Monday, February 11, 2019

A shared interiview with Jonathan Frid, 1969

A shared interiview with Jonathan Frid

“He looked us straight in the eye. He didn’t talk down to us — the girl from the private private school and the unpublished celebrity interviewer."

By Derek Gilbert 
Afternoon TV, November, 1969

“Hello,” said. “I’m here to see Mr. Frid.”

“Mr. Frid?” the blank-faced receptionist repeated like she’d never heard the name before.

“Yes, Mr. Frid,” I assured her. “I have an appointment.”

A bearded publicist on a sofa next to the desk explained: “He wants to see Jonathan.”

“Oh.” Now she understood. “Well, he’s downstairs taping the show. He should be up shortly.”

It was four o’clock, and I was on the second floor of ABC-TV’s modern two-story studio on Manhattan’s West Side. It is built between tenements and warehouses and practically in the Hudson River.

Somewhere a TV set dirged the eerie opening musical theme for Dark Shadows.

I was there for my first celebrity interview. And my first subject was the teenagers’ fright delight, Jonathan Frid.

I’d written to Frid, telling him about myself and requesting an interview. Two weeks later, a reply. Yes, he’d see me. Well, the big day came. It was raining. Bleak. Cold. Windy. Perfect weather for a visit to the great estate of Collinwood on the storm-swept coast of Maine. Or, rather, Studio 16 on West Street.

So there I stood waiting in the second door reception area and listening to a teenage girl talk to the publicist about the show.

And then Jonathan Frid breezed in, a script in a black cover under his arm. His tall solid frame looked good in a grey Edwardian suit. And you couldn’t miss those jagged Barnabas bangs.

A warm smile revealed no fangs as Frid approached the girl and me, He knew our first handshake was firm. “l hope you don’t mind if we combine interviews,” he said. “I’m a little rushed for time.”

I looked at the girl and gave a weak smile. We talked a minute while Frid conferred with the publicist. She was Barbara. I asked her what school she went to, expecting her to say DeWitt Clinton High or something. But “a private school” was the answer. The tone told me not to pursue the subject any further. And all the time I was quite  disheartened. Would Rex Reed have shared an interview?

Now Frid was ready, and we followed him down the corridor into a brightly lit make-up room. There was a lone barber chair near the door. It faced a mirror that ran the length of the room. Pasted on the walls were giant blow-ups of Frid with fangs unfurled next to 8x10s of the other actors on the show.

Barbara admired the monstrous black-stoned Barnabas ring which Frid described as tacky. “One day Lela Swift, our director, had me take it off this hand and put it on the other for a ‘better picture,’ I got a lot of letters. Why were you wearing the ring on the other hand? Does it mean something? Is there a curse attached to it?”

I lifted a dinette-type chair over the barber chair and placed it next to Barbara’s. Frid removed his jacket, revealing a pair of maroon suspenders, draped it around the barber chair and sat down.

“What school do you go to, Barbara?” Frid asked.

“Oh, it’s a private school,” she responded. Not even Jonathan Frid was going to know the name of it. Hut then she added: “It’s on Delancey Street.”

Frid lit a cigarette, and I asked him what time his alarm clock went off on a working day.

“About seven,” Frid answered. “I take a cab up here. Rehearsals begin at eight. We read through and block the script. Making changes for time, plot inconsistencies, awkward dialog. We break at for lunch. People send out for sandwiches. I use the time to go over my lines and get made up.
“Then at 11:30 we go down to the floor and catch a bite to eat all this. Then we have the run-through which I call the stumble-through. Finally, we tape the show at 3:15 and finish at 3:45. That is, if there aren’t any special effects that may take more time, Then if I’m on the next day’s show. I read for the ‘dry’ rehearsal and get out of here about 6:30.”

But how does an actor who’s played Macbeth and Marc Antony and Petruchio feel about playing the Swinging Sixties’ answer to Bela Lugosi?

“l don’t look down on Dark Shadows. I’m very grateful for the success it’s given me. All right, you don’t have great lines to speak. But there are plenty dull parts in Shakespeare too, and I’ve played them all. Barnabas is a great character. He was the villain of the show A vampire. But he was sympathetic, too, because he had no control over his affliction. He’s suffered a bad of unrequited love, too. And then when he was cured vampirism he attacked by a vampire ,himself.

“Almost show presents me with one or a dozen nuances I can play on. That gives me, as an actor, satisfaction. And I think that’s all any actor really wants.”

“What about your movies?” Barbara asked.

“l haven’t done any movies.”

“Oh, well. I thought you were in The Picture Of Dorian Gray.”

