Jonathan Frid, the Canadian actor who first portrayed the remorseful vampire Barnabas Collins in the 1960s and 1970s in the cult classic soap opera Dark Shadows died earlier this week at the age of 87. Johnny Depp is set to step into the period shoes of the bloodsucker in Tim Burton’s feature film version of the show, opening May 11.
A publicist working with Frid to promote the release of Dark Shadows: The Complete Series on DVD confirmed his death.
Born in Ontario, Canada in 1924, Frid served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II before studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and then emigrating to the United States, where he obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1957. Originally intended to appear in a short story arc on Dark Shadows for just three or four weeks, Frid’s Barnabas ended up reinvigorating the struggling soap and propelled it into a cultural phenomenon, while the character of Barnabas Collins became so popular that Frid remained entrenched on the show until its cancelation in 1971.
Frid, who would go on to perform in countless one-man shows of his own creation—such as Jonathan Frid’s Fridiculousness and Jonathan Frid’s Fools and Fiends—and numerous Shakespearean plays, brought a tenderness and deeply conflicted nature to the role of vampire Barnabas Collins, which became a mainstay on the ABC soap which ran between 1966 and 1971. An unconventional romantic lead, Frid’s depiction of Barnabas Collins as both a man out of time and in the throes of an existential crisis due to the nature of his affliction would become influential on popular culture, transforming vampires from thoughtless creatures into tragic entities constantly at war with their own humanity. Barnabas’s storylines often involved his quest to reclaim his lost love, Josette, whom he believed to have been reincarnated into the present day, after he is released from his centuries-long slumber in the family crypt.
At the height of the show’s popularity, Frid was receiving upwards of 5000 fan letters a week. Due to Frid’s popularity and the public’s seeming insatiable appetite for the supernatural trappings of the show, Dark Shadows—created by Dan Curtis and set in the fictional fishing town of Collinsport, Maine—spawned two feature films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, a 1991 revival series that aired as a nighttime soap on NBC, a 2004 television pilot for The WB network, and now Burton’s feature film, which will feature a cameo from Frid and other original Dark Shadows cast members, including Lara Parker, David Selby, and Kathryn Leigh Scott.
Leigh Scott posted a message on her website following the news. “I am so grateful to have worked with Jonathan, and to have known him as the charismatic, entertaining, complex and plain spoken man that he was.
“What fun we had working together! He was irascible, irreverent, funny, caring, lovable and thoroughly professional, and in the end became the whole reason why kids ‘ran home from school to watch’ Dark Shadows.”
Frid himself was not the biggest fan of his work on the afternoon soap, and admitted that he had tried to distance himself from Barnabas Collins, even as he acknowledged that Dark Shadows catapulted him into success. “I thought I was...dreadful,” Frid told one interviewer in 2009. “I tried to fight the vampire for years.”