The behind the scenes story of the original Dark Shadows series is where my real fascination with the show lies. The crazed production, the eclectic ensemble cast, the enduring legacy - it's some serious "stranger than fiction" stuff, and I've spent a lot of time listening to both cast and crew tell the tale. But no one embodied the unlikely phenomenon of Dark Shadows more than Jonathan Frid. A 42-year-old stage actor with little experience on television, he was hired for a short stint on the struggling soap just before a planned move out west. As Mr. Frid told it, he very nearly didn't pick up the phone when the show called to cast him; he was outside his door with the bag packed and went back in at the last minute to answer. The actor's plans - and the second half of his life - were forever changed by the call.
Barnabas Collins, the vampire ancestor of the Collins clan, was scheduled for a six week story arc on the soap. But the show quickly changed gears and turned Barnabas into the central figure after thousands of fan letters poured in for the actor, whose nervous, at first uncertain portrayal gave his villainous vampire a sympathetic quality onto which the show's viewers quickly latched. What followed was a four year whirlwind Mr. Frid couldn't have imagined - personal appearances attended by thousands, fan clubs, merchandise, a motion picture adaptation - even a visit to the White House (Richard Nixon's daughter was a fan).
Much has been made of Mr. Frid's onscreen bloopers, but such was the nature of the show - it was live on tape, and no one was immune from a gaffe or two. Less talked about is how, if you kept watching, Mr. Frid seemed to settle into the role and gradually became more self-assured as the show's focus hopped between characters, centuries and dimensions. And when it all ended in 1971, the actor simply got on with his life, returning to the stage, appearing in very few other films (he starred in Seizure, Oliver Stone's directorial debut), and making no secret of the fact that he never really understood just what got fans of Dark Shadows so worked up about him. He was the central figure of a phenomenon for which he seemed grateful, but simply couldn't get his head around.
In 2011 he was flown to England (along with his original co-stars Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby) to film a cameo for the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake of his show. By Ms. Scott's account, Mr. Frid alone was unimpressed by the opulent production and the "honored guest" pageantry, eager to get shooting and get back home. After three takes, he told Burton that he'd had enough, and hit the bricks.
Assuming Burton got a take he could use, it will be Frid's last acting credit; he passed away peacefully of natural causes on April 13th. Some folks might be inclined to mourn the fact that he'll never get to see the film; I'm not 100% sure he would have watched it anyway. To the end, he was about the work, wanting to do good work, and as much as we've giggled over parts of the show - a panic-stricken Jonathan Frid struggling to remember a line, or screaming to the high heavens as a rubber bat bounced into his neck, "biting" him - you can't deny that he's really going for it and giving it his all. He might have shrugged at the fanbase, but for thirty minutes a day from 1967 - 1971, he gave those fans the best performance he could muster, never phoning it in. Ultimately, Mr. Frid and the rest of the cast acting their hearts out within the show's absurd milieu is what gives it its unique appeal. It's a crazy moment of pop culture history that wouldn't have happened without him.
And even if he never "got" it, in his later years he seemed to at least embrace it. In 2006, he addressed a convention hall full of Dark Shadows fans over the telephone, and the room erupted as if Elvis had entered the building. The next year he appeared in person (to even greater fanfare), and as he watched a highlight reel of his work on Dark Shadows, it seemed as if it finally clicked for him - still a stage actor at heart, he simply needed to experience the show with an audience in attendance.
He attended the convention every year after that.