Barnabas Collins, one of TV’s most iconic vampires, was first brought to un-life by Hamilton’s Jonathan Frid


Published October 27, 2023 at 4:27 pm

Hamilton's Jonathan Frid originated the iconic vampire Barnabas Collins, the first of a new breed of sympathic monsters.

With Halloween on the horizon, we’re looking back at one of TV’s most iconic vampires, the soap opera Dark Shadows‘ break-out character Barnabas Collins. Though several acclaimed actors would take on the role over the years, including longtime fan Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 2012 adaptation, the role was first brought to un-life by Hamilton’s Jonathan Frid.

While Collins would prove Frid’s mainstream breakthrough role, it was far from his first. Frid, born in 1924, discovered a love of drama at Hamilton’s Hillfield private school at age 16 and soon joined the the local Players Guild. After graduation, he briefly attended McMaster University.

However, his studies were interrupted when the then 20-year-old Frid enlisted for the Second World War. He served as a radar technician on a battleship until the war’s end. After this, he returned to McMaster and became president of its drama club. He would graduate with the university’s Honor Society Award for Drama.

Frid continued his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, UK and the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts, three seasons at the Toronto Shakespeare Festival and finally Yale University. He spent some time touring with the American Shakespeare Company, which included Katherine Hepburn, and appeared on Broadway.

TV appearances began in 1960, largely continuing his Shakspearian performances, but his breakout came in 1967 with the debut of Barnabas Collins. The daytime soap opera began 10 months before Frid joined the production. It follows the wealthy Collins family of Collinsport, Maine as they deal with encounters with the supernatural.

However, the show struggled to find an audience in the beginning early episodes lacked any of the more supernatural elements it would soon become known for. It ranked low among daytime soaps coming in 13th in the rating out of the 18 on air at the time. It was a rough year for soaps, many were cancelled by the end of 1966. Dark Shadows was soon the 13th of 13.

In 2019  head writer Sam Hall told Soaps in Depth, “The show was limping along, really limping and ABC said, ‘We’re canceling it. Unless you pick up in 26 weeks, you’re finished.” Hall said creator Dan Curtis has always wanted to make a vampire film, so decided to add one to the show.

In March 1967, Frid got home to his Manhattan apartment to a phone call from his agent. He had a simple assignment for Frid, a 13-week stretch as a vampire on a dying soap opera, Though Frid was already planning to move out west, he decided to audition for the role thinking it might finance his move. Frid soon won the part.

In developing the character, Frid pulled on his Shakespearian roots. He stressed to the writers that when playing villains, he needed to give the character a rich emotional life. This insistence essentially birthed a new form of vampire, the guilt-ridden monster forced to live on the blood of others.

Previously, vampires were largely protrayed as grotesque monsters or infernal seducers. Frid, through Collins, flipped the standard portrayal into a character to symapthize with as well as fear. The tortured vampire has become synonymous with the genre in the years since.

(Side note: Vampire spoofs began as early as the late 1940s and continued well up to Collin’s debut, most recently prior by The Munsters (1964-1966). However, Collins was among the first to play it straight.)

Finally in April 1967, Frid made his debut in episode 211 as Collins was freed from his chained up coffin after 175 years of imprisonment. He was an instant hit. Dark Shadows aired right after school during the week and Collins immediately connected with the teenage audience.

Collins quickly took over the show and became the lead character. Frid scrapped his plans to move out west and the 13-week run stretched out to four years. He became an overnight sensation and appeared on the biggest talkshows of the era. Time wrote in 1968 when Frid made a personal appearance, “he is apt to pull 25,000 people at a time.” He recieved 5,000 fan letters a week at their peek.

“The whole essence of my character is guilt over my hang-up—vampirism—and my bites suffer. I envy the bites of the two other vampires. They are positively erotic.”
– Jonathan Frid on Barnabas Collin’s appeal.

By March 1969, Dark Shadows was ABC’s number one soap. In 1970, it became the first soap opera to get a theatrical film expansion with House of Dark Shadows, featuring Collins’ search for a cure for his vampirism. The film had much more leeway for graphic violence and bloodletting. Parental reaction to the film, coupled with creative missteps on the show led to a quick decline. Dark Shadows was cancelled in April 1971 after 1,225 episodes.

By this time, Frid began to fear he’d be timecast as a vampire or in horror roles, which was quite common at the time. As such he did not reprise his role in a second film spin-off Night of Dark Shadows released in August 1971. After the series cancellation, Frid returned to stage and appearanced in Oliver Stone’s directoral debut Seizure in 1974.

While Frid enjoyed Collins’ range and complexity, he  began to resent the character’s ubiquity in commercials and product placement. He would distance himself from the iconic vampire for nearly a decade. Meanwhile the Dark Shadows fanbase long outlived the show. They started up conventions and shows which Frid began to attend in 1982. In 1994, Frid returned to Hamilton, buying a home in Ancaster at age 70. He continued to make appearances in local productions.

Meanwhile, MGM, which produced the two films, contacted Curtis about resurrecting Dark Shadows in 1991 to mark the 20th anniversary of it’s cancellation. Curtis had refused to bring the show back repeatedly over the years but finally caved.

This 12-episode series retold the overall plot of the original series. British actor Ben Cross, best known for his role in the oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, took over the role of Collins. Despite critical acclaim, the series was quickly cancelled when coverage of Operation Gulf Storm consistantly preempted it. The show was almost revived agan in 2004, but the pilot was not picked up for series.

Curtis died in 2006 and Warner Bros. bought the film rights to Dark Shadows from his estate. When actor Johnny Depp, a longtime fan of Frid and the series, heard this he campaigned heavily for the role of Collins and convinced friend and frequent collaborator Tim Burton to direct.

Filming began in 2011 with Depp intentionally trying to mimic Frid’s “rigidity” and “elegance.” Frid himself, along with other co-stars from the original series, flew to London to film cameos. Depp tol the LA Times, “Frid was the reason I used to run home to watch Dark Shadows. His elegance and grace was an inspiration then and will continue to remain one. When I had the honor to finally meet him…he was elegant and magical as I had always imagined.”

Frid’s appearance in the 2012 Dark Shadows film would prove his last. He died April 14, 2012 after suffering a fall just a month before the film’s premiere. The majority of his estate was donated to the Hamilton Community Foundation.

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