The news of the death of actor Jonathan Frid, the star of the television cult hit, “Dark Shadows,” is quite saddening. It is also ironic that the end came for Mr. Frid with one last moment in the spotlight, a cameo in the upcoming Tim Burton movie, acknowledging his work as Barnabas Collins. As a Shakespearean trained actor, with a Masters in Directing from Yale, Mr. Frid easily dominated every fiber of the gothic soap opera that made his name. There is little doubt that Mr. Frid did not have his sights set on becoming a daytime TV fixture and then have that role haunt him for the rest of his life. However, he clearly made the most of it. I recently had the chance to view his early appearances, as well as others through the show’s run from 1967 to 1971, and he clearly lights up the screen.
“Dark Shadows” was already 200 episodes in, and had yet to click with viewers, when Mr. Frid made his first appearance and took the show to new heights. To the show’s credit, and Mr. Frid’s, it never feels like he’s an actor performing in a vacuum. He embraces the show and the show embraces him. From his first hesitant gestures, refined mannerisms, he charms and intrigues the viewer. He appears gentle and yet sinister as well.
Barnabas Collins is the strange and mysterious long lost relative who has come back, quite unexpectedly, to reclaim his rightful place among the family estate, Collinwood. His arrival is very understated. He wishes to not be a bother however he remains firm on his demands. He will live in “the old house,” the decrepit remains of the original family home. No one questions his wishes. If anyone should live there, it should be him. Mr. Frid does a wonderful job of appearing demure and threatening, almost at the same time. In an early episode that finds Barnabas Collins chatting with a waitress in a diner, he presents himself as a sweet and overly polite misfit. He lets the waitress know about his beloved possession, an antique cane with a gold and silver handle and promptly leaves it behind forcing the girl to seek him out. She ventures to the old mansion with her boyfriend. Barnabas is again quite apologetic and a bit bumbling until he finds out she brought her boyfriend along! His demeanor turns dark but she doesn’t notice. Then, much later, once she’s home, she is terrified by an overwhelming feeling that someone is watching her. We cut to a close up of Barnabas intently staring out into the distance. It’s a lovely episode, a perfect example of a clash between low and high art that results in something unique.
In many ways, the most interesting thing about “Dark Shadows” is how a highly trained actor like Mr. Frid navigates his way through what is essentially a low rent, conventional and lackluster program. As if by magic, it somehow works. It reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s role in “Tootsie” as a down and out talented actor who, out of desperation, pretends to be a woman and becomes a hit on a soap opera. His acting chops are superior to his castmates and, while he was initially only looking for a job, his skill and passion for his profession make it impossible for him to not give it his all. It’s too bad that Mr. Frid could not have had a role in such a movie. But, in a sense, he did.