UPDATE: Jonathan Frid died on Friday the 13th of April at age 87
Very, very soon now the world will be awash with pictures of Johnny Depp as 250-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins in director Tim Burton’s soon-to-be-released movie version of the Gothic 1960s TV soap opera Dark Shadows.
Johnny Depp is a great star, a fine actor and, by all accounts, a wonderful human being.
But he is no Barnabas Collins.
There is only one Barnabas Collins — and he is a proud Canadian living just down the QEW from Toronto.
Hamilton-born Jonathan Frid was an established stage actor living in New York City when his agent called with a 13-week gig playing a vampire on an ABC afternoon soap opera. That was in early 1967 and Frid was planning a career move to Los Angeles, so he decided to take the short-term TV job to pay his moving expenses.
The vampire Barnabas Collins first appeared on Dark Shadows in Episode 211, aired April 18, 1967, and was an immediate hit. Barnabas quickly became the star attraction of the show and the 13-week guest shot — designed to inject a little afterlife adrenaline into the domestic psychodrama’s sagging ratings — lasted until the serial was foolishly cancelled by ABC in 1971.
I must confess I was not a fan of Dark Shadows, never even saw more than a few minutes of a single telecast. But even I was aware in the late 1960s of who Barnabas Collins was and had the iconic image of Jonathan Frid as one of the vampire greats etched in my brain along with Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.
Needless to say, Jonathan Frid didn’t make that move to Los Angeles (at least during the run of Dark Shadows in the 1960s). And henceforth his acting career was irrevocably linked to the role of Barnabas Collins — a vampire curse in its own way.
Frid embraced the role — sank his teeth into it, you might say — but his vampire fame narrowed the range of roles he was now being offered, much like the carryover effect fellow Canadian William Shatner experienced from his Star Trek exposure.
After Dark Shadows’ unnatural death in 1971, Frid dropped out for a while, then returned to acting — sticking primarily to his first love, live theatre, but also appearing on television and in films. In the 1980s and early ’90s, he developed a series of one-man performances and dramatic readings that he toured throughout North America.
And, yes, he began appearing at fan conventions that were springing up during the same period.
In the mid-1990s, about the time he was turning 70, Jonathan Frid decided to cut back on his workload and semi-retired to Ancaster, just outside Hamilton, the city of his birth.
Jonathan Frid in 2001
Now 87, Frid is still active and engaged and even has a small cameo in the upcoming Dark Shadows movie. He is beset by the usual inconvenient frailties of age, of course, and had to move from his Ancaster house to a condo after an accident last year — but he soldiers on (perhaps that should be “sailors on” since he was a young seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II), supported by an enthusiastic network of family and friends.
Jonathan Frid in 2011
He has a great website — www.jonathanfrid.com, of course — in which he shares his memories and current activities with fans. You can even order a signed Jonathan Frid 2012 Dark Shadows calendar (or, better yet, a signed Jonathan Frid/Barnabas Collins Halloween card) on the website.
From Jonathan Frid’s website, a photo of Frid in an early 1950s CBC TV production of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
The website’s not a commercial front — it’s the real deal, built and managed by Frid himself and a couple of close friends and relatives. It’s Jonathan Frid’s current window on the world and he’s a welcoming host to the many fans and curious Internet surfers who knock on his website’s door.
So enjoy the Johnny Depp version of Dark Shadows’ resident vampire but always remember the REAL Barnabas Collins is a Canadian making his home just outside Hamilton.
When it hits theatres May 11, Dark Shadows should do brisk business and garner the standard crop of laudatory reviews from the usual suspects (“A rip-snortin’, roll-in-the-aisle fright fest” — Jeffrey Lyons … “Coyly elegiac” — Pete Travers … “Goosebumps galore” — New York Post … “Subversively sinister” — New York Times … “Haunting” —Newsweek … “I wouldn’t mind sinking MY teeth into Johnny Depp” — Lisa Kennedy).
From what little advance PR has been released so far, director Tim Burton seems to be sticking fairly faithfully to the sinister, claustrophobic (dare we say crypt-like?) look and atmosphere of the original serial. And Johnny Depp will reach into his bag of twitchy tricks to come up with a kooky, sensual performance.
Depp has said he was a childhood fan of the TV soap — wanted to be Barnabas, in fact — and has tried to stay true to Frid’s interpretation of the conflicted and dangerous vampire. But there is just no way he will be able to bring the same menacing gravitis and tortured ambivalence (sometimes simply the result of forgetting his lines in a hectic daily production schedule) that Frid brought to the role between 1967 and 1971.
But the few photos that have so far been released from the Burton-Depp production are worth a look.
And while we’re at it, here’s a look at another offbeat Johnny Depp role currently in the pipeline. Depp is playing Tonto (the spirit warrior with the dead raven on his head) in The Lone Ranger, coming to a theatre near you in May 2013.