Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Arsenic and Old Lace: Jonathan Frid did the ultimate actors’ job


There are just certain plays that you stay away from. Even as a kid, I was suspicious about Arsenic and Old Lace. It was an old comedy, so that meant that a Meet Wally Sparks-level of wit was probably not in the cards. It was one of those plays that you always heard older stars chat about on talk shows, along with citing their latest production of Under the Yum Yum Tree, and anything even vaguely related to Lawrence Roman is suspect to a middle schooler. And who has the time? Not when With Six You Get Eggroll is at Derby Dinner Playhouse. So, it was with very mixed feelings that I got the news that Jonathan Frid was coming to Louisville to be in it. I mean, of course I was really excited. In the days before the Internet documented every single new wrinkle and pound that graces each celebrity to traipse in front of a camera, there was simply the mystery of… what he looked like now. Generally, I thought that celebrities aged pretty well. They gained a kind of seasoning. Hal Holbrook comes to mind. So, what did Jonathan Frid look like? It’s not like he had a new police procedural to show off in on NBC that season. He wasn’t filling in for Carson, although that would have been the greatest thing ever. So, a trip to live theater was once again rearing its ugly head to take me away from its chief competition, largely watching paint dry.

Keep in mind, I was 15. I was still scarred by having to learn the lines of the lead in Harvey, which I got bullied into doing by the French teacher. Long story.

Without the benefit of YouTube or a VCR, the brief ad that ran on television was ultimately ephemeral.  But I thought I was hallucinating and I couldn’t rewind it. The last time I saw him, he was running around 1795 like a 44-year-old Blueboy come to life. Who was this kind of jowly old man? Where was Jonathan Frid? What do you mean that’s Jonathan Frid?

OK, I’m painting myself too xenophobically. But I was really hoping he would be in something like Equus. Because anything Richard Burton could do, Jonathan Frid could do better. Except Elizabeth Taylor, because Frid had too much common sense than to get in the middle of that. So, despite the fact that time had not chiseled him like the Peppard I’d hoped he’d be, I was determined to see the show. It was the national tour, and it was coming to the Kentucky Center for the Arts early in 1987.

My father was a staunch Star Trek man, and I believe in his eyes, you picked an unsavory genre fetish and stuck with it. After all, he wasn’t going to pack two lunches for bullies to steal. Dark Shadows had always been the kind of thing that was tolerated by him. Once the mini skirts were off screen, his interest noticeably dipped. However, I asked to see the show, and although I recall him initially grousing about live theatre costs, which is a rational conversation, he came through like a champ. I was still scarred by missing Andy Kaufman wrestling, especially since the next time he made headlines was with his death, and the last thing my father wanted me to experience was the further scarring that would result from missing Jonathan Frid wrestling Jerry King Lawler. Despite the fact that that never happened, he surprised me with tickets. And I mean, there are tickets and there are tickets. These were astounding. Seventh row center. When that man does something, he does it right.

And of course, I was being an ignorant fat head. The play was a riot. And, all kitch references aside, it was probably the best cast I will ever see in a show. Gary Sandy, an incredible man I later got to interview for a Jonathan Frid documentary. And let me tell you, any underrepresentation he had in Hollywood is because of the fact that he is one of the few truly nice guys in the business. I mean, that man was a saint. Jean Stapleton. Marion Ross. And Larry Storch. It was like a pantheon was right up there on stage in my eyes. And I truly mean this.

I know that there are actors who quit the business after touring in Peter Brook’s revolutionary Midsummer Nights Dream. Because what else was there? Well, if I never saw another live play again, the result might’ve been the same, because you’re not going to top that cast. I can’t really tell you how good the play was, because they were just a fantastic ensemble. Absolutely nothing like anything I had seen them in on television. These people were, you know, acting. For the first time, I really got to appreciate the beautiful mechanics of live comic timing on stage. Some of the stuff that went on with Sandy, Storch, and Frid was tighter than a Fosse number, and twice as unpredictable.

As for Jonathan Frid? Well, he looked like Boris Karloff. And at the time, that was fine, although a bit of a letdown because as far as I was concerned, Frid was infinitely beyond Karloff. Yeah, I said it. It was kind of like seeing William Shatner being forced to play Chris Pine. Why couldn’t Chris Pine play Boris Karloff, and Jonathan Frid could have play William Shatner? What does Diablolos need with a starship?

In my memory, Jonathan Frid did the ultimate actors’ job: he got out of the way of the play by immersing himself with a masterful combination of total believability and an impish sense of commentary on what he was playing and where. No one side won out. They just worked together beautifully, and it was a very specific level and brand of performance that I had never seen. I can only describe it as deadly serious irony under ludicrous circumstances. and the meta-aspects of Jonathan Frid playing a man accused of looking like Boris Karloff were not lost on me. I hope they checked his bags thoroughly at the airport, because the show was securely stolen by him, and his fellow actors were gracious and every bit his equal in the show stealing department. To this day, I have dreams of Jean Stapleton rising from Barnabas’ coffin in the name of equal time. Let’s see Grayson Hall top that.

Somehow, I think through the dark shadows club in Louisville, I got to go to a cocktail party upstairs at the theater after the show. I recall that Frid was at a table in the lounge, signing a book that I later learned was Kathryn Leigh Scott’s invaluably precious gift to Dark Shadows fans. My father kept urging me to go up and say hello, but what was I actually going to say? I had nothing. I’ve generally always had this experience with celebrities. I wasn’t gonna go all Annie Wilkes on him, so I kept to myself. I think I may have greeted him and told him I liked the show, but stopped at the point of asking him for help on my algebra test, which is probably why I flunked it.

I had one last job to do that night, and that was grow the hell up. I ran into a friend of mine in his mid-twenties, and I decided to play off my nerves and score hipster points by cracking wise to him about Jonathan Frid’s minor, post-Barnabas weight gain. My friend looked at me with a painfully educational derision and said, “So?”

There was nothing more to say. People do that. It was a humbling moment, and I loved Jonathan Frid, so I have no idea what I was thinking. But I went a lot easier on people from that point onward. I was lucky to have been there. Scared, yes, but unspeakably lucky.

Later that summer, I went with that friend to see Frid at a Dark Shadows convention at the Seelbach hotel, and I was not too cool for the room. Almost.

I got in line for an autograph, and when I got to him, I asked about Seizure, which we’d seen earlier that day. Wiseacre, I realized that Oliver Stone, its director, had just won the Oscar for his travelogue romp, Platoon. Thinking I’d get a big laugh and a knowing anecdote, I said, “Mr. Frid… when you made Seizure, did you have any idea that Oliver Stone….”

“No,” he said with a tone that was to flat what absolute zero is to cold.

I earned it. And grew up just a tad more. Still working on it.

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