(Note: Here's an interview with Jonathan Frid that has been surprisingly difficult for me to track down in its entirety. It's a fan favorite, mostly because it features a rare photo from one of Frid's more interesting photo shoots. But the accompanying interview is surprisingly solid, thanks in part to Frid's self-depreciating mood. It's a fun read.)
A Vampire for All Seasons
Jonathan Frid's fang mail proves his appeal as the nation's most lovable ghoul
By Robert Higgins
July 13, 1968
The fang club mail cascades in at the rate of 1500 letters a week. From Newark, Ill., a smitten matron air-mailed: "I wish you'd bite me on the neck. I get so excited watching you I could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes." In New York, a teeny-bopper penned: "I just sit there drooling over you." In San Francisco, meanwhile, an otherwise level-headed housewife pledged to beef up her iron-poor plasma with Geritol if the neck-nipper would drop by for a cup of corpuscles.
The cause of all this commotion is a 175—year-old vampire named Barnabas Collins, who is chief ghoul around ABC's weekday Dark Shadows, TV's first spook soap. Shadows, set in a Gothic mansion on the storm-lashed Maine coast, comes complete with a gaggle of flesh-and-blood characters (a reclusive mistress of the manse, dozens of bosomy cousins, "teched" medicos) along with gore galore, madness, the supernatural (ghosts are as plentiful as pockmarks were in the 13th Century) and, you can imagine, lots of worried-looking actors.
With hemoglobin-happy Barnabas around, who wouldn't be worried? So far he's bitten to death nine AFTRA card holders. But they didn't all go from a nip on the neck. One luckless lady expired from fright when she accidentally caught Barnabas climbing out of his coffin after a day's nap. Yet Barnabas's ghastly carryings-on haven't bothered the estimated 15 000,000 weekly viewers — with nine times as many teenagers as adults tuned in — one iota. Far from it. They've catapulted Barnabas into TV's hottest cadaver.
No cadaver is Jonathan Frid, the 44-year—old Canadian actor who has ridden to daytime television's stellar heights on Barnabas Collins' coattails. Without the fangs and the Raggedy Ann bangs he sports as Barnabas, Frid is a gangling, organ—voiced man who, before slipping into Barnabas's coffin, split his time between jobs as a Shakespearean actor (the American and Toronto Shakespearean Festivals) ; TV (shows like Look Up and Live and As the World Turns) ; and the unemployment line. Thanks to Barnabas, however, Frid has kissed both the Bard and unemployment insurance bye-bye. ' 'I'm so busy," he gulps between sips on a martini in his bachelor quarters, "I haven't time to pick up my laundry. I find myself wearing bathing suits for underwear."
Days were when the only biting Frid got to do probably came at mealtimes. As a relatively obscure actor, he stumbled onto the part of Barnabas after auditioning with a dozen villainous ' 'look-alikes," and, he says, “harbored little hope" of getting the part. "I'd been turned down for roles so often," Frid continues, "I just assumed I wouldn't get it."
|Jonathan Frid visits with nurses at an Augusta, Ga., hospital during a 1968 promotional tour.|
It's all notoriety, of course, if a bit on the pop plane. And in a lot of ways, the circusy trappings surrounding his popularity bother Frid. Born into a well-to-do Hamilton, Ontario, family (his father Was in the construction business), Frid enjoys telling how his parents always considered the theater "the dramatic arts—something associated with Yale Drama School (Frid has a master's degree from Yale) and fraternities."
“That part of the theater was fine," Frid continues, “only keep it off Broadway." Frid learned that, for an actor who likes to eat, Broadway was the theater. But he still shares some of his folks' high-toned views of the acting profession. To say nothing of the proper behavior of fans. Appalled, he says, "Teenagers come up to me and kiss Barnabas's ring.”
Ring-kissing kids aside, Frid nonetheless admits to enjoying "all the attention," adding, "after all, no one wants to be alone in the world." Actually, Frid hasn't had all that much thinking time to devote to his recent good fortunes. "I've had problems with Barnabas," Frid says. "But at least they've been unusual problems."
To satisfy the viewers' craving the vampire, Shadows spent five months showing how Barnabas had been made into a blood user by a sultry witch back in The ratings soared. Which was swell for Shadows but "hell on earth" for Frid. Unaccustomed to the rigors of five-days-a-week soap acting, he became a "total nervous wreck.” Part of the trouble had to do with what Frid calls Shadows' "incredibly complicated script."
“There are times," he confesses, "when I have absolutely no idea going.” Frid feels Shadows' tangled dramaturgy accounts in part for his popularity. “I’m sure," he says. "people get together to speculate on what the show is all about."
|Getting into character.|
At any rate, Barnabas Collins has now settled down to his reign as prince of daytime TV players. And although Jonathan Frid has found the path to popularity taxing at times, he says he's prepared for an even rougher tomorrow. “I can't help thinking," he says. 'When is all this going to end?' " If it does end, Frid won't feel too bad it. “The show's been fun." he concludes. "It's high-brow soap opera. Instead of the house down the street, it's the scary mansion off the coast of Maine. And Barnabas has an incredible range He's a lover, a murderer, a neck biter … I love him!”
Bloody well said.
(NOTE: Many of the images used for this series are courtesy the NOMINATE JONATHAN FRID TO CANADA'S WALK OF FAME Facebook page. Please pay them a visit!)