On Saturday, April 14, the man who inaugurated the role of Barnabas Collins died quietly in a hospital in Ontario, where he’d moved to be closer to his family. Jonathan Frid (born John Herbert Frid) had reached his 87th year. His passing took place a few days before the forty-sixth anniversary of his debut on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Almost exactly one month before the opening of his last motion picture performance, a cameo in the Tim Burton film version of Dark Shadows, starring a boy who adored watching Frid as a child. That boy, Johnny Depp, now got to portray his favorite character and even meet his idol.
Somehow it seems right that Frid passed the day after Friday the 13th. I met the man about a dozen times and he came across as someone who might have enjoyed that detail.
Before becoming famous, Frid was a working actor in the 1950s and 60s. Before that he was a sailor in Canada’s navy during WWII. He attended the Yale School of Drama with Paul Newman. On his website you can read the tale of how he got the job which made him famous, literally stepping into his apartment barely in time to answer a phone call from his agent. He’d been planning to go to California to find work as an acting teacher. Barnabas was supposed to be a boogeyman for several weeks then end up destroyed. That’s what series creator Dan Curtis had in mind. It was also what he eventually filmed in the 1970 cinematic spinoff House of Dark Shadows (also starring Frid). But the writers and actors saw the character more like Hamlet. Audiences agreed, and ratings soared.
Many people noted Frid’s shyness, his self-consciousness. At DS Festivals in recent years he could and would still go over his performances four decades back and analyze them, dissect them, point out little flaws almost no one else noticed. On talk shows and the like in the 1960s he found himself lauded in a way Ian Somerholder might recognize. His Barnabas was not the first vampire on television, but he was the first reluctant one. Barnabas loathed his undead state, longed to escape it. Interestingly, in a magazine years later he said what was most horrible about being a vampire was neither the lack of sunlight nor the bloodlust. He said keeping a secret wore away at a person, having to be eternally on one’s guard.
Following the end of the show, he made one more movie (The Devil’s Daughter with Shelley Winter) and seemed to vanish. His fellow cast members went on to appear in many other shows. Lara Parker (Angelique) appeared on many television programs. David Selby (Quentin) eventually starred in one of a popular nighttime soap, Falcon Crest. Kate Jackson (Daphne) was one of Charlie’s Angels and one of two stars of The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. John Karlen (Willie) went on to star in Cagney and Lacey.
But where was Jonathan Frid? Turned out he’d gone back to where he wanted to be. Live theatre. In England. Years later, after moving back to New York, he did a series of one man shows and one of these recounted some of those days when he altered the spelling of his last name to “Fridd.” Simply put, people kept mispronouncing it. Usually as FREED. But he had to change it back when he met some of his dad’s friends in Kent and they told on him.
Classically trained, soon after that (this was the 1980s) he appeared as Jonathan in the role made famous by Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. Eventually I got the chance to tell him how much his performance entertained me. He (typically) insisted he didn’t really get a handle on that part until the last part of the tour. Other plays in his repertoire included The Tempest, Murder in the Cathedral and Mass Appeal as well as Dial M For Murder. I regard it as a shame so few fans of his from television got to see any of those performances. He really had an amazing presence on stage, and a voice that could reach the rafter and sometimes into your soul.
Most recently, even though he’d retired, Frid came to many of the Dark Shadows Festivals held each year (alternating between the west and east coasts). He answered questions, told stories, did his one man shows and was generally a gracious, entertaining figure who quietly accepted the adulation akin to what Robert Pattinson gets these days. When the Burton film began production, he joined several surviving members of the original cast (including Kathryn Leigh Scott and Selby, pictured with Alice Cooper to the right) in cameos for the film.
Scott and others reported that Depp treated Frid almost like visiting royalty. “Without him,” said Depp, “we wouldn’t be here.”
Lots of fans would agree. Mr. Frid was a confirmed bachelor with no children. At his request, there will be no funeral and no memorial service. Contributions in his name would be very welcome to the charity of your choice or to Hillfield-Strathallan College where Frid attended.