Jonathan Frid, Ghoulish ‘Dark Shadows’ Star, Is Dead at 87
Jonathan Frid, a Shakespearean actor who found unexpected — and by his own account unwanted — celebrity as the vampire Barnabas Collins on the sanguinary soap opera “Dark Shadows,” died last Friday, April 13, in Hamilton, Ontario. He was 87.
He died from complications of a fall, said Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played several characters on the show. Mr. Frid, who lived in Ancaster, Ontario, leaves no immediate survivors.
Mr. Frid, along with several castmates, makes a cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s feature film “Dark Shadows,” to be released on May 11. Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas.
Though the befanged Mr. Frid was the acknowledged public face of “Dark Shadows” — his likeness was on comic books, board games, trading cards and many other artifacts — Barnabas did not make his first appearance until more than 200 episodes into the run. The character was conceived as a short-term addition to the cast, and early on the threat of the stake loomed large.
Broadcast on weekday afternoons on ABC, “Dark Shadows” began in 1966 as a conventional soap opera (with Gothic overtones), centering on the Collins family and their creaky manse in Maine.
The next year, with ratings slipping, the show’s executive producer, Dan Curtis, chose to inject an element of the supernatural. Enter Barnabas, a brooding, lovelorn, eternally 175-year-old representative of the undead. Today TV vampires are legion, but such a character was an unusual contrivance then.
The ratings shot up, and not only among the traditional soap-opera demographic of stay-at-home women. With its breathtakingly low-rent production values and equally breathtakingly purple dialogue, “Dark Shadows” induced a generation of high school and college students to cut class to revel in its unintended high camp. The producers shelved the stake.
Swirling cape, haunted eyes and fierce eyebrows notwithstanding, Barnabas, as portrayed by Mr. Frid, was no regulation-issue vampire. An 18th-century man — he had been entombed in the Collins family crypt — he struggled to comes to terms with the 20th-century world.
He was a vulnerable vampire, who pined for his lost love, Josette. (She had leaped to her death in 1795.) He was racked with guilt over his thirst for blood, and Mr. Frid played him as a man in the grip of a compulsion he devoutly wished to shake.
Mr. Frid starred in almost 600 episodes, from April 18, 1967, to April 2, 1971, when the show went off the air. (It remains perennially undead on DVD.)
Mr. Frid received nearly 6,000 fan letters a week. “I wish you’d bite ME on the neck,” read one, from a woman in Illinois.
Others contained snapshots of the letter-writers’ necks — and everything on down — laid bare.
All this, Mr. Frid said in 1968, was exquisitely ironic in that “the other vampires we’ve had on the show were much more voluptuous biters than I am.”
It was also an exquisitely unimagined career path for a stage actor trained at the Yale School of Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Mr. Frid, as he made plain in interviews, was as conflicted about his calling as Barnabas was about his own.
The son of a prosperous construction executive, John Herbert Frid was born in Hamilton on Dec. 2, 1924; he changed his given name to Jonathan early in his stage career.
After service in the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II, Mr. Frid received a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University in Hamilton; he later moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy and appeared in repertory theater. In 1957, he earned a master’s degree in directing from Yale.
Mr. Frid spent his early career acting in North American regional theater, appearing at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. On Broadway, he played Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, in “Henry IV, Part 2” in 1960.