Friday, April 20, 2012

Rant #721: Dark Shadows Indeed

Yesterday, I gave my take on the life of Dick Clark, an icon in the entertainment industry. Today, I report on another passing, a person who made his most momentous mark during a roughly five-year period, only to pretty much drift away from our consciousness. Jonathan Frid, the Shakespearean actor who was best known for his role of the vampire, Barnabas Collins, on the afternoon soap opera "Dark Shadows," died last week, on Friday the 13th of all days. He was in his late 80s. Frid was not in the original cast of the ABC soap opera. The gothic show debuted several months before his debut, but was not doing well in the ratings. ABC was ready to cancel this Dan Curtis production, but then the writers had an idea. Why not go for broke and cast a vampire? Barnabas Collins was not just a vampire. He was a tortured soul, a man tormented by his past. He was a man who had eternal life, but really, no life at all. The ploy worked, and worked beyond the dreams of probably anybody who was associated with the program. Frid, who was only supposed to be on the show for a few weeks in this story arc, ended up staying for the remainder of the series' run. "Dark Shadows" became one of the hottest shows on the schedule, and the five-day-a-week program became the first soap opera to have a substantial audience of kids. Playing upon the success of the Barnabas Collins character, the show subsequently featured werewolves, time travel, witches ... you name it, and the show had it. Frid was so hot that he was featured in the same magazines as teen stars half his age, like Davy Jones and Mark Lindsay, in the pages of Tiger Beat and magazines of that ilk. He became a cultural phenomenon, and the show seemed to have endless potential. But Frid was kind of tortured himself. He looked upon himself as a Shakespearean actor, not a pop culture soap opera star, and he tired of the Barnabas role. Some alterations were made in his schedule--you can see David Selby's Quentin Collins becoming the star of the show in its later years--but Frid nonetheless wanted to move on. In 1971, Frid turned down a five-year contract to continue the role, and without Barnabas, ABC cancelled the once-hot show. But it has lived on as a cult item for the past 40 years, being one of the few soap operas to have every one of its shows (less one) completely intact. The show has turned up on VHS, and later, DVD. A boxed set of the entire 2,500-plus shows is soon to be released, and a new movie, with Johnny Depp, comes out in a few weeks. Frid pretty much did what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, doing Shakespearean roles, and it is only in the last few years that he came to terms with the Barnabas character. He appeared at a couple of "Dark Shadows" conventions, and was to appear at the latest one in July. It is ironic that he died just when his star might have been rising again. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas in the new movie, and had a reverence for both the character and Frid that culminates in the movie role. Too bad Frid couldn't bask in the glory one more time. He is in the film in a cameo role with three of his former co-stars, so his legacy is pretty much cemented with the film. But looking back 40 years, "Dark Shadows" was really the gas, it really was. And Barnabas was its engine. R.I.P. Jonathan Frid. The vampire is dead, but will never be forgotten. (And no, I don't like this new layout Google has given us, with no separation of paragraphs. I don't know how to fix it, but I am working on it.)

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