Jonathan Frid aka Barnabas Collins

April 21st, 2012 17:25 by Scott Paton

Barnabas 2

In its heyday, it's been reported that "Dark Shadows," the gothic, daytime soap opera of the late-'60s and early-'70s, had an audience of 50 million viewers. If that is to be believed, that means that a full quarter of the U.S. population at the time was tuned in to this low-budget cult favorite. Well, I was one of those 50 million, many of whom were school kids who raced home from the bus stop to catch the show every afternoon. And while I must confess that I was consumed with randy adolescent thoughts of good girl Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and evil temptress Angelique (Lara Parker), it was Jonathan Frid as the conflicted, blood-sucking vampire, Barnabas Collins, who was the breakout star of the show.

Frid was not an original member of the cast when the series launched in 1966. The character of Barnabas was created as a temporary role the following year. But in the grand tradition of countless star-turns throughout Hollywood history, Frid’s nuanced portrayal of the tortured vampire —typically one-dimensional in previous on-screen incarnations–was an instant hit with viewers. A bump in the ratings and sacks of fan mail delivered daily to the ABC Studios in New York ensured that Barnabas Collins would remain the series’ central character throughout its remaining five-year run.

“Dark Shadows” mania and the ensuing merchandising of everything from comic books to lunch boxes, Halloween costumes, posters, records and toys only had two precedents in television history: “Davy Crockett” and, of course, Monkeemania. Sadly, licensing deals for actors’ likenesses were all but non-existent in the 1960s, otherwise Jonathan Frid and the rest of the “Shadows” troupe would have retired as very wealthy individuals.

I actually met Frid once over 30 years ago in Los Angeles, and I was shocked at how ordinary he was. He was a very nice man, slightly quirky as some (ha!) actors are, and virtually no star aura about him. The latter only points out just how superb an actor he truly was, for in character as Barnabas, he had that "it" quality that characterizes all stand-out performances. His Shakespearian stage experience had transformed a three-month, temporary role into one of the iconic characters in television history and certainly reinvented the horror genre for modern times.

Such is the enduring popularity of “Dark Shadows” that a big-screen version of the series is being released next month starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas. Original fans will be delighted that the three original, aforementioned stars of the TV series, along with castmate David Selby (Quentin Collins) have cameos in the film. Sadly, Jonathan Frid won't be taking his victory lap at the red carpet premiere next month. He died last week at the age of 87.

For all his rock star-like fame during "Dark Shadows'" original run on ABC, Jonathan Frid never worked much again in a major spotlight. I hope that he was happy in his later years and that he enjoyed all the residual fondness that we original viewers had for him and his fellow castmates.

(Johnny Depp on Jonathan Frid’s influence: http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2012/04/19/johnny-depp-shadows-star-jonathan-frid-was-elegant-magical/#/0 )