Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ben Cross: In Memoriam

He was the last of his kind, truly. A regal actor for fantasy roles that required a star to speak clearly, command the room, and, you know, shave and bathe. They were parts that called for a man of both truth and imagination. A master of theatrical size and total sincerity. He was Captain Nemo. He was Ambassador Sarek. He was Barnabas Collins.

While he was never the first to essay those roles, he had the insightful integrity of a man who made each totally original.

For some, he was their Captain Nemo and their Ambassador Sarek. And although the productions in which he essayed the roles are not definitive versions, Ben Cross delivered performances that were as indelible as those who originated the parts.

For many of us, he was our Barnabas Collins. Not that we weren’t deeply familiar with Jonathan Frid, but the 1991 series spared no expense to give us all of the corners cut in the 1960’s. It was a reward for loyalty. Although it was not the original, it was the creator of the show standing atop the towering successes of the Wouk miniseries, determined to make every element the finest he could. Star Trek returned with Patrick Stewart as the lead. Well, Dan Curtis saw Gene Roddenberry’s Patrick Stewart and raised him a Ben Cross, matured beyond Chariots of Fire. Capable of bringing equal Classical artistry to television fantasy’s other great saga.

And he was every bit Stewart’s equal. He was ours because for many of us, Dark Shadows left the air before we were born. But, as with Next Generation, we had the excitement of following the production through its initial announcement to the first photo of the next Barnabas Collins.

Cross’ performance matched that first, soulful photo. Intelligent and ferocious, he lacked Jonathan Frid’s endearing neurosis, but that allowed him the chance to explore the role of Barnabas Collins with his own judgment. Both men are martyrs to loss and betrayal, but while Frid was determined to rebuild, Cross was bent on revenge. It’s a less subtle performance in that sense, but wholly appropriate for the beginning of an arc that would only last for a tad over three months. His game was all too brief. His performance matched it, burning hot and fast. But it was never without delightful humor and humanity.

This is what he brought to Dark Shadows. His Barnabas had a texture, energy, and life all its own, and as such was Richard Burton to Frid’s Laurence Olivier. They gave two vastly different interpretations of the great man, and thus, neither encroached on the other. Instead, they are colleagues, and they both gave us the finest performances in the role that we could want.

The same for his Nemo. The same for his Sarek.

At 72, the loss is stunningly premature. It is exceeded only by our fortune that, if batons were to be passed, his was the hand to grasp them.

- Patrick McCray

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