Read an Excerpt
Barnabas & CompanyTHE CAST OF THE TV CLASSIC Dark Shadows
By Craig Hamrick R.J. Jamison
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Craig Hamrick and R.J. Jamison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe History of Dark Shadows
"Dark Shadows has remained popular because of a unique combination of story and chemistry among actors. I think that's the only valid explanation after all these years. It's just some sort of divine combination." —Kathryn Leigh Scott
In 1965, a young TV executive named Dan Curtis had a nightmare that changed his life—and altered the destinies of countless others. Curtis was an Emmy -winning producer of CBS Golf Classics, and he was more than a little bored in that job. One night he dreamt of a mysterious young woman on a train.
"I saw a girl with long, dark hair," he told 16 magazine in March 1970. "She was about 19, and she was on a train that stopped in the dark, isolated town. She got off the train and started walking and walking. Finally, she came to a huge, forbidding house. She turned and slowly walked up the long path towards the house. At the door, she lifted a huge brass knocker and gently tapped it three times. I heard a dog howl, and then—just as the door creaked open—I woke up!"
The next morning at the breakfast table, the producer told his wife, Norma, about his eerie dream. She thought it sounded like a great plot for a new TV show. Soon Dan pitched it to ABC, and network officials agreed with Norma.
Curtis hired Art Wallace to develop a story from the fragment he'd dreamed, the show's original working structure entitled Shadows on the Wall. Robert Costello joined as Line Producer, Curtis' title was Creator and Executive Producer, and Lela Swift, one of the few female directors in the industry, agreed to take the helm of the new soap opera. Robert Cobert composed atmospheric theme music, and Sy Tomashoff set out to design Collinwood, the dreary mansion where the action would take place. With his dream team in place, Curtis had to find the people who would populate the town of Collinsport.
Alexandra Moltke, a 19-year-old actress with a handful of stage credits and an aristocratic lineage, was cast as Victoria Winters, the orphaned governess who finds herself working for the Collins family and searching for clues about her mysterious past. Movie star Joan Bennett was tapped to play Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Victoria's stern employer. Elizabeth's arrogant, hard-drinking brother, Roger, was played by Louis Edmonds, a Louisiana native who had spent the previous twenty years acting on and Off-Broadway in New York. Stage actress Nancy Barrett was cast as Elizabeth's daughter, Carolyn, and child actor David Henesy played Victoria's charge, Roger's son, David Collins.
The first episode, beginning with Victoria on Curtis' dreamed-about train, was taped June 13, 1966, and it aired two weeks later, on June 27. To enhance the Gothic tone, the show was introduced by Alexandra Moltke telling the audience, "My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning...."
Variety reviewed the first installment of Dark Shadows in its June 29, 1966, issue: "Writer Art Wallace took so much time getting into his story that the first episode of this neo Gothic soaper added up to one big contemporary yawn."
The reviewer would have preferred to see more of legendary Joan Bennett and less of relative-unknown Alexandra Moltke, who "did okay in her ambiguous part." Variety did praise producer Robert Costello and director Lela Swift for creating a dark and somber mood. But critics and fans were fairly unanimous: There wasn't much happening on this new show. Ratings were bleak.
Monsters and Witches in the Family
Dark Shadows is best remembered as a supernatural thriller, filled with vampires, zombies, werewolves, and mad scientists. But in the beginning, the scariest thing on the screen was the tacky blonde wig Kathryn Leigh Scott was forced to don for her first few outings as waitress Maggie Evans. As Victoria poked around Collinwood's dusty deserted west wing, trying to figure out if she was a long-lost Collins, there were occasional supernatural undertones. Young David Collins claimed to see ghosts all over the place, and in the 70th episode, which aired September 30, 1966, viewers saw a specter emerge from the portrait of long-dead Josette Collins, then dance around the grounds of the great estate. Dark Shadows was finally heading where no soap opera had strayed before. The ratings, though still anemic, were goosed a bit by the unusual story.
