Thursday, April 19, 2012

Godspeed Jonathan Frid, Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows

Jonathan Frid, the Canadian actor who gained lasting fame as Barnabas Collins on the Gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows, passed on 13 February 2012 at the age of 87.

Jonathan Frid was born John Herbert Frid on 2 December 1924 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. During World War II he served in the Royal Canadian Navy. He attended McMaster University in Hamilton in 1948. Afterwards he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1954 he moved to the United States, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing at the Yale School of Drama.

Jonathan Frid established a thriving career on stage in the Fifties and Sixties. He appeared alongside Katharine Hepburn in a production of Much Ado About Nothing. He also appeared in productions of Murder in the Cathedral and Dial M for Murder. In 1964 he appeared on Broadway in the play Roar Like a Dove. In 1966 he appeared in a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.

It was in 1967 that he would assume the role for which he was best known, that of Barnabas Collins on Dark  Shadows. Dark Shadows was originally a soap opera based on the Gothic style romance novels popular in the mid-Sixties. Debuting in 1966, the show had only been on for around six months when it took a turn towards Gothic horror in a story line involving an immortal, humanoid creature termed a phoenix. Having taken a turn towards the supernatural, it was perhaps inevitable that a vampire character would join the cast. Barnabas Collins first appeared on the 18 April 1967 episode. As portrayed by Jonathan Frid, Barnabas Collins was a vampire who deplored his immortal life and was disgusted by his blood lust. Quite simply, it was one of the earliest portrayals of a sympathetic vampire, pre-dating similar portrayals on Forever Knight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer by decades.

Barnabas Collins would transform Dark Shadows into an outright phenomenon. Unlike many soap operas at the time, there would be a good deal of Dark Shadows merchandise, from games to comic books. The show was successful enough to inspire two films while it was still on the air. In the first, House of Dark Shadows (1970), Jonathan Frid reprised his role as Barnabas Collins. Barnabas would not be the only character that Jonathan Frid played on Dark Shadows. He also played Bramwell Collins, the son of Barnabas Collins in a parallel timeline in the last few months of the show's existence.

Sadly, ratings for Dark Shadows would drop dramatically in its last two years on the air. Despite protests from the show's fans, ABC then cancelled Dark Shadows in 1971. Following its cancellation Dark Shadows would do something no other soap opera had done before or since--its reruns would see success in syndication. It would even air on the Sci-Fi Channel for years. The series would see a new, primetime version on NBC in 1991 and an attempted revival on the WB in 2004. It is currently the basis for Tim Burton's latest film, Dark Shadows, to be released in a few weeks.

Following Dark Shadows Jonathan Frid appeared in the television movie The Devils Daughter (which aired in 1974) and Oliver Stone's directorial debut Seizure (1974). He has a cameo in the upcoming feature film Dark Shadows (2012). As an outgrowth of his appearances at Dark Shadows fan conventions, in the Eighties Mr. Frid created a number of one man shows under the heading Reader's Theatre and toured the United States. In 1986 and 1987 Jonathan Frid appeared as Jonathan Brewster in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. The production was successful enough that after it's Broadway run, Jonathan Frid toured with it for ten months afterwards.  In 1993 he directed a production of The Lion in Winter, which starred fellow Dark Shadows cast member Marie Wallace. Later in the Nineties he formed Charity Associates, an organisation through which he could raise money for charities using his Reader's Theatre performances. In 2000 he appeared in a production of Mass Appeal in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.

It is quite possible that Barnabas Collins is the most famous character to ever emerge from a television soap opera. He also remains one of the most famous vampires to appear either on television or in motion pictures. While much of this is no doubt due to the decision of the production staff of Dark Shadows to make the initially monstrous Barnabas into a sympathetic, tragic protagonist. Indeed, Barnabas Collins was one of the first truly sympathetic vampires in any medium and the first to receive mass exposure five days a week. While the production staff of Dark Shadows was then largely responsible for the impact Barnabas Collins would have on pop culture in the late Sixties, it was mostly the considerable talent of Jonathan Frid that would make the vampire an outright phenomenon.

A skilled stage actor, Jonathan Frid was able to bring out the vulnerable side of Barnabas Collins and explore the tragic nature of the character's existence. He made Barnabas Collins three dimensional not only in a way few vampires on film ever had been, but three dimensional in a way few characters on soap opera ever had been. If Dark Shadows became a phenomenon with Barnabas Collins at its centre, then Jonathan Frid deserved much of the credit.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that Jonathan Frid played many more characters than Barnabas Collins. On Dark Shadows he also played the tragic, romantic hero Bramwell Collins in the parallel timeline story arc. Over the years he played characters ranging from the Duke of Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona to Father Tim Farley in Mass Appeal. He did all of these parts well. While his fame may largely due to one character on one television show, Jonathan Frid did so much more in his career.

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