“I Don’t Want To Be Known As A Monster!”
By Steve Lewis
TV BY DAY, February, 1971
New York City’s West Side is a far cry from the romantic setting of Collingwood(sic), but the moment I entered ABC-TV’s Manhattan studio, I knew I was in the right place.
Grayson Hall was busily discussing her wardrobe for the next day’s shooting, and David Selby was talking to a friend on the phone. Dark Shadows, the favorite daytime show of millions of viewers, had just finished shooting. The series’ most popular star, Jonathan Frid, came up in the elevator, leading from the ground floor studio where the show is taped, to the second floor offices and dressing rooms.
“I was watching the broadcast after we finished taping,” Jonathan explained, as we made our way to his dressing room. “I try to see as much of the show as I can when it’s on the air.”
Jonathan told me that he was especially keen on preserving a sense of vitality in the character of Barnabus(sic), the vampire. “Many people say that after you’ve been doing one character for more than three years, your approach to it is no longer fresh,” he explained. “Well, we don’t have that problem on Dark Shadows because the constant time changes give the continued novelty to the roles. There are different sets all the time, new costumes, the whole atmosphere always changes.”
Jonathan is also concerned with the freshness of his own identity – as the monstrous television vampire. He has branched out in show business – does not want to be thought of only in terms of Dark Shadows. So he not only acts on ABC’TV’s show, he also does TV commercials. “I have turned down several offers, though, for monster commercials,” Jonathan told me. “I don’t want to exploit the image of the vampire, and furthermore, I don’t want to be solely known as a monster!”
Besides TV shows and TV ads, Jonathan, as you probably know, has gone into motion pictures. I asked him if he’d seen MGM’s House of Dark Shadows, the first in what may well be a series of films based on the popular soap.
“I’ve seen it three times,” Jonathan said. “The first time I saw it, as a screening, I was very pleased. I’m critical of my work, however, and after the first time, when I saw the movie again, I found some faults with my role.”
While Jonathan may be critical of his performance, the studio couldn’t have been more pleased – House of Dark Shadows has broken box office records in many cities in which it has played, and when Jonathan, as Barnabas Collins, appears on screen, audiences often break into applause.
“I’d like to see it again,” Jonathan told me. “This time in a small town somewhere, with an audience. I’d like to see how they react.
“Movies are very different from doing a daytime series — and this one was a first for many people. It was Dan Curtis’ (the producer of Dark Shadows) first film, and mine. I think we all learned a lot.
“The differences, I found, were mostly in time and in comfort. When you’re doing a daily show, you don’t always have time enough to go over scenes as many times as you’d like. Sometimes we get our scripts two weeks in advance, but at other times, and this happened just a few days ago, we got the script three hours before taping!
“With the movie, we had time to do lots of rehearsals, which was very good. But we made it in early spring, and there were weather problems — snow, rain, and drafty cold houses.”
Now that Jonathan has established himself as a “movie star,” numerous offers have come in. For the time being, though, he has no specific plans for his next film, although there is already talk of a whole series of Dark Shadows motion pictures.
Jonathan’s full attention is focused on the TV version of the series — and it’s more than a full time job!
“For the past couple of weeks,” Jonathan explained, “I was absolutely exhausted! We’ve worked very hard, and I really am looking forward to a chance to relax. Now, though, I have a few days off — I’ll be spending them at my new apartment.
“I’m very involved with it right now. I’d wanted to move for a long time, and I finally did it! Of course, moving is only part of it — really, just the beginning. Getting a place organized takes so much work.
“I have two bedrooms, one of which I use as a study, and a terrace. The terrace is very, very important to me. I like the beach, but getting out of New York on weekends I murder. And really, weekend in the summer are the best time to enjoy the city.
“The terrace gives me the same feeling of being somewhere else —- do you know what I mean, relaxed and restful?
“As far as longer vacations go … I’d live to take one. I’m supposed to get three weeks each year, although not three consecutive weeks — I’d have to beg for that! And the fact is, I’m a terrible traveler, or perhaps I should say I’m too good a traveler.