In December, almost six months into the show's run, Diana Millay was cast as Laura Collins, Roger's wayward wife, who turned out to be a real monster. There was no more hinting about the supernatural—the writers showed Laura using magic to make trouble for her family members. The character's evil deeds caused the ratings to climb a bit, but Diana was pregnant, so her stay on the show had to be short, and Laura was destroyed. Wanting to continue to ride the increasing ratings and advertising support, Curtis decided to go for broke when, in April 1967, a vampire named Barnabas Collins showed up at the front door of Collinwood and changed the face of daytime programming forever.
Canadian stage actor Jonathan Frid was an unlikely choice as a soap opera leading man. He had almost no previous television experience, though he was a British and American-trained Shakespearean actor with a long list of stage credits. And while he was attractive in an offbeat way, the over forty actor didn't have the typical "pretty boy" features of most soap stars. Actually, Dan Curtis didn't plan for Barnabas to stick around long enough for any of that to matter. With any luck, the producer hoped, the presence of a vampire would draw some attention, and in a few weeks he could be staked so things could move on, as they would on a "normal" soap opera. In his wildest dreams, Dan had no idea just how much attention Barnabas would attract. Because he was so new to the working conditions on a TV soundstage, Jonathan was uneasy about acting on the daily Dark Shadows.
Jonathan's on-camera unease—which never totally evaporated—gave Barnabas a sympathetic edge. Jonathan was uncertain of his lines and where he should be standing on the set, so Barnabas seemed to wish he didn't have to skulk around Collinwood drinking blood. With his Shakespearian experience, Jonathan also gave Barnabas a sophisticated bearing that was fitting for a nobleman from another century. And by emphasizing the vampire's revulsion at his own compulsions, Jonathan added a layer to the character that had never been seen in a vampire story.
Every "Dracula" needs his "Van Helsing," so Oscar -nominated Grayson Hall was brought on to the show in June 1967, as Julia Hoffman, a doctor whose mission was supposed to be the vampire's destruction. Instead, as her story developed, Julia fell in love with an oblivious Barnabas, providing an unexpected twist. In her memoirs, Marie Wallace remembers both Frid and Hall as having the "highest cheekbones I'd ever seen, and the hollow below their cheekbones was so deep, it added to their most unusual looks." The high cheek-boned, rail-thin 44-year old Grayson was a far cry from the dewy blonde twenty-something heroines that housewives had been rooting for on soaps for decades—and the Barnabas/Julia "romance" was anything but normal. But fans responded.
"Like all the actors on the show, Grayson was directed to play her lines to the hilt—as if she was on stage instead of just a few feet from the camera. This led to a heightened sense of reality, and at times it added a camp element to the portrayals. Grayson commented on this, years later, when a Soap Opera Digest reporter asked in May 1977 if she had taken her parts seriously. "Absolutely seriously," she replied. "You cannot do it camp. When we read the script through for the first time, we would indeed laugh. But after that, we would buckle down and go to work and be serious. There's no choice. In acting, you can't act if you are camping. If you're joking around, you are not acting. You have to take it seriously, because that is the only way it would be valid.
"Yes, I was a ridiculous doctor," she continued. "I killed people to protect a vampire. I changed his blood, and Barnabas was cured for a while. Oh, the things I did for that man! I also created a man who wanted a wife with the same background, so I made a wife. I think all this is funny to talk about now, but when I did it I was actually serious and believed every minute of it. Barnabas was a very serious vampire. He was an unhappy vampire—'Stop me before I kill.' That was part of why it was fascinating. I think if you were a happy vampire ... you couldn't sustain it for years. That's why it was an interesting choice to make Barnabas an unhappy vampire."
