Dark Shadows” fan gatherings in the early 1980s. The “Readers Theater” became a replacement for the Q&As with fans, which Frid had grown bored with. The shows, which also included scenes from Shakespearean plays and Edgar Allan Poe short stories, was one of Frid’s great passions in his later years.
Frid also maintained his website up until just a few months before his death, posting regular updates and communicating with his fans.
I thought one of the best remembrances of Jonathan Frid came from one of his co-stars on Dark Shadows, Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres,
May Jonathan Frid, “our reluctant vampire,” live on in our hearts! How blessed I am to have known this dear man and to have such wonderful memories of him, both on screen and off. These photographs chronicle the good times we shared: star-crossed lovers playing Barnabas and Josette in both “Dark Shadows” and the film, House of Dark Shadows, and good friends off the set for more than 40 years. My favorite scene in all the 1,225 episodes of “Dark Shadows” was Maggie Evans’ introduction to Barnabas Collins in April 1967, 45 years ago this month. That we hit it off, bonding as two “outsiders,” was plain to see. Later, I became the embodiment of his long-lost love and doomed fiancé, Josette DuPrés.
I am so grateful to have worked with Jonathan, and to have known him as the charismatic, entertaining, complex and plain spoken man that he was. What fun we had working together! He was irascible, irreverent, funny, caring, lovable and thoroughly professional, and in the end became the whole reason why kids “ran home from school to watch” “Dark Shadows.”
I love you, Jonathan. Rest in peace.
Kathryn Leigh Scott also posted a couple of tributes that she thought, “were special and revealing.”
The first is from Jonathan’s hometown newspaper The Spec and includes wonderful quotes from Jonathan’s nephews and friends about Jonathan’s everyday life in Ancaster.
The second is from The Plain Dealer. Mark Dawidziak writes with such insight. It really is the best appreciation of Jonathan that I’ve read so far.
Here is a quote from The Plain Dealer:
The path starts with the first appearance of the Barnabas Collins character 45 years ago this week. It cuts across the next three decades with Anne Rice’s introspective, soul-searching vampires. And it leads through the 1990s and into the new century with David Boreanaz’s Angel, a vampire, like Barnabas, with a conscience.
Frid, who died on April 13 at 87, was the man who set the vampire free. The 1960s was a decade of rebellion and liberation movements, and Frid’s depiction of Barnabas was nothing less than Vampire Lib.
Before Barnabas, the vampire was a creature with a fairly limited job description. He was primarily a predator. There were hints of regret or longing in some pre-Barnabas vampire portrayals, but they were only hints. The vampire always returned to predator.
After Barnabas, the vampire could question his own nature and battle against it (Louis in “Interview with the Vampire”). He could go from preying on humans to being their defender (Angel). He could be conflicted (Bill Compton in “True Blood”). He or she could be an action hero (the title character of “Blade” and Selene in the “Underworld” films).
And that wasn’t because of the producers and writers on “Dark Shadows,” a serial heading for cancellation before Frid showed up eight months into its daytime run. It was because of how Frid chose to play the character.
Frid knew precisely how long he’d be on the show. He’d been given a 90-day contract. He also knew how it all would end — with a wooden stake sticking out of his chest.
What the writers didn’t expect was that Frid would approach the character as a real person with real emotions. He didn’t know how to play a monster. He had to find the actor’s way into the part.
The author, Mark Dawidzaik, interviewed Jonathan Frid several times over twenty-five years, he mentions one of his first interviews:
“I remember being invited to a meeting on the Saturday at the studio to talk over the character,” said Frid, who was living in his native Canada. “Asked for my opinion, I said to make him human — remember he’s real, and every monster is a human, of sorts. The behavior is something else. But it all began to develop over a couple of weeks.”
The show didn’t follow that direction — at first. But Frid knew it was best to approach an unrealistic role in a realistic manner.
“I know I had a good approach to the character,” he told me during my first interview with the vampire in the 1980s. “I tried to make him a perfectly sensible person. I never played a vampire. I played him as a man with a hell of a conflict. But I never could perfect what I wanted to do, and that stiffness just fed Barnabas because he was so uptight.”
“Jonathan Frid was the reason I used to run home from school to watch Dark Shadows,” says Depp. “His elegance and grace was an inspiration then and will continue to remain one forever more. When I had the honour to finally meet him, as he so generously passed the torch of Barnabas to me, he was as elegant and magical as i had always imagined. My deepest condolences to his family and friends. The world has lost a true original.”
My own personal tribute to Jonathan Frid is this:
You were such an amazing actor…you are and will forever be Barnabas, the quintessential vampire with a soul. You portrayed the role with such style and gave Barnabas an air of dignified sadness. You were fascinating, and sparked a creativity in me that made me write my imaginations and dreams down on paper. Thank you.
Rest in Peace, Jonathan Frid…
**UPDATED 4/22 @ 9:12 **
The date of Jonathan Frid’s death has been reported in the press incorrectly. From the Dark Shadows News Blog:
Jonathan Frid's nephew has confirmed that he passed away in the early hours of April 14, not April 13 as first reported by news outlets...—
Dark Shadows News (@DarkShadowsNews) April 21, 2012