April 23, 2012

Jonathan Frid: A Remembrance

Via SonTon56 on Flickr
I know I've written this twice before, but it's well worth reiterating: the closest that American television has come to a show like Doctor Who has been Dark Shadows.

And last week, Jonathan Frid - who played a reluctant vampire long before there was a Twilight - passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Getting into classic Dark Shadows can be a challenge for newer fans - because it's a soap opera, the pacing is glacial; because it was televised in the early 70s, it sometimes shows the challenge of balancing ambitious ideas against the realities of low budgets. But when it fired....it fired on all cylinders, especially because of Frid, one of the more unlikely of leading men.

It's easy, in our media-saturated culture, to forget how unlikely it would be for an actor like Frid (middle aged, mostly known only for his theatrical work) to become a "pop culture phenomenon". But there were two things about Frid that were remarkable, and that make Dark Shadows worth checking out.

First, although his character was a "reluctant vampire", Frid gave Barnabas a cruel sense of humanity. Even when seeking a cure for his "affliction" - in fact, even at times when he was "human" - Frid's Barnabas was still an unpleasant guy. Given the character's backstory (essentially, being cursed for rejecting a witch to meet more socially acceptable mores in choosing a bride), you could see why Barnabas might have "deserved" to be a vampire. Rather than playing a straightforward hero, Frid provided Barnabas Collins with some slightly darker shadings...making the character much more compelling.

(Don't believe, but want to check out a less intensive experience? Try his appearance in Big Finish's Night Whispers. Although his voice is slightly hoarse with age, his Barnabas still has the power to chill and enthrall).

But the other trait? An endearing sense of modesty and humility - this is an actor who, at the height of the Vietnam War, answered a politically-charged question with the admission that he had played conspirators for so long, his only political allegience was to the House of York. There was a nice, down-to-earth quality to Frid that seemed to be unearthly...but somehow, refreshingly human.

But maybe a personal story might help: it's 1991, and I'm in LA for the Dark Shadows convention - my first transcontinental trip, my first convention, and four years before I met my St. Louis pal Craig (and four years before he and his wife "chaperoned" an outing I went on with a mutual friend....but that's another story).

I'm in an autograph line to get Frid's signature on a program - this is, if memory serves, the last year he would appear before taking a break. I'm already swooning over Lara Parker, so this is...well, a little scary. We're told he won't add personalized messages (fair enough), and that we need to keep the line moving.

As I approach Frid, having had several other actors sign the program, I stammer out, "Thanks for coming!"

He winks at me, smiles, signs his program, and extends his hand....which I then shake, much to the chagrin of the con workers. Two things strike me in retrospect:

One, Mr. Frid had large, powerful hands - there was a good reason why they had him wrap them around people's necks on the show.

The other - Jonathan Frid was a class act. And he'll be missed.

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