The Canadian Vampire who's become king of the US
By David Cobb
April 4, 1969
There he was, this off-duty vampire, lounging around his lushly appointed Manhattan apartment and talking about biting necks.
He was serious about it and, to make sure he had his ideas straight, he allowed himself a few telling pauses. During these, the only sounds in the room were the soft chinks of ice and the ticking, like a measured heartbeat, of an old - probably Transylvanian - clock.
"Beyond the whole sadism-masochism bit," he was saying...pause...chinks...ticks... "Barnabas has this great guilt sense...and he keeps falling in love all the time."
The voice of authority, plainly, since it belonged to Jonathan Frid, the 44-year-old Hamilton actor who plays Barnabas Collins, a 175-year-old vampire-in-spite-of-himself on a daily U.S. afternoon soap opera called DARK SHADOWS. Friday, previously a competent but obscure performer (most recently on stage in the U.S. national tour of "Hostile Witness" in 1967 with Ray Milland), has in two years exploded into U.S. daytime TV's first genuine matinee idol.
The trouble is that it's still pretty hard for Canadians to see him. DARK SHADOWS is ABC-TV's king of the soaps, but it hasn't been bought by either the CBS or the CTV network. This means that unless you live just this side of the border from one of the 190-odd ABC stations that carry it, the extraordinary Gothic pleasures of DARK SHADOWS are not for you.
Still, there are a certain number of Canadian watchers, as the show's fan mail demonstrates: fans in the Sarnia area, across from Detroit; in northern Ontario around Saulte Ste. Marie or the Lakeland within TV reach of Duluth, Minn.; in southern Alberta, near Great Falls, Mont.; in Vancouver, across from Seattle - they all help make up an average weekly total of 16 million North American viewers.
What makes DARK SHADOWS different from other soaps like AS THE WORLD TURNS, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and THE EDGE OF NIGHT (all carried on CBC-owned stations across the country) is that it is a truly Gothic soap: terrors, mysteries, intrigue, the supernatural, all kinds of strangeness in the wings - and absolutely none of the usual soaper hangups like parental alcoholism, illegitimacy, and to-pill-or-not-to-pill.
Dan Curtis, the show's mastermind and executive producer would have you believe that when The Idea came to him in late 1965 his hand was guided by forces beyond his ken.
"I feel kind of stupid telling you this," says Curtis, 41, his eyes blazing with what looks like sincerity, "but I got it from a dream. Yes, I had this dream one night of a girl riding on a train...She was a governess...She gets off the train at a deserted station somewhere in Maine...And she does to this great brooding mansion..."
For a few seconds Curtis, who looks like a freshy Mort Sahl and is known in Canadian TV for his 1968 CBC-ABC co-production of DR. JEKYLL AND MR.HYDE (superb reviews, lousy ratings), seems lost in a trance. Forces beyond his ken appear to have him again. Then he snaps out of it.
"I made a deal ABC that very morning," he says briskly, and pushes a few power-trip buzzers on his desk.
It would neat to say that the show was an instant success when it went on the air starring sixtyish Joan Bennett in June, 1966. Unfortunately, in those early days, forces beyond anyone's ken - to wit, the whim of public fancy - were working against Curtis's DARK SHADOWS. The public found it couldn't plug into Curtis's dream wave-length at all.
By September, 1966, the show was in bad trouble and the dream was turning into a nightmare. In November, Curtis "pulled out all the supernatural stops," and by March, 1967, had signed Frid - who had been about to leave New York to teach acting in Los Angeles - as a vampire.
Originally hired for about three weeks, Barnabas is now the show's No. 1 attraction, which allows Joan Bennett more and more time off, and Jonathan Frid to appreciate the ironies of middle-age fame.
Of fan mail, fan clubs, autograph hunters; of the maddening need to change his unlisted phone number at regular intervals; of the Barnabas T-shirts, the Barnabas kits, the rings, the games, even the bubble gum (collect enough wrappers and you have a Barnabas poster); of his record-album contract reading ghost stories for children; of the offers from paperback companies for "The Private Life of Jonathan Frid"; of the $1,000 tips he gets for personal appearances; of the planned tour of summer fairs with will net him far more; of the Dallas paper - Dallas! - that named Jackie Kennedy and Jonathan Frid as "the two great publicity names of 1968."
"I find that," says Frid, citing the list, "hard to adjust to."
He is a tall man, with an instantly memorable face, gravely brooding like something hewn out of Mount Rushmore. One shoulder seems slightly taller than the other (or is it part of the physical and spiritual uptightness carried over from Barnabas to the neighborhood bar?), and he treats his role with great earnestness.
The son of a Hamilton building contractor, he studied acting in London, England; then with Lorne Green and Eric Christmas at Greene's academy in Toronto in the Fifties; with Uta Hagen in New York: essentially a classic actor, and a good one. And earnest.
"Barnabas," he says without cracking a smile, "is the most fascinating role I have ever played." Come on! "Well, with Richard III..."
In view of that, how does he like the feeling - among the actors and the people who hire him - that afternoon television is not to be taken seriously? Frid frowns.
"That's the trouble - there's a feeling that a vampire is a freak, an 'in' thing, and I'm embarrassed constantly, I cringe, I have to force myself to watch the show."
Here's the rub: despite the fans, the offbeat fame, the thousands of letters a week, despite his liking for the role...nobody else treats the possibilities as seriously as he does. With any comparable kind of success on primetime TV, Frid would by now have been deluged with offers: so far he has had several, he says, "but nothing concrete."
He is his own sternest critic: "The potential is great, I love the idea, but - hell, it's the worst acting I've ever done. I blink too much, I'm not sharp or fast enough, I don't have enough time to learn my lines...
"And I can't get angry with people who find the whole thing ridiculous because the scripts are ridiculous, the dialogue is absurd."
But he rejects the idea that a lot of the show's fans are 'camp' followers: "You can't kid me that people watch the show month in and month out hung up on the camp aspects. Sure, there's a kind of university following in the dorms. This team came up from the University of Miami to interview me the other day, and they wanted to know my interest in the occult - which is nil, incidentally. They were pretty cool about it all. Certainly didn't treat it as camp."
That's why he's peeved with the CBC these days. Some weeks ago somebody phoned him up for a radio show "with a whole raft of blood jokes, sniggering and snickering - it was a disaster right off, and sheer bad manners."
The youngest of three brothers (Kenneth runs the construction business in Hamilton, Douglas a ski lodge in Orangeville, Ont.), Fri still calls Hamilton his home though he has worked out of New York since the Fifties. He has done a lot of work off-Broadway and in U.S. regional theater; a few seasons ago he was in the Broadway production of "Roar Like a Dove" with Charlie Ruggles; and he honed some of his subtler vampiric twitches by playing a psychiatrist a few times on AS THE WORLD TURNS.