Jonathan Frid Interview


From "Conversations: The Dark Shadows Collectors Guide Interviews" by Craig Hamrick, originally published by Clique Publishing.

ENTIRE CONTENTS COPYRIGHTED BY CRAIG HAMRICK.

A 1991 interview between Craig Hamrick, author of The Dark Shadows Collectors' Guide, and Jonathan Frid, Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins:

 

Craig Hamrick: Do you own any of the memorabilia that was released in connection with Dark Shadows- like the books or games?

Jonathan Frid: No, I'm not a collector really. I had some of it, but it's either disappeared or in a trunk somewhere. I've found after all these years that anything I collect is just something that has to be dusted off every six months. So I decided to get rid of all this dusting work. (He laughs.) So I don't really collect. Sorry to disappoint you there, but I'm not really into it. I have a portrait of me that was done by a fan, oh maybe 10 years ago, and actually it's very good. I have it hanging. But, other than that ... No I don't want to be a Bela Lugosi. I understand that he kind of wallowed in his vampirism.

CH: Oh really?

JF: That was my impression anyway-from what I've read-that he was buried in his cape and all that. No, I like to move on. I'm no different from anyone else. We're all a little nostalgic and we all move on. I don't linger too much. Though I seem to be wallowing in Dark Shadows these days for the simple reason that I have to in order to get audiences for my one-man shows, which is what I'm into nowadays. I'm having the time of my life, however the fans mean a lot to me, because they fill up the spaces wherever I go around the country.

CH: Is the material in your show mostly horror-related, like Dark Shadows?

JF: I know which side my bread is buttered on. People expect that of me, so in my one-man show I do have Poe and I do have King, although I don't necessarily feature them. But they're there and we make it known that they're there. They're not necessarily my favorite pieces, but I don't do them just because I have to. I do enjoy them. They are good pieces, and I had a chance to pick what I want.

Actually, what I'm doing all the time is getting away from (horror) bit by bit. The latest show, called "Fridiculous-ness," is much more of a comedy. The only real sinister, occult thing I do is the end of the Tell Tale Heart. But the rest of it is Groucho Marx, and Jack Finney - humor. I do a story on the genealogy of my name, and it's called "My Fridean Connections." It's a send-up on my reputation. This young lady that works for us sometimes, and does research, she happened to be in the genealogical room of the public library here in New York. She looked up and got some information on my name, which I resented at first. I thought she was getting a little too nosy into my family. However, the things she came up with were hysterical, so we built a whole story around it. In the 11th century, the name Frid was related to names like Frith, Firth, so on, so on, and there was a surname at that time that was related to it: Freak, so we play on all that. And there was a surname Fright. So I say I came by my reputation honestly. We have a whole lot of fun with that. Then we found another book in which the word Frid was a kind of prehistoric animal up in the highlands of Scotland and they were called Frideans. They were kind of half-human, half-animal. So when we found that book we just had to do a story about it. So it was a send-up on the whole freak business.

I have a lot of fun doing that. However, in "Fools and Fiends" I have a few (scary) stories. I do one by William F. Nolan, who wrote Logan's Run. I do a story of his called Dead Call, and it's about a guy who receives a phone call from his friend who's been dead a month, and you can imagine what that leads to. That's about the heaviest one I do outside of Poe.

I don't linger with the occult at all. I do a certain amount of it. I'm not against it. If it's a good story, I'll do it. I always say I won't do another vampire, but if a brilliant story came up, and in some way sort of I could detach myself from it, and be amused by it, I might possibly do it, if it's good. I've been doing heavies all my life, so many of the roles I have played have occult overtones, you know, so I'm not against it. In fact, without a little bit of the sinister quality, there's no character. Barnabas himself ended up being a very interesting character. It had all the potential of being a brilliant, a great role. Because no matter what he did there was always a threat behind it. No matter how gentle he was, there was always that menacing quality about him. So it was a very interesting experience.

But, I'm not a collector, to answer your question finally.

CH: What did it feel like to suddenly see your face on all that memorabilia: books, bubble gum cards, posters, and all that kind of things?