“Yes, the TV version. But I just had a walk-on. Before Dark Shadows I’d done small parts on TV. But this is my first big part, my first success. I’m very frank about that. I try not to make a big thing out of what I’ve done before this show.”

“But did star on Broadway?” Barbara added.

“No, I’ve only done one Broadway show, a piece of British fluff that flopped here in called Roar Like a Dove. Betsy Palmer and Charlie Ruggles were in it. I understudied one of the supporting actors and managed to get on a couple of times. Got my share of laughs, too. It was a good feeling. I like comedy. I’d like to end up playing the kind of parts Edward Everett Horton does so well.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Frid,” Barbara protested solemnly. ‘”Comedy is all right but you should stick with dramatic parts.”

Frid gave a big laugh. “Well, I’d enjoy doing Richard III on TV someday. Like Barnabas, he’s a  man of irony. I to specialize in men of irony. But I do like comedy, and I’d like to do more.”

Frid lit another cigarette and listened attentively while Barbara told him how she’d considered being an but then decided against it. He looked straight in the eye. He didn’t talk down to us – the girl from the private private school and the unpublished celebrity interviewer. He wasn’t the “somber” or “intense” man in other interviews I’d read. On the contrary, he was able to laugh at himself ant the show.

“I remember one time when when I was sstill young with the show. I was doing quiet little scene with Alexandra Moltke in the hall of Collinwood. During the actual taping, I saw huge flames on the other side of the studio. A fire had started. Lots of commotion. People trying to put out the fire. We got a signal to keep on going. At that time, I didn’t even know where the tire exit was. I could just imagine the last episode of Dark Shadows as Barnabas Collins goes up in flames –for real! They didn’t redo the scene. Tape is expensive, you know. So when this particular episode was aired I received a lot of mail. What happened? What was all that noise? It sounded like Grand Central Station!”

And what’s the invasion of privacy like for Canadian actor who’s been yanked from to TV Stardom as America’s Grooviest Ghoul? “I was listed in the Manhattan phone book when I started on the show in April of 1967. Then the kids began calling me at home that summer. So I had the number changed to an unlisted one. A fan magazine published a ‘big scoop.’ My home address. That’s when my name came off the doorbell in the lobby of my apartment building.”

But now Frid’s eager fans have his unlisted number. “I think they get one of their emissaries in and copy the number off the address-o-graph on the receptionist’s desk. And then they give it to everybody.”

“Oh, if I had your private phone number,” Barbara said seriously. “I wouldn’t give it to anybody.”

Frid laughed and plunked one of maroon suspenders. “Well, you’re different.”

“But doesn’t all this intrigue bug you?” I asked.

“Actually, it’s quite flattering. And it’s just a game to them. Not an unhealthy game, really. I think some of them will up to make very fine detectives!”

Frid fussed with the pointed Barnabas fangs and stared at himself critically in the mirror. “I was a fan myself as a boy. Although I wasn’t a collector of pictures –autographs–things. But I was a movie fan. I am a movie fan. I’ve been going to the movies since I could crawl. Movies cost about 11¢ when I was a child. I went all the time. I’d collect the money by taking deposit bottles back to the store. My mother was very strict but she let me go. I guess she figured I’d manage to get in anyway!”

“When told my mother I was coming to see you,” Barbara said, “she wanted to come too.”’

“Well, I’m delighted to hear that,” Frid said, walking us to the door. “

Exiting Studio 16, Barbara and I found a bevy of teenage girls armed with autograph books and 8x10s to be signed.

“Did one see him?” one girl asked Barbara, recognizing a kindred spirit.

“Yes,” Barbara said sympathetically. “He’s working very hard.”

I walked Barbara to the Seventh Avenue subway. “Oh, Jonathan’s so nice,” she enthused en route. “Even nicer than Dustin. Dustin Hoffman. I interviewed him on the set of Midnight Cowboy. I even had a picture taken with him. With his arm around me, kissing me. It’d be nice to have a picture like that with Jonathan. He is so wonderful!”

At Ninth Avenue, Barbara asked me what magazine I was writing for. I felt like saying a private magazine. But instead said I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say I had this magazine in mind.

“Well, be sure and send me a copy when it comes out,” Barbara instructed at Eighth Avenue, writing down her name and on a slip of paper and handing it to me.

All the while I was scared silly thinking about the article. Was it going to be my first – and last – celebrity interview? And boy, if Rex Reed only knew, he’d be sleeping easier tonight.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” Barbara said, going down the steps of the Seventh Aenue subway. “Don’t forget to send me a copy of the article.”

I won’t. Barbara. 

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