The melancholy vampire storyline was enormously popular. Ratings climbed. The actors were deluged with fan mail, and as they left the studio each day they were mobbed by kids seeking pictures and autographs. Dark Shadows' cancellation, Dr. Hoffman's death, and Barnabas' staking were postponed, and Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall both became permanent members of the cast. Teenage fans began gathering outside the studio to catch the actors on the way to their apartments. Other admirers of the show included former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis, and future larger than life personalities including Oprah Winfrey, horror author Stephen King, Madonna, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman who sent a "fan" letter to the show, a Hell's Kitchen neighborhood girl named Caren Johnson (a.k.a. Whoopi Goldberg), a ten-year old future film director, Tim Burton, his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer.
When the time came to explain how Barnabas had evolved into a bloodsucker, the DS writers moved the storyline to the past. During a séance, Victoria Winters was drawn back to 1795, where she met the pre- vampire Barnabas. The storyline lasted for five months and gave the cast members an opportunity to play other roles—their present-day characters' ancestors, like members of a repertory acting company. Fans accepted this wholeheartedly, preferring to see their favorite actors instead of a whole new cast. This set another unusual standard for the soap opera, and throughout the rest of the show's run, most of the primary cast members played a variety of parts, in various time periods, and even in an alternate universe, where characters' circumstances were different than those in "present time" because of different life choices.
During the 1795 flashback, Lara Parker joined the ensemble as Angelique, the scorned witch who cursed Barnabas with vampirism. "I was just a young, naive actress who wanted to play the lead," Lara later told People magazine. "I had to be the princess. I wanted to cry when things went wrong. They kept pulling me aside and saying, 'Honey, you're the heavy. Don't cry. Think vicious.'"
Lara's evil-flavored performance added to the show's supernatural tone, and she became a fan favorite. Angelique returned from the past shortly after Victoria did, and the immensely popular actress remained on the show for the remainder of its run.
In response to the frenzy of public interest drummed up by his performance, Jonathan Frid found himself appearing in almost every episode of Dark Shadows for a while. This, coupled with promotional appearances, started taking its toll on the actor.
"It's a difficult show," Jonathan said to The New York Times. "They're like nighttime specials we do every day. When you think about it, it's really rather like doing stock—five new half-hours each week—a full-length play performed. Mainly, you know, it moves. That's the essence of the show—tunnels, secret doors, running around—the most elaborate daytime show going."
In July 1968, he told TV Guide about the hectic pace of his life. "I'm so busy, I haven't time to pick up my laundry," he said. "I find myself wearing bathing suits for underwear."
Besides losing his free time, Jonathan had to give up a great deal of his treasured privacy. He was subjected to numerous interviews and photo shoots. For a feature in Flip magazine, he even had to put up with a photographer looking over his shoulder while he lathered up his face and shaved. In 1970, the then 46-year-old Frid told Women's Wear Daily, "I always feel like an ass being a teenage idol in a teeny-bopper magazine."
Jonathan told the New York Times that he changed his vacation plans in order to find some anonymity: "I went to Mexico rather than Hawaii when I realized that our show is on prime time in the islands."
In costume as Barnabas, Jonathan Frid made personal appearances everywhere from the White House to the clown-hosted TV show Bozo's Bigtop. He was whisked across the country in a private jet, to be mobbed by dangerously huge crowds at shopping malls and car shows.
Newsweek called Frid "the most illustrious creature of the night since Bela Lugosi." In the same 1970 article, John Carroll, an editor at Rolling Stone magazine, was identified as a big Dark Shadows fan. He called the show incredibly bad. "That's why it's so good," he said. "It has no redeeming social value."
It's understandable that Jonathan needed a vacation. Life on the set was stressful. But by all accounts, it was also a fun, family-like environment.
After leaving Dark Shadows, Nancy Barrett worked on other soap operas, including The Doctors and One Life to Live, but she said the relationship between the cast members of Dark Shadows was unique in her experience.
"I thought at the time it was very close," she said years later. "One of the reasons for that must have to do with how the show was produced as opposed to the way shows are produced today. We literally spent the entire day together," Nancy said. "It wasn't that you rehearsed and did your scene and then you were gone."
Excerpted from Barnabas & Company by Craig Hamrick R.J. Jamison Copyright © 2012 by Craig Hamrick and R.J. Jamison. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.