JF: Well, I was flabbergasted, but I wasn't exactly proud of it. I was (proud) in the sense that I was getting a new reputation. I remember someone was here in New York from Hollywood one time. They were organizing a fan club. I mean these were professional fan people. They had an organization that handled all the big Hollywood stars at that time-Steve McQueen, and so on. They said, "You know, whether you like it or not, you are now a celebrity and you always will be for the rest of your life."

I really don't envy the superstars at all. In fact I feel rather sorry for them, except that some of them enjoy it. I shouldn't really feel sorry for them, because most of them do enjoy it or they wouldn't become superstars. I just became sort of a minor star by accident. And I don't know how to play it. I don't have enough...savvy. I'm clumsy with it.

CH: What do you think made Barnabas so popular?

JF: I don't know what this business of vampirism, or whatever it is that gets to the fans-I wouldn't know. But the whole concept of a vampire, to me, is a very sick thing. I suppose my concept is all crazy, because Bela Lugosi was much closer to what a vampire would be if he were a real person. And that is, he's bloodless. He's therefore passionless. I mean, how could a vampire be a passionate man, for Godsakes? He's got no blood to start with. He's got... What's that called when someone needs a blood transfusion all the time?

CH: Leukemia.

JF: Yes, leukemia. It's kind of leukemia. You're kind of a wilted flower. And you've got to get a fix three, four, five, six times a day. You're not a very healthy. I would think women would want virility in their men, but there's absolutely no virility in a vampire that I can think of. He's just a wilting flower. (He laughs.) He's got no blood-just white skin, and that's where I thought Lugosi... you know I watched that film, I saw it when it first came out, when I was a kid, but had just a normal interest in it, in fact probably less-than-normal interest in it. I graduated from all that kind of stuff very young. But anyway, I did see it. And then I saw it again about five or six years ago. I was really kind of fascinated by it in a way, just watching him glide down those stairs. I kept thinking the Dracula story would be great ballet-and it has been a ballet, I understand. The Dark Shadows story would be great grand opera. (He laughs.) But Dracula could be wonderful-gliding around like a dancer... very thin and very white... black and white. I don't see any color in a real vampire story-no color at all. Anyway, that intrigued me-only in a professional way. I mean, I wasn't caught up, I just thought he was much closer to the concept of what I think a vampire should be than I was. I mean I didn't play a vampire-was not interested in vampirism. I did look up the rules when I first got the role, to make sure that I... But then I decided it wasn't my responsibility; it was the responsibility of the producers, and they were making so many errors themselves that I thought, "Well, to hell with you guys, I'm not going to worry about it if you people aren't going to get it straight."

CH: Like what?

JF: After having established a big scene about not being seen in the mirror - that's how Dr. Hoffman discovers that I was a vampire - then about a week later I walked right across in front of a mirror, and there I was. (He laughs.) They forgot the rules, you see, so I said "To hell with you guys."

I played that as sort of a background to what I was doing. I was playing the lie really, most of the time for all those years. You know, hiding my identity - trying to hide my identity and cover up. And then of course I became the rejected lover. And also there was the triangle with Angelique and what's-her-name. All of that made for a very interesting character. And as I say, without playing the vampire... the vampire, frankly, was a press thing, and a certain group of fans were into that sort of thing. And of course the press got onto it because it's like a key. It's like a symbol. It symbolized the character. Very few actors have the privilege of having a character that can be so button-holed as a vampire. So even though I didn't play a vampire-I never thought very much about it to tell you the honest truth It was like playing a guilt-ridden alcoholic, kind of thing-trying to cover the traces of my reputation. I suppose a modern analogy would be trying to cover up AIDS, or whatever disease you have that's not exactly an acceptable thing. I was trying to make Joan Bennett's family look respectable. (He laughs.) Joan Bennett always played respectable ladies, and she was the matriarch of this respectable, sort of high-fallutting New England family, so I thought I should live up to the reputation. That was what I was playing the whole time.

 

 

Jonathan Frid with Louis Edmonds (Roger Collins from Dark Shadows) in the late 1960s.

CH: Does it bother you to be more well-known for this role of the many that you have played?

