February 9, 2013

The Reluctant Vampire

Jonathan Frid was always a modest man in life, this in itself would not have been unique if it were not for the fact that he was also an leading actor working in the medium of television where drawing attention to yourself is a way of life. Jonathan literally achieved overnight celebrity and with it fame. All This was thrust upon him as he was about to enter middle age a rather unlikely time in life to become a matinee idol.  All of this because he auditioned for a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows, he could not possibly have imagined at the time that within a year of playing this reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins he would be a household name across America, a bonafide heart throb receiving truckloads of fan mail while gracing the covers of teen magazines that up until that moment had never featured any personalties over the age of 30. Jonathan Frid began his career as an actor in his native Canada, whose repatotire included Shakesphere and the classic's, his manner and delivery of dialogue was old fashioned and theatrical. This is perhaps the key to his success in the role of Barnabas Collins in the first place, his mannerisms suited the character so well that for those 20 minutes each weekday on television he personified this forlorn vampire condemned to darkness by a witch, chained in his coffin by his father who could not bring himself to destory his only son and to top it off carrying a torch for over two centuries for a woman who leaped to her death on Widow's hill rather then become a creature like himself. This over ripe plotline as interpeted by a cast of very theatrical actors like Grayson Hall and Louis Edmonds triggered a loyal cult following that is proving to be just as undead as Barnabas Collins and not bloody likely to go away in my lifetime. It was however Jonathan Frid's performance as the tormented vampire that made the whole thing come together in the hearts and minds of his captive tv audience. Ever single  baby boomer who rushed home from school in the late sixties to catch the latest installment of Dark Shadows remembers Frid with a special nostalgia if for no other reason than this man was never anything else in the minds of his audience but Barnabas Collins. The hiring of an unknown actor was a spark of genius on whomever presented this bit of casting to Dan Curtis, the legend has it that game show host and part time actor Bert Convey was being considered when Jonathan Frid was finally chosen and the rest as they say is history.

This lack of ambition on Frid's part was staggering when you consider just how hot an actor he was by 1970 having just come off a hit TV show with a viewing audience in the millions. He agreed to appear in the theatrical feature based on the show called House of Dark Shadows which in his opinion was a "pretty good horror film that perhaps spends a bit too  much screen time in blood and gore" I remember when Frid went on the Dick Cavett show and said as much while remaining the perfect courtly gentleman during the interview as Cavett showed a clip of Frid wildly cane whipping his handy man Willie Lomis played on both the film and the series by John Karlen. Frid then went on to do one more horror  in 1974 called Seizure which would also mark the screen debut of a young maverick director named Oliver Stone. His only other television appearence would be in 1973 when he accepted the rather thankless role, in the tradition of say Bela Lugosi in Night Monster, playing a mute chauffeur to Shelley Winters devil worshiping Lillith in The Devil's daughter directed by Jeannot Szwac.

My first real face to face encounter with Jonathan Frid would take place in New York city during the summer of 1983 where he very kindly invited me to his rent controlled apt over on East 18th street of which he was understandably proud.  The first thing you notice about him when you meet him is his absolute lack of vanity regarding his talent as an actor or his celebrity as a tv star, he is the first to tell you just how lucky he was to become part of the Dark Shadows legacy. I was very impressed that he kept the cane and ring in display cases in his living room a constant reminder of his famous alter ego Barnabas Collins. When our interview and visit finally came to an end I left with the feeling that I had made a friend because Jonathan was so generous with his time, I mean I was there for hours it seemed not to mention energy regarding my time with him.  I promised to keep in touch and I did, this was so enjoyable for me anyway because I was just like everybody else that grew up watching him stumbling around those cardboard sets with graveyards so cheap the tombstones fell over as Barnabas swooped by in full regalia with his cape billowing in the mist's of ABC's soundstage. He even allowed me to call my mother in Los Angeles while I was there so I could impress her by handing the phone over to "Barnabas" at first she didn't believe me but after all it was my mother and she knew I had a knack for meeting my idols so she came around and kept him on the phone for ten minutes while she went on about the show and how she never missed an episode. This was a great guy make no mistake.

It would a few years later that I would have a chance to really spend time with him again when Jonathan was touring the country playing the insanely determined killer in  that wonderful old Broadway warhorse Arsenic and Old lace. He was playing at a theater on Whilshire blvd  I managed to get a note to him backstage and so we met for drinks after his performance at this stylish art deco bar on the corner by the theater.  I had invited my close friend Martine Beswicke to join us at the moment she was booked for a dinner and asked for a rain check.  Jonathan looked disappointed so I suggested that we all meet up at my apt one day when he was not doing a matinee and come for drinks at my place in Beverly Hills.

