Thursday, December 5, 2013

The sordid criminal history of JONATHAN BREWSTER

Once and future Jonathan Brewsters.

There’s a certain joy to be had from watching Jonathan Frid murder people.

It’s no coincidence that almost every story arc on DARK SHADOWS ended with Barnabas Collins killing half the cast. It might have looked like narrative laziness had it not been so goddamn satisfying. Be honest with yourself: Did you feel sorry for the Rev. Trask when Barnabas opened up a cask of Amontillado on his ass? It’s OK to admit your bloodlust here. You’re among friends.

It’s been almost 30 years since Frid went on tour with a stage production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Considering the roster of actors who’d previously played the part, casting Frid seems almost inevitable. Oddly enough, he wasn’t the first choice for the role of the villainous Jonathan Brewster in the national tour. While one or two of his co-stars might have been better known, it's his performance in the play that’s still being discussed today, though.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (originally titled BODIES IN OUR CELLAR) is a black comedy that debuted on the New York stage in 1941. The story centers on Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who returns home to find his aunts have been poisoning bachelors and burying them in the basement. His two brothers are both maniacs: Teddy Brewster believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, while the estranged Jonathan Brewster is a career criminal and wanted killer. It's funnier than it sounds.

Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster.
Boris Karloff was cast as Jonathan Brewster in the original stage production. According to Greg Mank’s book, BELA LUGOSI AND BORIS KARLOFF: THE EXPANDED STORY OF A HAUNTING COLLABORATION, Karloff only agreed to take the role because of the character’s supporting status. He hadn’t tested his stardom against the stage and feared he might be setting himself up for a public embarrassment that would adversely affect his film career.

The year ARSENIC AND OLD LACE debuted on stage, Warner Bros. put a feature film into production. Cary Grant was cast as the lead, co-starring with Priscilla Lane and Peter Lorre. Raymond Massey, who played the title role in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS in 1940, played Jonathan Brewster. Director Frank Capra enlisted in the U. S. Army Signal Corps during the production of the film, but was issued an extension until after shooting wrapped.

Still, legal restraints kept the film from release for several years. The studio was contractually obliged to keep the film in its vaults until the end of the Broadway production’s run. Much like Iggy Pop, the Broadway production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE survived longer than anybody could have guessed, closing in June, 1944, after more than 1,000 performances. Warner Bros. wasted no time and releasing the long-finished film just a few months later in September.

Raymond Massey in Frank Capra's 1944 adaption of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.
As with the stage play, Jonathan Brewster remained the film’s scene stealer. “The picture serves to welcome back Raymond Massey after an extended leave,” a review published by The New York Times in 1944 observed. “While it is a little breath-taking to hear ‘Honest Abe’ shambling around sounding like Lincoln but looking like Boris Karloff, that's the condition that prevails.”

The casting of Karloff in the stage production of ARSENIC might also have set into motion a series of events that shook up Universal’s monster movies during those years. Bela Lugosi, who famously declined the role of the monster in James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN in 1931, got a second shot at the role, perhaps thanks to Karloff’s commitments to the ARSENIC AND OLD LACE play.

Lugosi later took over the role of Jonathan Brewster for several tours as Karloff returned to Universal, just as John Carradine took over the role of Dracula in the studio’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The 1944 film also featured Karloff, in case you weren't already confused. He played neither the monster, nor a Frankenstein.
Bela Lugosi as Jonathan Brewster.
Fred Gwynne.
Since then, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE has never really gone away. The story would be adapted all over the world in just about every venue you could imagine, from stage to screen to radio. Karloff would reprise his role in 1962 in a television performance opposite Tony Randall, while one-time “Herman Munster” Fred Gwynne played Jonathan Brewster in a 1969 TV movie opposite Bob Crane.

The play was dusted off again for the New York stage in 1986. Abe Vigoda played Jonathan Brewster in the Broadway production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE from June, 1986, until January, 1987. When the decision was made to take the production on a national tour, Jonathan Frid was tapped to play its villain. (It’s worth mentioning that Vigoda appeared opposite Frid in 1968 in a handful of episodes of DARK SHADOWS.)

Jonathan Frid as Jonathan Brewster.

Frid was partnered with Gary Sandy (of WKRP IN CINCINATTI), Larry Storch (F-TROOP), Marion Ross (HAPPY DAYS), and Jean Stapleton (ALL ON THE FAMILY.) For a handful of performances, James MacArthur of HAWAII FIVE-O filled in for Sandy as Mortimer Brewster. The collection of former television stars prompted critics to accuse producers of stunt casting, something that Stapleton refuted in a 1987 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“There is a prejudice and a belittling of television actors,” Stapleton said. “These people have all been trained for many years. And those people up there, whether they`re on the stage or on the tube, are actors.”

Frid, whose own anxiety issues are well documented, would have sympathized with the first actor to portray Jonathan Brewster. Karloff was the only actor genuinely considered for the role in the original Broadway production, but reportedly came to regret his decision. An inexperienced stage actor, Karloff spent the week leading to the debut of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE looking for ways to graciously bow out of the production.

Boris and Bela in dueling promotional images for the ARSENIC AND OLD LACE stage play.
Frid has similar fears, bringing this relationship of actor and role full circle.

“The day he was to open (replacing Abe Vigoda) in the role he went to the theater very early,” recalls Nancy Kersey, one of Frid’s creative partners for much of his later career. “He was nervous, I could tell.  I had a beeper for work and Jonathan also used it to contact me. After telling me he didn't need me for the rest of the day (he opened that night) he wound up beeping me several times for this and that and I finally convinced him to just let me stay at the theater.  He was uptight, nervous — and that always manifests itself in his being snappy and overly picky.”

For Frid, playing Jonathan Brewster was a matter of finding a balance in the story’s conflicting tone. There were a lot of competing personalities on stage, making it easy to tip the scales toward accidental farce. Frid concentrated on making the character frightening, but took opportunities later in the tour to explore the show's comedic elements.

“In ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, I had to play comedy, and I had to play horror … and really be horrible,” Frid said in a 2008 interview for the Archive of American Television. “I had to be a threat … we had too many comedians in this show already.”

Jonathan Frid and Larry Storch
Marion Ross, Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Frid and Larry Storch

(Note: I know a lot of you got to see Frid in ARSENIC. I missed it, myself, but would love you hear your thoughts about the play in the comments below.)

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