JF: Not really. It used to. I got tired of it at the time. I've never really been bothered that much by it. I may have gotten irritated by it from time to time, but always knew if it weren't for that I'd be a nobody.Well,not nobody...I mean I was doing a lot of great roles. I still think my greatest experience in acting was when I did Richard lll two or three years before Dark Shadows. To me that was the highlight of my career. It was a professional summer festival up at Penn State at the new theater they had up there. And it was the greatest challenge in my life. And I pulled it off very well.

And of course what I'm doing now almost supersedes it in terms of satisfaction, because I'm doing exactly what I want to do, and I get to play all the parts, so I'm very happy with what I'm doing. But, if it weren't for Barnabas I wouldn't be able to do a national tour of the work I'm doing now. It's hard to get audiences. Some of these people hire me and they think, oh they've got a star and they don't have to do any work, and I keep telling them, "Don't sit back on your haunches and expect crowds to come in, because you've got to go and look for them. You've got to hunt them down. You know, that was 20 years ago. Don't count on getting big crowds." However it helps. And we always help by sending out these flyers.

No I don't mind it now; I'm grateful for it. There's the new version of it coming out, as you know, and I've let it be known that I don't want to be part of it unless they want to pay me about two or three million dollars and I know perfectly well they won't. But I wish them well, because if Ben Cross doesn't pull it off, then we're all through, you see. And I want to bask in the reflected glory of the legend, you see, and play the legend. So in that sense I don't want to be part of doing a cameo unless it were a very good cameo, and with a ton of money I would certainly have to have script approval and I don't expect (that) frankly. So I'm not really interested in it. I'm not thinking about it, but people do ask me how I feel about it. I certainly wish them well. I pass the curse on to Mr. Cross, which is certainly an ironic name for a vampire.

CH: Speaking of money, did you get royalties from the merchandise?

JF: I got some but not an awful lot. That was partly my fault. I let that fly, and I didn't want to go to court about it for Godsakes . I mean why waste all that money? I don 't think there was all that much money made, but of course I may be fooling myself. Maybe I could have collected a few million. I don't know, but I just didn't want to be bothered with it, and so that's that. We have collected some money on the video tapes. Not a hell of a lot.

This thing all happened so quickly at the time, and I was so busy just getting these shows down every day, I never had time to get into the business side of it, and I never had anyone handling me that I was happy about. I did have one agent that got me the thing, but he was old, and he was more of a nuisance to me as well as to (Dan) Curtis, than he was in his efforts to be helpful.

Besides, I was busy and I was happy just to be doing the work, and making the money. The money I eventually did get was good money in those days. It was nothing like what they get nowadays, but... And so, I did quite well. And I've always been comfortable. I've never had to starve. Like some actors, I've never had to be a waiter or anything. My needs are very modest. I'm happy in my little apartment here in New York and I wouldn't want a big place. I can go on a trip if I want to, but I kill two birds with one stone. I'm very frugal. I get my trips out of going around with my show, and I've been all over this country. This combined with Arsenic and Old Lace, which I was on the touring company for a year. I mean I was in all the major places in the country, and had a ball. I was down in Florida for a couple of months. I even went on a cruise. I even got paid to go on a cruise, which I would never have done on my own. I'm too Scotch to spend that kind of money.

So I've been very comfortable, and provided we don't all go down the drain economically in the next year or so, as long as the economy stays in some kind of shape, I'll get through fine. So, I'm very content with the reputation. Sure it helps me. Otherwise I'd just be doing my one-man show in libraries for nothing.

CH: Do you plan to keep doing these shows for some time now, or do you have more shows in mind?

JF: You know, I'm 66. I was 66 the other day. In a few years now I'm going to be 70 . Just the thought of it, I just don't believe it, but there it is. I don't feel any different from when I was 23, except I've got a pot belly. Other than that, I haven't changed. When I was young, I was playing all the heavies then. When I was in college, or high school or prep school, I was always the heavy. Although I've played the odd young role, but not many. I always felt naked on the stage when I was playing the guy down the street, as a kid. I was always playing the dirty old men, when I was a kid. So, I've grown up with that kind of attitude, so I'm a mixture of maturity and childishness and child-like thinking to this day. So anyway, here I am starting this new career two or three years ago, and all my other friends back home are all retiring. And I'm starting a whole new career in readers' theater. And I hope I can keep going in this for the rest of my time. We'll be making recordings-that's coming up. I don't know if it will develop into a big thing for me, where I'll have a New York engagement, I don't know. I'm not planning that yet. I'm very happy just running around the countryside. This week was the first week I've had free since September.

