Friday, March 8, 2019

"What happened to Barnabas?"

Dark Shadows had been off the air for a few short months when Jonathan Frid sat down with the television editor for The Houston Post to talk about the next phase of his life. He was gearing up for a stage production in Texas of Wait Until Dark, a play by Frederick Knott that debuted on Broadway about the same time Dark Shadows began airing on ABC in 1966. (Mitchell Ryan was among the play's original cast.)

Naturally, Frid was playing the villainous Harry Roat Jr., because who else would you want to see him play? Over the years, it's a role that's attracted such diverse talent as Robert DuvallQuentin TarantinoAlan Arkin and Stacy Keach. For Frid, Harry Roat Jr. was almost an inevitability.

But Frid has some interesting things to say about Dark Shadows in this interview, which comes to us courtesy of his friend Nancy Kersey. For example: Frid's efforts to negotiate his way out of the sequel to House of Dark Shadows almost led to his departure from the series. This is a good one.

"What happened to Barnabas?"

By Millie Budd
The Houston Post
July 20, 1971

What a kind of a day was April 14, 1967?  It was a day like all days . . . unless you happened to be watching a certain spook serial.

On that day, which must be recorded with some kind of notoriety in the annals of television, a 175-year old vampire named Barnabas Collins was introduced to the viewers of Dark Shadows.

Daytime television has not been quite the same since. Housewives and schoolgirls were particularly susceptible to Barnabas’ fatal charms.  There was much mourning and lamentation throughout the land by those housewives and schoolgirls when, four years later, ABC canceled the series.

Unlike most television series, Dark Shadows tied up all the loose storylines on the final episode.  Unfortunately, Houston fans did not see the happily ever after ending because Channel 13 had taken the show off the air some weeks before.

What happened to Barnabas?

“I honestly can’t remember,” says Jonathan Frid, who played the vampire for nearly four years.

Frid was weary and his brooding brown eyes were bleary early in the morning after opening night of “Wait Until Dark” at Houston’s Windmill Dinner Theater.

But he was game to talk about the series and the phenomenon that was Barnabas Collins.  And talk he did, in an actor’s richly resonant and carefully modulated voice, punctuated by expressive shrugs of his broad shoulders and graceful gestures of his large, long-fingered hands.

“The last story on Dark Shadows for the last four months of the show was ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I was playing Heathcliff although the character’s name was Bramwell.”

What happened is that Frid, while still playing Barnabas, went in to talk to the show’s producer, Dan Curtis, about the second movie spin-off from the serial.  Frid did not want to appear in that film, although he had starred in the first.

“I felt if I made the second one, I would make the third, the fourth, and the fifth and I would always be playing Barnabas,” Frid said.  This is tried to explain to Curtis. Curtis took it to mean that Frid wanted out of the series as well.

“Suddenly,” Frid said, “I found that I had fired myself.  I walked away from Dan’s office saying “Jonny, what had you done?”

But Frid and Curtis got together again and Frid returned to Dark Shadows as Bramwell nee Heathcliff.  “Bramwell found his own true love on that last episode,” Frid recalled.  But the rest of the plot endings are hazy in his mind.

How did Frid feel about the cancellation?

“No surprise,” was his instant reply.  “I saw the writing on the wall two years ago. Of course, we had a faithful core of fans who watched the show. But the casual viewers dropped away.”

Dark Shadows was not the kind of soap opera that can go on ad infinitum. Our show shot the wad as it were.”

“Actually, the writers ran out of material for me at the end of the first year.  They had to keep thinking up excuses to keep Barnabas out of the daylight.  Finally, they cured me for about a year and Barnabas became goodie two-shoes.”

Frid feels the dipping rating were not the only contributing factor to the demise of the series.

“Another thing, the producer watched the ratings and if they started to go down, he’d change the story. For instance, we got so much mailing wanting to know how Barnabas became a vampire, that Dan decided a good way to help the ratings would be to go back in time and explain it all.

“Well, we did those stories and if confused everybody. Viewers can identify with a character who suddenly becomes someone else.  Nobody, not even Einstein, could have followed the damn thing.”

Frid apparently has no regrets either for the time he served on Dark Shadows or for its end.

“I’ll always be grateful to the soap opera. People like to put them down, but I must say there wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t have something – only a moment, maybe – that we could be proud of. We reached for the stars and many times we fell on our faces.”

Frid tried to analyze Barnabas’ instant popularity. The character originally was to be around only for a couple of weeks before he was killed off.  But mail and ratings, both of which took off like a rocket, changes the course of history.

“I had great respect for Barnabas as a character. The one thing unique about him is it was a role written for me and not many actors can say that.

“The man’s loneliness was the main thing that made it work.  I think women love lonely, vulnerable men.  I played on that.  In the theater, we play tricks on people’s emotions. We are con artists, really.

“And, let’s face it, Barnabas did have that extra attraction of the fangs. People like to see fangs.”

Like Barnabas, Frid does not know what happened to the fangs. One kookie friend in Washington, D.C., wanted to have them preserved in some kind of gold mounting.  Frid kiddingly suggested making them salt and pepper shakers. But they are undoubtedly gathering dust in some prop department vault at ABC.

“I’m not a souvenir collector,” Frid said. “ABC wanted to charge me $75 for the clothes I had worn for three years which didn’t cost more than $100 when they were new.  They finally came down to $25 but I said forget it.”

Where does an ex-vampire with classical Shakespeare training go when he is de-fanged?

Well, first, Frid goes to Houston for a six-week run in the mystery play at Windmill Dinner Theater.  He is playing a villain again and although he finds the play’s plot “rather thin,” he hopes to have fun in making his character as bizarre as possible.

“I can get as much fun – or maybe I’ve just talked myself into it – but I can enjoy playing a well-written Barnabas as well as I enjoy playing Macbeth or Richard III.

“I must tell you that I was very poor in Shakespeare in school.  I don’t enjoy reading poetry. But, instinctively, I would get up and do it.

“As for the future, I don’t know what I am going to be doing next.  I am a will-o’-the-wisp. There are two kinds of actors:  the laborer actor and the entrepreneur actor.  I am a laborer actor.

“But I think I would like to produce my own theater.

“I’ve got to start producing my own life.”

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