Monday, August 3, 2015

"A Vampire for All Seasons," 1968

(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 didn't matter much to him, though, because, back then he was seriously toying  with the idea of teaching. “The middle-class security of a shady campus," he says,  “was appealing.”

The shady campus was forgotten when Frid found himself riding high as Barnabas Collins. And today, a year after landing the role, Frid is grappling with his new-found celebrity status as soap-opera spook, complete with fan clubs, public appearance ballyhoo ("ABC wanted me to be paraded through town in a hearse," Frid reports.  “But you have to draw the line somewhere") ; and an upcropping of Barnabas Collins jokes (Question: Do you know how Barnabas Collins will finally get caught? Answer: He'll be overdrawn at the blood bank).

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."

They've been that. The problems started the day the weak-rated Dark Shadows — then a Gothic melodrama with supernatural undertones — decided (as Dan Curtis, Shadows creator, puts it) “to go all the way with the spook stuff." First spook out of the ghoul bag was Barnabas. Why a vampire? "They had always scared me," Curtis explains. “They still do!" But Curtis wasn't sure Barnabas would scare Mrs. America. Preparations were made to bump Barnabas off, if necessary. It would have been a dandy demise, too. The plan: Cut off his head, stuff his mouth with garlic and burn him on a funeral pyre. Happily for the New York Fire Department, Shadows' sagging ratings started to climb soon after Barnabas cracked open his coffin.

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.
Frid's jangled nerves have since semi-stabilized. Explains Frid: “There are vast inconsistencies in Barnabas's character. Being an involuntary vampire (are there any voluntary vampires? ) , Barnabas murders one minute and, in the next, he’s joining the family to pass judgment on someone else's behavior. He is rather presumptuous. I play him as a combination Macbeth and Richard Ill. When he's guilty he's Macbeth, and when he's cunning and ruthless he's Richard. It works out splendidly.”

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!)

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