It's hard the older I get. When I was out with Arsenic and Old Lace, we had a company manager and everything was looked out for us-hotels, going back and forth to the airports. Now, we have to do all that ourselves. My partner, Mary O'Leary, does all my bookings, but very often I'm on the road by myself and I have to look after myself. But I manage to bungle my way, and I get to the theater. And I have to do my own tacking, and I take boxes of lights. Have lights, will travel (He laughs.)

But I don't know how long I can keep that up. Hopefully I can keep it up for another five years, or maybe ten years. I'm in pretty good health at this point in my life anyway. I've just had an annual checkup, I think I can hang in. There's nothing I enjoy more than doing my one-man show. I've never had so much fun in my life in theater.

CH: What's more fun about this?

JF: For one thing, I get to play all the parts. Playing isn't the right word for it, obviously. I mean I play a 15 year old girl in "The Open Window" by Saki. It's like a parent reading to a child. Anybody, when you read a story, you're the third person detached so you're not playing literally these roles. You're not an impersonator, you're just suggesting. And a story is different from a play I've found out, in the sense that it's written in third person. It's written from the point of view of the writer, usually. Even so, whether third person or first person, you're involved with other people. When you're in a play, you're the one person, period, and you have to impersonate that person to a certain extent.

Thank God I've got a very versatile voice. I mean I can do things with it. It's a very flexible voice, so that's a great advantage to have. It' s a thing I want to keep doing for the rest of my days. If I got really tremendous money I would do television or a movie, but I'm not anxious to do it. I'm perfectly happy doing what I'm doing. I just want to get lots of engagements, and good ones, and to keep developing. I might even develop another whole show and experiment with it at the Dark Shadows Festival.

The Festivals are were all this started. I was asked these questions about Dark Shadows and they knew the answers better than I did anyway. I said, "Come on, give me a break here, I'm not a vampire, I'm an actor." "OK, OK," they'd say. I'd say, "Let me read something to you." "Oh, sure." I said, "Well I happen to have a 19th century romantic poem." "Oh, wonderful." I could read the phone book as far as they're concerned. They just wanted me to get up and make a fool of myself on stage. (He laughs.) They were wonderful in that sense. They were very encouraging to me. And thank God for the fans because they gave me the courage to do this, otherwise I probably never would have done my one man shows.

CH: What do you think your new show will be like?

JF: I really don't know yet. I'll just have to do a lot of reading. There's some stories that I've wanted to do badly, but they don't belong in this particular kind of show.

I've tested dozens of stories in the libraries. Here in New York for the last four or five years I've been doing the library circuit, for free - just as a place to experiment in. I'm not doing it this year, but I'll get back to that. I have to find an outlet to try things with audiences. It depends on the stories and how they work together. It's a juggling act making all the parts fit together, and then I link them with bits of poetry and commentary. That part of it I don't particularly like, but it has to be done. I like it when it's all together and ready to go.

CH: Have you ever tried to write anything yourself?

JF: In fact, I do. It so happens in "Fridiculousness," I have two or three items that are largely my writing. I've had help with them. "My Fridean Connections" is largely put together by myself. I had two ghost helpers on that, but the concept was mine. Then I do another one which is almost completely mine-a series of things called "Disconnected," about the answering machine phenomenon. It's based on my mother. On my birthday four or five years ago, I went out to get a paper. And when I got back, my brand new answering machine had four or five messages on it. I thought, "Good God, how many people could have called at eight o'clock in the morning, in the twenty minutes that I was out?" It was my mother calling. She heard my voice and thought I wasn't paying attention to her, and I wouldn't answer her. She got the operator and said "That's my son's voice. He just won't answer me." And the operator tried to explain it to her. (He laughs.) It was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. I was sitting there listening to all of those messages, just t howling. And I called her back and she wasn't amused at all. She was just furious at me. She was 96 when that happened...

CH: Do you think you'll ever publish any of your writing?

