BITE ME, BARNABAS ...BITE ME!
With fangs, a cape and a job as resident vampire on TV’s horrorsoaper Dark Shadows, Canadian actor Jonathan Frid is learning that the fastest way to a woman’s heart is through the jugular
THE FIRST TIME it happened was at a supermarket in Charleston, South Carolina, just 18 months ago. A middle-aged, unlovely Canadian bachelor of scholarly bent and indiscernible allure was being deafened and debuttoned by a gaggle of nymphettes performing one of the sexual rites of our times. A pop star or a rock group would have expected such treatment. But for Jonathan Frid the experience was terrifying.
Jonathan who? Frid. He’s a 44-year-old sometime Shakespearean actor who grew up in a well-to-do Hamilton, Ontario, family with a stern Protestant outlook. For 25 years he walked on and off the boards in a hundred and one road shows. His acting was competent. Remember his Caliban in San Diego, his Richard III at Penn State? But fame passed him by. Then he became a vampire and found himself basking in the sort of adulation that not even Olivier has enjoyed. At a telethon in Birmingham, Alabama, this fall it was Frid, and not such imported “names” as Frankie Avalon, who was the target for a horde of pubescent females screaming, “Bite me, Barnabas. Bite me!”
For three increasingly frenetic years Frid has been playing Barnabas Collins in ABC Television’s afternoon “horror-soaper,” Dark Shadows. Barnabas is the resident vampire of the series, sharing a 36-room mansion called Collinwood with a weird crew of witches, warlocks, werewolves, winged beasties and other Gothic standbys. The plot is a convolution of murders, mutilations, hexings and time-tunnelings that even Frid finds “impossible to follow.”
An average audience of 6,300,000 Americans watches Dark Shadows every weekday at 4 p.m. That makes it the top daytime TV show in the world — without adding in the hundreds of thousands of Canadian viewers who tune in to ABC border stations. All the tea leaves of TV (fan mail, crowd count) credit this astonishing success to the show’s lank, gloomy star. Frid, swirling his de rigueur cape, snarling around his plastic fangs and sucking blood all over the sound stage, has an audience appeal so powerful it’s beyond the merely bizarre. Shrugs producer Robert Costello: “Half the women in America want this guy to bite them on the neck.”
Today the signature of Jonathan Frid (co-signing with Barnabas Collins) is rated by Coronet magazine as “the autograph of the year.”
William Dennis, ABC vice-president in charge of the network’s merchandising empire, says Barnabas Collins and Dark Shadows are “a phenomenon, an explosion we didn’t expect. There’s no doubt it’s the hottest property we control. Not up to Batman yet, but it’s got a longer pull and should give Batman a real run in the long haul.” By that, Dennis means the market bonanza for Barnabas comic books, novelettes, posters, jewelry, masquerade costumes, penny banks, puzzles, ► coloring books, card games, toys, sweatshirts, 3-D slides and LP records. With all these selling like hot cakes, the Christmas market should also see dolls, kites, model kits, magic slates, stuffed pillows and even, as one talented merchandiser dreams, a range of “Barnabas Boots — you know, monster shoes.” A soup company is reportedly toying with the idea of a Barnabas Cook Book, and the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp., offering “giant pinups” of Jonathan Frid with their third set of Barnabas bubble-gum cards.
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All told, ABC expects that $20 million in Barnabas paraphernalia will be sold before the fever breaks. That will earn $500,000 in license fees. And even after the network, authors and producers take their respective cuts, Jonathan Frid will still receive enough to further confuse his already complicated finances.
What he is making remains something of a mystery, largely because royalty payments have still to be computed. Until he renegotiated his contract in November, Frid was paid a basic $600 a week whether or not he appeared in the show. If he appeared in all five programs, his weekly pay would be $1,500. He earns a few thousand from each of his many public appearances; takes other lucrative acting jobs; rakes in cash from Jonathan Frid-Barnabas Collins concessions. For making females from 12 to old-enoughto-know-better squeal with orgasmic delight, Frid makes ... “I really don’t know how much,” he says. Associates guess that in 1970 it will be somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. Another showbiz rumor has it that Frid, the best-loved monster since Boris Karloff,
grosses around $17,000 a week. Frid smiles grimly on hearing that. “Actually, stardom is leaving me broke. I just don’t know how to cope, careerwise and economically.” As the first certifiable star of daytime soap opera, he “should have made a million out of this thing already. God, I need a business manager.”