This was to be my fondest memory of Jonathan Frid coming to my house that afternoon to be reunited with his co-star from Seizure, the Queen of evil herself Maritne Beswicke.  Now I took precautions to make sure Jonathan arrived first so we could have some time together to catch up a bit before that double martini personality that is known far and wide as Martine Beswicke comes through the door delightfully dominating all that follows in her wake .  He arrived on time and a bit breathless as he took a cab to my place.  I had tried to prepare him for the way my apt was decorated and as he entered he locked in on the Dracula insert over the mantle a 1947 reissue from the Lugosi film and commented "You know I feel such a connection to this man because I truly understand how playing these kind of parts can effect your entire life if you let it" He wanted to know as much as I had time to tell him about Lugosi and the curse of type casting that plagued his life until the end, however the issues that Jonathan felt they had was in reality night and day because Frid had none of the darkness that tormented Lugosi's life with bad career choices coupled with addictions etc.

I think that fact that I had organized my apt in such a manner that it did resemble a museum and this did seem to establish the right spirit in Jonathan that afternoon, which sparked a renewed respect in his mind for the horror genre  and this helped create the right mood for our afternoon together.  We decided after the grand tour of my abode to sit on my patio that faced Oakhurst Dr so we could watch Martine when she did drive up in her beloved little black VW she nicknamed "Pearl"  When I mentioned this fact to him he laughed that wonderful laugh of his and said "Nothing that girl comes up with can surprise me David you forget we all lived together in that drafty old house during our film together"   Within minites Martine did arrive and as she was getting out of her car Jonathan said loudly "Well there  goes the afternoon David and any chance of a conversation about anything but Beswicke"  He was already treating her like a long lost crazy sister which for me was a sign we were all going to have a ball.  Martine is the kind of woman that lights up a room and her joy for living is simply contagious.  Jonathan was in rare form as he recounted days of frustration on the set of Seizure mainly because the crew and the director Oliver Stone were all very young and prone to party a bit too much to suit the taste of an established pro like Frid and this project was a work in progress or a love=in depending on what day you worked.  Martine recalled having to keep the cameraman sober by making love to him on occassion to which Jonathan laughed and said "better you than me that's all I can say and then laughing very hard.  I wish I had somehow taped the whole afternoon but then that would not have been fair to these two amazing people who discussed their time together with candor and honesty and this must remain between friends.

I did make an effort to keep in touch with Jonathan as time seemed to slip away and after a fashion I was told Jonathan gave up his beloved New York apt to return to Canada as I believe his mother had died leaving her estate in his hands. The Frid family was already very established there and he wanted to go home after so many years on the road, theater was always his first love and he delighted in touring with his one man shows giving readings of his favorite plays and short stories.

My Dark Shadow memories will always be very dear to me because I was more than a fan of the show I was also part of the Dark Shadows family. When the news finally reached me that Jonathan Frid had died it was not surprising because of his age yet he was such an icon not only in the world of daytime television but as an admired horror icon as well. Jonathan had achived in his lifetime the kind of celebrity usually reserved for a Christopher Lee or a Bela Lugosi.  Jonathan had been a working actor for nearly 20 yrs when the role of Barnabas Collins turned him into a legend and that he will always remain. I was thrilled that he lived to see his legacy secure with  boxed sets of all 1200 episodes of Dark Shadows in circulation and a sell out on top of that at nearly $700 a piece. He flew to England a year before he died to film a cameo in the new Tim Burton film of Dark Shadows was he nearly lived to see in theaters. Frid is in rare company since very few actors live to see their legacy secure.

I know he would have been rather embarrassed by all this media attention by fans and critics alike regarding his passing but I am here to tell you he deserved every tribute bestowed upon him. Because it is in fact an outpouring of love for this remarkable humble man who entertained a generation of baby boomers and seems to be well on his way to repeat this process for the 21st century as well. I loved this man to bits and while I shall miss him Jonathan Frid will not not die as long as the visual arts exists in its many forms, his legacy is secure and remains as immortal as the character he played to perfection on both screens.   farewell Barnabas Collins I just know you will be back!.

1 comment:

  1. just a note that a slightly different version of this piece appeared in Diabolique last year as my tribute to a great man.