Thursday, April 6, 2006

Dan Curtis Passes On

Dan Curtis, one of the most successful television producers and directors of all time, died March 30, after having been diagnosed with a brain tumour several monthas ago, at the age of 78. He was perhaps best known as the creator of Dark Shadows. His wife, Norma Mae Klein, died just three weeks before he did.

Dan Curtis was born Daniel Mayer Cerkoss in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 28, 1928. Curtis read voraciously as a child, developing a taste for Gothic horror even then. He attended Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, graduating in 1950. Following graduation he sold syndicated programming for both NBC and MCA. In 1962 he created the show Challenge Golf. Airing on ABC, the series created a new demand for golf on televison and led CBS to buy a similar show, The CBS Match Play Golf Classic, from Curtis.

Curtis' greatest claim to fame would come in 1965 when he created the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The series as originally concieved was simply a televsion version of the Gothic romances so popular at the time. It was not long, however, before Dark Shadows shifted more towards Gothic horror than Gothic romance. The introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) to the series cemented Dark Shadows as the first Gothic horror soap opera. As a result, Dark Shadows became a cult series and one of the few (perhaps the only) soap opera to have a successful syndication run. It would also lead to a short lived prime time revivial in 1990.

Curtis would produce and direct two motion pictures based on the series (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows). He also produced a number of Gothic horror TV movies from the late Sixties into the early Sixties, among them Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, Frankenstein, and Dracula. Among these films were two of the most successful telefilms of all time, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. The films centred on reporter Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin, who died earlier this year), who faced a vampire in the first film and an immortal murderer in the second. They would lead to the TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, in which Curtis was only a consultant.

Not all of Curtis's work was in the field of Gothic horror. He also produced the miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Of course, Curtis was not just a television producer. He also directed both feature films and television movies. He directed both Dark Shadows films, as well as the films Burnt Offerings and Dead of Night. The TV movies he directed included The Norliss Tapes, Melvin Purviss G-Man, and The Long Days of Summer. He worked into 2005 when he directed both Saving Milly and Our Fathers.

I don't think there can be any argument that Dan Curtis was not one of the greatest and most influential television producers and directors of all time. Indeed, he was one of the few true auteurs in television. Had his only achievement been Dark Shadows, Curtis would have earned his place in history. As it is, Curtis was involved in many more important projects, including the two Night Stalker movies and the miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. And while Curtis was best known for his works in the horror genre, he was obviously capable of handling other material and handling it well. The Winds of War and War and Rememberance was based on Herman Wouk's novels about the events leading up to World War II and the war itself. Saving Milly centred on a woman with Parkinson's disease, while Our Fathers focused on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Regardless of whatever material Curtis was dealing with, he always focused on the characters. In his works of Gothic horror, the terror emerged not from blood and gore, but from the characters themselves.

As a very young child I remember Dark Shadows was one of the most popular shows amongst us kids. All of us could not wait to get home from school to see the show. As a child it often scared me and I must admit that as an adult I have found it to be one of the creepiest things ever aired on television. And I have loved nearly all of the television movies Curtis produced in the Gothic horror genre. Indeed, his version of Dracula is one of the best adaptations of the novel ever filmed. Like many, I have an enduring love for the two Night Stalker movies. I cannot deny that Dan Curtis has had a huge impact on my life. In fact, it was probably because of Dark Shadows, and hence Dan Curtis, may well be what made me a fan of the horror genre. I was very sad to read of his death.

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