Thursday, April 19, 2012

Our Little Life Is Rounded With a Sleep

R.I.P. Jonathan Frid

I so fondly recall being at my grandparents' house in Georgia back in 1966, on the day the first episode of Dark Shadows aired, and finding myself enamored with the show's eerie atmosphere and its characters, who made me feel as if I knew them right from the get-go. I watched the first few episodes, and then it was time to go back home to Virginia. But phooey! The wretched local ABC affiliate didn't carry Dark Shadows! To watch the show in Martinsville, you had to have cable, and in those days, that was a pretty rare thing. I did, however, know a couple of kids whose families had sprung for this modern technology thing, and so, as often as possible, I'd invite myself over to their places so we could watch us some Dark Shadows. It was frustrating to be able to view it only sporadically, but it also heightened the excitement, enhanced the show's already powerful, alluring mystique. It was, to this young horror-writer-to-be, absolutely magical.

Then one day there was a big snowstorm, and we got out of school early. My mom wasn't home to pick me up, so I went home with my friend Frank, and I got permission to stay over for the night. Well, that afternoon, we sat down to watch Dark Shadows, and...lo and behold...there he was: Barnabas Collins, vampire. I had heard about him, seen photographs of him, but lord, I'd never actually witnessed him in action, and now here he was...with fangs and everything! That night I lay awake in an unfamiliar room, in total darkness, for I don't know how many hours, unable to go to sleep—both from petrifying fear and pure jubilation. It was one long night, for sure, but in its way quite wonderful.

What a memorable introduction to Jonathan Frid.

A couple of years later, my folks finally sprang for cable, and I could watch Dark Shadows every afternoon in my very own house. I swear I lived and breathed Dark Shadows. Many evenings, I'd look out the window at sunset and imagine seeing Barnabas Collins standing in the shadows, watching me. I was terrified of him, yet at the same time, I sensed a certain kindness in him, and I figured if I actually did encounter him, I might not end up dead.

If you're here, you're no doubt aware that Jonathan Frid passed away a few days ago, of natural causes, in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. He was 87 years old and in visibly failing health. I understand he dreaded a long, lingering demise, as his mother had suffered, and, mercifully, he simply went to sleep and did not wake up again. His last film appearance will be in the new Tim Burton Dark Shadows film, and while I have my doubts that this movie is going to be anything other than a bomb, I actually do look forward to seeing it, as much as anything to watch Jonathan and the other original series cast members—David Selby, Lara Parker, and Kathryn Leigh Scott—in cameo roles. I recently picked up Pomegranate Press's Return to Collinwood (which I'll soon be reviewing), and it features blow-by-blow chronicles by Lara and Kathryn of their experiences in England as they went forth to appear the film. I could tell from their accounts that Jonathan was faltering, both physically and mentally, and it actually proved painful for me to imagine the rigors of his last journey into the world of Dark Shadows.

I did have the pleasure of meeting Jonathan numerous times over the years. The first was at a convention in Atlanta, GA, back in the late 80s or early 90s, where he performed his one-man dramatic act titled Fools and Fiends. In it, he regaled the audience with numerous personal anecdotes and read stories by Shakespeare, Ambrose Bierce, and Stephen King. A true Shakespearean actor, he was always most at home on the stage. He was the first and last human being for whom I've ever stood in an autograph line. That first time, to him, I'm sure I was just another gushing fan, but he very graciously accepted the copy of Deathrealm I offered him and asked if it contained my contact information in case he read something in it he wanted to perform. I knew the likelihood of such an event, of course, but just his asking about sent me over into fanboy heaven. One year, he was appearing in Salem, VA. My wife had just had major surgery, but that wasn't sufficient to stop me taking my daughter and hitting the road to go see him. I was relieved—as I'm sure she was—to come back and find she wasn't dead but at least she didn't begrudge us the experience. The following year, she was able to meet him herself when he came to High Point, NC.

In later years, by the time I actually became involved as a writer in the Dark Shadows franchise, he had retired (and alas, he never did perform any works out of Deathrealm). I so vividly remember writing my first scene with Barnabas in Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (HarperCollins, 1999), which I co-wrote with Elizabeth Massie, and suddenly feeling overcome by the same excitement as when I was watching Dark Shadows as a ten-year-old. I pulled an all-nighter and then some to get that chapter done. I'm pretty certain that was my all-time favorite writing experience.

I can't claim to have known Jonathan Frid closely, certainly not to the extent that many of my own acquaintances in the very sizable Dark Shadows community have. Still, I did have those opportunities to see him as him, not just as a character, for which I feel most grateful. I do know he had very high personal and professional standards, sometimes to the point of being what many might perceive as just persnickety. In later years, he enjoyed referring to himself as an old curmudgeon. That's as maybe. In him, I also saw a very warm and witty man who did his best to live life on his own terms.

While most people, myself included, will always see Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, I will also remember him as a man of many talents, an actor sometimes frustrated with having been defined a by role he played for less than five years, and a true gentleman. I know there are many whose lives were changed by him, even if as a dark and tormented character in a television melodrama.

Mine was certainly changed and I believe made richer by the fact he lived and performed.


James Robert Smith said...

He certainly brought a lot of fun and pleasure to a whole lot of people in his lifetime.

Linda Dachtyl said...

Very nice blog on Jonathan. I met him 3 times during his Readers Theater tours.

I also really enjoyed your book. Hopefully, you will write some more of these.

Unknown said...