“You see, I hate to go to a new place, a new country, because I know what can happen … I can fall in love with a place and not want to leave. When I went to Italy, I knew that I had found the love of my life — the country! And as much as I enjoyed myself, I kept feeling terrible because I knew I’d have to come back.
“But, one of these days, I think I’ll go someplace.. Where, I really don’t know — there are so many places!”
If Jonathan ever needs inspiration, he has only to look at the postmarks on his mail — which comes in by the bagful each day, numbering thousands of letters each week.
“I was so surprised,” Jonathan remembers,” when I began to get mail. I still can remember Dan Curtis coming down the hall and handing me letters — I’d originally been signed to do three days’ work on the series — and asking me to stay on for another week.
“But fan mail, for a vampire? I was sure that there was some mistake! I’m very grateful to the people who have written in to me — of course it’s very flattering.
“One Saturday a few weeks ago, some fans came in to help me sort the mail, and we tried to do it alphabetically. We had worked for give hours when I realized it just wasn’t going to be possible — I’d have to send it to a place that specializes in that sort of thing.”
If you’ve written to Jonathan asking him for a photograph, be patient a short while longer — you’ll be hearing from him soon.
In addition to the letters he has received, Jonathan has a collection of paintings of himself sent by Dark Shadows fans. On the day we spoke, two such paintings, one a pop-interpretation of Barnabas, and the other a more “classic” portrait, were on display in his dressing room.
“These both came in this week,” Jonathan explained. “It’s really fascinating to see the way other people see you! And some of the paintings are quite, quite good. And then, of course, there are the drawings people send — all kinds of things!”
Jonathan has a reputation for always being nice to his fans, even when he meets them on the street, when he’d actually love some privacy. I mention this to him, but he responded with surprise, “I didn’t know that there were people who weren’t nice to their fans.” Jonathan knows that his fans have made him what he is today — the King of the Vampires. However, he did admit to having several secret haunts that he’d rather not publicize — places he goes to when he wants to be completely alone.
Fans and fan mail, to some actors, are the icing on the cake of daytime TV success. But to Jonathan, a serious actor, there is a good deal more.
“I admit,” he says, “that I’m very interested in what people in the business think of my work … I hope they watch soaps! I know that at some time in the future, I’d like to do other things, and I like to think that producers and agents are aware of the work I’m doing now.
“Some of the acting on soaps, you know, is marvelous. I used to watch General Hospital because it was shown before our show, and I became interested in it. Those actors were marvelous — how I envied them! John Beradino, I think, is one of the most talented actors around.
“Soaps, for an actor, are a challenge … especially if you’re used to doing stage work. You have to make a transition, and it took me several months. I used to think that I’d rather be doing a Broadway show, or something where I could really work on a role and perfect it. Now I don’t know.
“I take my work very seriously, and often I’m dissatisfied with it. Criticism from other people, in reviews I mean, doesn’t effect(sic) me as much as criticism of myself — I’m pretty severe.
“People, I think, have a lot of ideas of what it’s like to be in a successful series. They picture an actor making a fortune — believe me, I haven’t! It’s rewarding work, certainly, but it’s also very demanding, and very hard on the social life.
“I’m something of a loner, I suppose, and it’s fortunate for me. There are friends I haven’t seen in months — people I’m really fond of.
“How can you? At night there are lines to go over for the next day, and when you’ve put in a day’s work and know you’ll be doing it again tomorrow, you just don’t have the strength to go running around. And when I finally get a few days, there are so many things to do at home. Since I spend so much time at home, I’m very happy about having found myself an apartment, and I’m enjoying getting it in shape. I suppose it’s not the most glamourous(sic) and exciting life — the kind of life you read about in magazines — but it’s the kind of life I live.”
(NOTE: These clippings are courtesy of Elena Nacanther, who is part of an effort to get Jonathan Frid nominated to Canada's Walk of Fame, a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization that recognizes Canadians who have excelled in music, sports, film, television, and other artistic endeavors. You can find the NOMINATE JONATHAN FRID TO CANADA'S WALK OF FAME Facebook page by clicking here. Please pay them a visit. You can see more selections from Elena's scrapbook each Friday here at the Collinsport Historical Society.)