Barnabas’ Column #7: Happy Birthday, Jonathan Frid
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
-Shakespeare, The Tempest
At the eleventh hour, it was down to Jonathan Frid, a classically trained actor who worked primarily in Shakespearean theater, and Bert Convy, a game show host. Thankfully, the producers of DARK SHADOWS chose the former.
During the first nine months of its network run, DARK SHADOWS was in danger of cancellation. The vaguely JANE EYRE-ish soap opera was admittedly different from other daytime dramas, but it wasn’t particularly interesting either. The tide began to turn when, in early 1967, the series stopped hinting at the supernatural and gave viewers a few bona fide ghosts. Then, Laura Collins, a character involved in a bitter child custody battle, was revealed to be a Phoenix, the ancient fire creature from Egyptian mythology. Viewers began to take notice.
It wasn’t until Jonathan Frid stepped into the role of Barnabas Collins in April 1967 that DARK SHADOWS fully came into its own. Nothing like this character, or the actor who played him, had ever been seen on an afternoon soap.
Jonathan Frid often said that his favorite role was Shakespeare’s Richard III. He played Barnabas as though he were playing Richard. Three weeks into the role, Barnabas stood before the huge windows in the drawing room of the great house of Collinwood. As a violent storm raged outside, Barnabas recounted the death of his fiancé two centuries earlier, his own thunderous voice overpowering the explosive thunder of the storm. He had to choose his words carefully, so as not to reveal that the truth: that he was speaking of himself and not his “long dead ancestor.”
It was one of many extraordinary performances he gave during his four years on the show. Daytime audiences were stunned. While other soaps featured quiet conversations spoken over cups of coffee, DARK SHADOWS treated its viewers to a Universal Pictures monster rally, performed with the bravura of classical theater.
It was Jonathan Frid who brought DARK SHADOWS acclaim. Adding a few ghosts might have intrigued people enough to bring the ratings up slightly, but it was Frid’s extraordinary presence that catapulted the series into the stratosphere. Without him, the show might now be a barely remembered footnote in TV history. Because of him, DARK SHADOWS is legend.
Within months, DARK SHADOWS was one of the most talked about shows on television, commanding a daily audience of 20 million viewers. Just as Barnabas was a reluctant vampire, so was Jonathan Frid a reluctant celebrity. Suddenly, a cultured, sophisticated and very private gentleman in his 40s had become a teen idol, and an unexpected sex symbol. It wasn’t what he wanted, but he went along for the ride, and was always gracious.
In later years, he toured in a one man show. In these simple performances, he offered dramatic readings from Shakespeare, Poe and whatever else struck his fancy. He appeared at universities, libraries, and cabarets, always to packed houses. Many of his fans were in fact, introduced to classic theater and literature because of his efforts.
Jonathan Frid was an old school actor. His interest was in the art of creating a believable character that would move and touch people. He certainly succeeded with Barnabas, a desperately lonely man who loathed his undead state. Over the years, many disabled DARK SHADOWS viewers have stated that this character gave them someone they could personally relate to. Likewise, many gay men and lesbians recalled childhoods spent deep in the closet. When they saw the great pains Barnabas had to go to, to hide his vampirism, they saw a kindred spirit. Like Barnabas, they had to choose their words carefully in order to hide who they were.
Jonathan Frid touched many lives deeply. Those lives included Johnny Depp, who’s often spoken of his childhood obsession with Frid’s portrayal of Barnabas Collins—it has been a career goal of Depp’s to play Barnabas. Shortly before passing on at age 87, Frid filmed a short cameo for Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS, in which Depp indeed played Barnabas Collins. In interviews, Depp stated that his performance in the film is a tribute to his childhood idol.
Jonathan Frid passed away on April 13, 2012, in a hospital in his native Ontario, Canada. At the request of his family, the news was not released until nearly a week later. Though he had enjoyed a long, accomplished life, he didn’t live long enough to attend the opening of the new DARK SHADOWS film on May 11, as he had been scheduled to do. Perhaps Jonathan Frid, the reluctant celebrity, was ready to pass the torch and step aside.
Jonathan Frid departed this mortal coil an icon beloved by millions. His legacy remains fully intact. He was a true original. A class act every step of the way.
This piece was first published just after Mr. Frid’s passing was announced. It’s now being reposted to commemorate his 89th birthday, which his fans celebrated on December 2, 2013.