JF: Oh, no... I mean. who knows? I've never considered publishing it. I guess I'd be flattered to death if someone did.

CH: I've just got a couple more questions about the collectibles. Did you get a chance to see the book covers, or the comic books or any of that before it was published? Did you have any pre-approval of the items that had your picture on them?

JF: No, they just rolled right over my head on that. I almost wanted to get into court about one thing. There was a comic strip for a short time in the daily news. They were literally copies of photographs, not even comic strip characters. They were literal likeness of me. And I thought I could probably go to court over that. But, (he laughs) there I was, I got my face in the comics, so I can't complain.

CH: Do you keep in touch with anyone from the old Dark Shadows cast?

JF: Not necessarily. Most of them are out on the west coast. Louis Edmonds and I have always been friends. But I haven't seen him in a while. He called me yesterday. We hadn't talked for months, but we picked up where we left off, like we'd talked the day before. In fact he's coming over here Thursday, and we'll go out to dinner someplace. We see each other about twice a year. He's busy, and I'm busy. He's got a one-man show too.

CH: Yes, I've read about that. A cabaret show isn't it?

JF: Yes. He sings. He's very good at it. He'll be doing it at the next Festival. And of course he's a very funny person-a very interesting guy. I used to go out to his place all the time, but we just kind of lose touch. He's the only person I really see. John Karlen and I were quite good buddies at one time. He's out on the coast, and I see him there. But he wasn't speaking to me the last time I saw him because I didn't save enough time for him. (He laughs.) He felt it was a personal insult. I was there on business with my one-man show and very busy. John is really a sweetheart of a guy, and I still think I can count on him as a friend, but I just don't get a chance to see him that much. Actors move on. We have hundreds of families, because when you're with people in a show you do get kind of attached, but then you move on. I got to know the people in Arsenic and Old Lace much more than I ever did on Dark Shadows, because we traveled together for a year, on the road. When you're in New York doing a show you just see each other during the work day. There were very few people I knew from Dark Shadows beyond the work day. Occasionally we'd have parties, but not like in Arsenic-we were together all the time. Louis Edmonds is the one person I see here and that's it.

CH: Did you get to keep any of the props from Dark Shadows-the fangs or the canes?

JF: No. Of course, I kept losing them anyway. I lost two or three canes. I was out on these tours, and like I lose umbrellas, I would lose the canes. And the ring I lost two or three times. But you know the original ring was... All these fans have got these expensive onyx rings, and the original ring on the show was not even onyx. It was a cheap, Woolworth's green thing, and they painted it black. It was just a tacky old thing. But then I've started to see all these glamorous looking onyx ones that the fans have. I didn't even know what onyx was before I was on that show.

Once I left my fangs in a john at an airport. In the early days when I was out on these junkets pushing the show, I used to pick up a couple of thousand a weekend, which in those days was a lot of money. And it was sort of fun. The only problem was I had to be back, with my nose to the grindstone, Monday morning with my lines learned, so I never had a chance for any of this to go to my head. None of this ever went to my head because I was too busy. And I was very humbled, because I was a slow study. I was the worst person on the whole show learning lines.

CH: Really?

JF: Oh, nobody compared to me and the difficulty I had. I was just slow. I've always been a slow learner. Anyway, I'd be out on these weekend toots on the countryside. I was in Michigan or someplace, and I'd had to bare my fangs. In those days I wore the cape and I had the cane, and I fixed the hair in those silly little points. And I'd taken the fangs out to rinse my mouth out in the john, and I'd forgotten all about them. And I was on the plane before I realized, "My God I've left my fangs behind!" And somebody turned them in. They thought somebody had left their denture and so no one was the least bit surprised by the look of them. They simply put them in the lost and found. Somebody from ABC called, and there they were. So they sent them mail express or whatever back to New York.

CH: What did they look like?

JF: It was just the fangs. It was like an upperplate. It was like a wire thing. No one in the world would know what they were, and someone found them. So I got them back.

CH: After they did a lot of traveling.

JF: Yes. That's another reason why I don't collect things. I'm always losing them, or someone's borrowing them.


Jonathan Frid's picture was featured on dozens of Dark Shadows collectibles. Read more about them by clicking here.

 

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