Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid

Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins, has died of natural causes at the age of 87.

Frid was a classically-trained actor who spent most of his early career on the stage. At one point he moved to England and started spelling his name "Fridd". His father found out and he changed the spelling back.

In the 1966 he was dissatisfied with his career and had accepted a job teaching. He was packing when his agent called and sent him to ABC to read for a soap opera. While waiting he noticed that all of the other people auditioning "looked dead" and wondered what that said about him.

The soap opera was Dark Shadows. At the time it was on the verge of cancellation and the producers hoped that a new character would boost ratings.

During the 1960s, the most popular genre of novel for women was the gothic romance. The plot was always a variation of Wuthering Heights - a young woman, possibly a governess, entered into a family with dark secrets. There was a hint of the supernatural but it always turned out to have a natural explanation. All of the mysteries would be wrapped up in the last few pages and the woman would find happiness with the handsome but melancholy head of the family.

Dark Shadows was the TV version of this and, at first, everything supernatural turned out to have a reasonable explanation. Slowly the writers started adding real supernatural elements to the show. The ghost, Josette, appeared on her own instead of as a hallucination. A missing, presumed dead, character showed up as a phoenix whose purpose was to kill her son in flames.

After these starts, the producers decided to go all the way and introduce a vampire, Barnabas, the long-lost lover of Josette. They worked up to it over several days and tied the character into existing elements of the show. At first, Barnabas's nature was only hinted at but eventually he started biting the female leads.

The new character worked. Ratings soared. At first the writers kept making Barnabas more and more evil but during a flashback to the 1790s, they changed his character. He was an innocent victim of a curse who was horrified at what he had become. When the flashback ended, this characterization continued. Barnabas was a tragic hero, trying to do good but lapsing into evil. Prior to this vampires had always been portrayed as Dracula - willingly evil. Frid's tormented vampire was new and led to today's versions.

As Barnabas became more popular, Frid's screentime increased. Dark Shadow's format was to use seven actors a week with five per episode. This gave the cast some time off but Frid was included every week for over a year. Eventually Frid convinced the producers to add a second charismatic lead, Quentin Collins the cursed werewolf. That gave Frid a little breathing room but he remained the most popular character.

One thing that Frid attributed to his success was a personal failing. Frid had trouble learning lines quickly. With multiple scenes every week he was constantly afraid of forgetting lines. This added some nervous energy to Barnabas which was perfectly in character for someone who was always keeping secrets.

After Dark Shadows ended, Frid made a couple of movies but mainly returned to the stage. In the 1980s he started touring with a one-man show that demonstrated how good he was when he had time to memorize his material. I saw this twice. The second time was a special show that he gave after officially retiring.

Frid's last performance was a cameo filmed for the upcoming Dark Shadows movie. Reportedly he was delighted to discover that the cast and crew of the movie were huge fans, especially Johnny Depp.

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