The Greatest Vampire of Them All: Jonathan Frid (1924-2012)

The death of Jonathan Frid last Friday -- Friday the 13th, of course -- will bring a bit of added publicity ahead of next month's opening of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp big-screen remake of Frid's classic television series,.
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The death of Jonathan Frid last Friday -- Friday the 13th, of course -- will bring a bit of added publicity ahead of next month's opening of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp big-screen remake of Frid's classic television series, Dark Shadows. It will also guarantee even more comparisons between Frid's beloved characterization of the reluctant vampire, Barnabas Collins, and Depp's soon-to-be-seen interpretation, which, if the trailers are to believed, will take a more comedic look at the venerable bloodsucker.

Frid, an experienced Shakespearean actor but a television novice when he joined Dark Shadows in 1967, admitted that he often had trouble memorizing all the dialogue he was given. That was why viewers would often see him gazing off into the wings in the middle of long speeches: he was looking for the teleprompter. "The glazed look of mystery and tortured solitude that became, I guess, my trademark, was born of the mere wonderment of what came next," Frid wrote. Yet for fans of the show, those searching gazes provided a clue into the heart of the vampire. He wasn't really bad; he was just lost and lonely. Every actor who's slipped on a pair of fangs since owes a debt to Frid. Edward Cullen was an amateur at brooding existentialism compared to Barnabas. Anne Rice's Louis wasn't the first of the undead to give an interview to a writer: Barnabas told his life story to William H. Loomis, played by John Karlen, in a memorable storyline in 1970.

As a gay kid watching Dark Shadows religiously every day, there was something instantly familiar about Barnabas. He had a secret. The very first episode I watched is still burned into my brain, remembered vividly all these years later: Edith Collins, a very old woman on her deathbed, is about to reveal the family secret to her heirs (including Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, played by legendary movie star Joan Bennett). At that moment, Barnabas emerges from the shadows, looming over her bed with his trademark Inverness cape, wolf's head cane, and spiky bangs. "You!" Edith shrieks. "You are the secret!" I was hooked, an obsession that lasted for the next three years.

Barnabas's secret, like my own, was suspected by some, but no one could prove it. Most people considered his secret to be evil, though some, like the show's resident fag hag -- or, rather, eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman, played magnificently by Grayson Hall -- were more understanding. Barnabas struggled with a certain amount of self-loathing, though at the same time he made the best of things. His secret, in fact, made him very powerful -- stronger than anybody else -- and allowed him to dispatch, with relative ease, the true villains of the series. More than once the Collins family owed their salvation to Barnabas and to the abilities that came with his secret. If Barnabas could do so well with his own situation, I subconsciously reasoned that my own secret might not turn out to be such a hindrance, either.

Dark Shadows was the spark that lit the fire of my childhood imagination. It wasn't polished; it wasn't perfect. But it gave us characters with real personalities and complicated motivations. It gave us storylines that took us down staircases through time and through doors into parallel existences. It gave us such fascinating creatures as the child-devouring Phoenix, brought to fiery life by Diana Millay; the spurned witch Angelique, played with mesmerizing eyes and lilting laugh by Lara Parker; and the sexy werewolf Quentin Collins, played by David Selby, who didn't need to take his shirt off like Twilight's Jacob Black to get attention. Dark Shadows reinterpreted classics like The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca, sending this first-grader scrambling to read the originals long before they were ever assigned in school. But it was always Barnabas, and Frid's empathic, sincere portrayal of him, that was at the heart of the show.

Reportedly, Johnny Depp was out there in TV land at the same time as I was, running home after school to watch the show. The trailers do exhibit an obvious love and understanding of the Dark Shadows mythos, but the slapstick of Barnabas smashing a television set and demanding that Karen Carpenter ("tiny songstress!") reveal herself has left some surprised. With its missed lines and falling tombstones, Dark Shadows was sometimes inadvertently funny, but what made the show work was the fact that the actors and the writers took it all very seriously. Although the premiere of the film is still several weeks away, some diehard fans are already heartbroken that Depp and Burton seem to be poking fun at their memories. Candice Collins, who writes a Dark Shadows blog, called herself "appalled" by the trailer. "I thought it showed a complete lack of respect for [series creator] Dan Curtis and the original cast," she wrote.

With Frid's passing, there will be greater scrutiny of the film and Depp's portrayal of Barnabas. Like William Shatner and Captain Kirk, Frid struggled at times with being so closely identified in the public mind with such an iconic character, but he eventually made peace with Barnabas. "I respected Dark Shadows from my first day of rehearsal to the point of awe," he wrote in 1988. "I was serious about Barnabas, one of the most complex characters I've ever played." The "roars of laughter" he heard from latter-day audiences at his earnest, genuine attempts to find the heart and soul of the melancholy vampire were hurtful. "For me," Frid wrote, "it was never intended to be camp." Dark Shadows, he felt, had become part of American folklore. To treat it with anything less than full respect would be a disservice, he felt, to the show and its fans.

Let's hope Depp and Burton had the same conviction while making their film.

R.I.P., Jonathan Frid -- until someone sneaks into the crypt, of course, and breaks the chains on your coffin.

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