[Did we misspell Barnabas all the way through this story? Yes.–lrh]
Frid, Minus Fangs, to Read in O.C.
Performance: The actor has less than fond memories for his years as vampire Barnabus Collins on TV’s ‘Dark Shadows.’
October 26, 1991
By JESS BRAVIN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
other artists weary of uncertain careers, Jonathan Frid was about to
cash in the actor’s life and become a teacher. Then the big break came
and spoiled his plans.
In 1967, the Yale-trained Frid, a
sometime Shakespearean who had toured public schools performing the
Lincoln-Douglas debates, won the part of Barnabus Collins, a courtly
vampire on the ABC-TV daytime serial "Dark Shadows." The soap opera
with gothic overtones would run through 1971, spawn two feature-length
movies and a small marketing phenomenon and also earn Frid a footnote
in the annals of popular culture.
Frid, who never cared for
horror movies as a child (he recalls sneaking off to see matinees of
musicals) would forevermore share Barnabus’ curse: Like the vampire who
spent 175 self-hating years sucking blood, Frid would find his career
kept alive by a predicament he hates.
"Everywhere I go," sighs Frid, now 66, "I get a few morons who expect to see the vampire."
Halloween notwithstanding, he warns that those who expect to see the
vampire tonight will be sorely disappointed when Frid, sans fangs,
appears at Yorba Linda’s Forum Theatre to read a set of short stories
under the somewhat cumbersome title of "Jonathan Frid’s
The program, which Frid describes as "readers
theater," leans heavily on wits from the first half of the 20th
Century, including Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx. He
adds a few items by writers known for somewhat heavier work–Somerset
Maugham and Robert Frost–as well as a couple of modern pieces,
including one by illustrator and humorist Gahan Wilson. "Jonathan
Frid’s Fridiculousness" also contains a few items by its eponymous
performer: a humorous genealogy of his name titled "Freaks, Frights and
Fridians," and a set examining the frustrations of modern telephone
As a seasonal courtesy, Frid does plan to end each half
of the program with a story drawn from what might be called genre
fiction. "Here There Be Tygers" by Stephen King concludes the first
act, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe wraps up the show.
"It is," Frid allows, "what’s expected of me."
a native of Canada, insists that recent years spent on tour with his
one-man act "have been the happiest time of my life in show business"
but that, inevitably, he finds himself recalling the "Dark Shadows"
that defined his career.
And recalling the program’s
hallmarks–turgid dialogue, shoddy production values and metaphysical
mumbo jumbo–Frid is less than charitable.
"It was just garbage,
just preposterous; even for its day, it was awful," he says. "All of
us, and especially the vampire, would be given these long, convoluted
sentences that go on forever. It was a show that tried to be different,
but most of the time it fell flat on its face.
"Some people try
to apologize for it, saying that’s how television was done in the ’60s.
Well, there was a lot of brilliant television in those days, and we
weren’t a part of it, I’m afraid."
The program’s success–and the continuing fascination that Barnabus holds for thousands of fans–befuddles Frid.
guess there was something vulnerable about the character, if you accept
the idiotic premise of coming out of a coffin after 175 years. It must
have been the vulnerability–I was so humiliated all the time, maybe
there was a bit of humility in my work."
But roles for
ex-vampires were few after the series was canceled in 1971, so Frid
began the odyssey that eventually would lead him to Yorba Linda.
the 1970s, Frid won an occasional small film role, but he largely
remained out of public sight. Unable to shake his "Dark Shadows"
lineage, he finally consented–in exchange for room, board and air fare
to Los Angeles–to attend one of the innumerable conventions staged for
fans of the program.
"They’re a strange lot," he said of the
fans. "I feel like a Martian when I’m among them. Let’s face it: Most
of the people who work in this world, the haves and the achievers,
don’t watch soap operas."
Nevertheless, Frid said he enjoyed the
free travel and so continued to attend "Dark Shadows" conventions
through the 1980s. Tired of answering the same questions over and again
at these events, Frid proposed instead to present readings. First, his
programs consisted entirely of poetry written by "Dark Shadows" fans.
of it’s not very good," he said, "but some of it, at least, wasn’t bad.
They were mostly romantic things based on Barnabus the lovable vampire,
the romantic antihero, you know, the longing and yearning of this man
who was condemned by this curse, the longing and yearning, the longing
and the yearning," Frid says. "Please don’t ask me to repeat any of it."
Frid was cast in a 1986 New York revival of "Arsenic and Old Lace," he
regained enough stature to book himself outside of "Dark Shadows"
conventions. Juggling several programs, he now offers different
versions of his readers theater, based on humor, horror or Shakespeare,
playing mainly at schools, colleges and corporate functions.
finds himself in particular demand this time of year. A New York
foundation engaged him to read a horror story at one of its public
events, and MCI, the long-distance company, hired him to read a
three-minute condensation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as part of a
Still, Frid recalls a 1963 tour of Pittsburgh’s
inner-city schools as the highlight of his career. "We put on the
Lincoln-Douglas debates in every classroom," he says. "The kids were
poor, and they were tough, but by God they were sharp. It was the most
thrilling thing I’ve ever done."
So then, has Frid given any thought to picking up his long-delayed ambition to be a teacher?
I’m almost 70," he says. The former vampire adds without a hint of
irony: "I’m getting a little long in the tooth for that."