If you are anxiously waiting for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows film (opening on May 11) starring Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins and are a fan of the original series, you probably cannot believe that the iconic actor who played that role in the TV show has died. Jonathan Frid was 87, but for all those fans of the 1960s soap opera, he is eternally ensconced in their minds as the love sick but thirsty vampire that became a national sensation.
I can still recall looking at my watch in school, waiting anxiously to get out that door and home to watch Dark Shadows. Filled with eccentric characters living in a spooky mansion on the coast of Maine in fictional Collinsport, Dark Shadows stoked my imagination with images of vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, and ghosts. The “ordinary” Collins folks (and they were really all rather bizarre each in their own way) were bewildered by the preternatural happenings in their house and town.
Frid broke on the scene in the show’s second season. As a hapless caretaker stumbled upon his chained coffin in an old mausoleum, the vampire Barnabas is unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace. Looking just like the man in a portrait hung in the mansion’s main hallway (because it was actually a portrait of him from the 1700s), Barnabas claims to be a “cousin” from England wearing the same ring, carrying the same cane, and having the same strange hair cut that seemed like a vampire’s cowl.
This was certainly a far different soap opera than the ones my mother and grandmother watched like All My Children or The Secret Storm. Here the opening credits showed a silhouette of a mansion with eerie music playing, a sea crashing against a shore, and then the waxy letters of the show’s title splashing against the screen. It got me excited every time I saw it, and even the thought of it now still does (even though I haven’t seen the show in almost thirty or so years).
Frid’s Collins was a vampire with a conscience and a heavy heart, long before all the current incarnations of vampires in sappy movies and TV shows that have watered down the genre. Barnabas is made a vampire not by the bite of a bat but by a witch’s curse, because he spurned her love for another woman named Josette. Centuries later in the modern day (1967 that is) Collinsport, Barnabas runs across the nanny to the Collins children named Victoria Winters, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his Josette. Of course, you can see where this is going.
The show had a fresh feel to it back then and was rather experimental, dealing with not just the gothic but science fiction too. There were trips back and forth in time and even into a parallel universe. All of this on a half hour soap opera along with werewolves, gypsies, tramps, and quite a few thieves, and you could understand why this young fan couldn’t wait to get home and let the homework wait until after dinner.
Looking at Frid now, many would probably not believe he became a sex symbol, but that he did. In those days before e-mail, Frid was showered with letters from amorous females who found his conflicted vampire sexier than many of the more handsome but rather boring fellows on other soaps. Barnabas just didn’t kiss the girls, he sunk his teeth into their throats.
Frid somehow kept the show together, being the center of the action and making it a big hit. I know in later years that I read various things about him disliking the attention he received because of the Barnabas role, but towards the end of his life he seemed to embrace the insanity of being loved for playing an undead Romeo. He even appears briefly in the new Burton film, a fitting connection to his enduring legacy to be sure.
Jonathan Frid, the man who played an immortal who only wished to be normal and see another sunrise, is gone but his legacy as Barnabas Collins will not be forgotten. In pace requiescat!
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