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"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 for the role of Barnabas Collins. Thankfully, the producers of DARK SHADOWS chose Mr. Frid.
During its first nine months, 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, a fire creature from ancient Egyptian mythology.
Viewers began to take notice, but it wasn't until Frid stepped into the role of Barnabas Collins in April of that year, that DARK SHADOWS came into its own. Nothing like this character, or the actor who played him, had ever been seen on a daytime drama.
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 and as a storm raged outside, Barnabas recounted the death of his fiance 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 the shocking 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, drawn out conversations over cups of coffee, DARK SHADOWS treated its viewers to a Universal Pictures monster rally, performed with the bravura of classical theater.
It was Frid, and Frid alone, who brought DARK SHADOWS its acclaim. Adding a few ghosts might have intrigued people, and brought 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 a legend.
Within months, SHADOWS was one of the most talked about shows on television, commanding a daily audience of 20 million. Just as Barnabas was a reluctant vampire, so Frid was a reluctant celebrity. Suddenly, a cultured, sophisticated, 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, and always to packed houses. There's no question that many in his never dwindling fan base were introduced to great literature because of his efforts.
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 in his portrayal of Barnabas Collins. Barnabas was a desperately lonely man who loathed his undead state. Over the years, many disabled people 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 so as to hide who they were.
Frid touched many lives deeply. Those lives included Johnny Depp, who’s often spoke of his childhood obsession with the actor’s portrayal of Barnabas Collins—it has been a career goal of Depp's to play Barnabas. Shortly before Frid passed on at age 87, he filmed a short cameo for Tim Burton's DARK SHADOWS, in which Depp indeed plays Barnabas. In interviews, Depp stated emphatically that his performance in the film is a tribute to his childhood idol.
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 film's opening 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.
We will never forget you.
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