This summer he moved to an East Side Manhattan apartment where the rent is “so high I don’t even tell my mother,” Mrs. Herbert Frid, widow of a wealthy Hamilton, Ontario, contractor.
It was there, amid the splendors of East Side living, that he sat this fall and mourned over his latest business offer. He had been asked to lend his name to a chain of restaurants. He conceded that the money sounded good, and that he was rather more broke than usual at the time. “But I want to preserve some integrity,” he said. “And then, if the profits started to slip. I’d probably end up out there cooking the damn stuff myself.”
It is entirely possible that members of Jonathan Frid’s family had faced the prospect of Herbert Frid’s youngest son doing just that for a living.
Frid’s father was a man of some consequence in southern Ontario, and Jonathan’s background — Presbyterian, private school, the Nob Hill that in Hamilton is called The Mountain — was properly Establishment.
After Sunday services he dressed as the minister and re-enacted the sermon to the delight of his ardently Presbyterian grandmother, who thought she had a born preacher in the family. At 16, he finally gave in to an “absolute compulsion” he had been battling since the age of five. In what he calls “the most agonizing decision in my life,” Jonathan volunteered to act in a school production of Sheridan’s comedy, The Rivals, and turned in a brilliant performance as Sir Anthony Absolute by imitating the school’s very English headmaster.
Jonathan went on to McMaster University, where Frid Senior later served on the board of governors. Jonathan reorganized the dramatic society and reactivated the Inter-Varsity Drama League after the war. About nine years ago he changed his name from John to Jonathan so it would take up more room in the programs. The old one “went too quickly —JohnFridJohnFridJohnFrid.”
Midway through university, Frid volunteered for the navy and was slated to go to the Pacific. At that point, however, the allies used the atom bomb. Frid’s war wounds were limited to being seasick, but the interlude provided a Hollywood fan magazine with the teasing headline: “How The Bomb Saved Jonathan Frid For Dark Shadows
Frid graduated in 1948, and spent the next 19 years in a “rich and rewarding”
but financially lean theatrical world: a spell at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London . . . playing in the English provinces as an American gangster . . . at Lome Greene’s Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto ... in CBC radio plays . . . stock companies ... In 1954 his wealthy father played “angel” to the Dominion Drama Festival, that year being staged in Hamilton. Frid was persuaded to play the lead in Hamilton’s festival entry, Rebecca, which the adjudicators panned.
Three years later, armed now with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in directing from Yale Drama School, Frid went back into acting. By then his elder brother Doug owned a ski resort near Orangeville, Ontario, and the other brother was president of the family construction business. Jonathan, at 32, was earning $50 a week if he was lucky.
Of his work at that time, one actor recalls: “John was one hell of a fine actor, who had been in a million plays all over the universe, but it was usually we who got the notices.” In 1967, he had just finished a six-month tour of the sticks playing a one-line walk-on part with the road-show company of Hostile Witness when offered the part of Barnabas Collins, vampire.
Dark Shadows, “a gothic suspense series,” was then 10 months old and dying. “We decided to go all the way with the spook stuff,” says the show’s creator, Dan Curtis. “I’d always felt that if the viewers bought a vampire, we could get away with anything. If it didn’t work, we could always drive a stake through his heart.”
When Barnabas Collins climbed out of his cobwebbed coffin in April 14, 1967, the ratings surged and the mail rolled in. Something about this sad-eyed fellow with an early - Beatles hairdo, flowing black cape, massive carved cane, onyx ring, custom - made fangs and nervous ways twanged a responsive chord in the great Out There where the ratings come from.
Some inexplicable 20th-century chemistry had annointed this aging bachelor as the vicarious aphrodisiac of the year. A fan in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, wrote: “If it takes blood to keep him alive, he can have some of mine.” A lady in New Westminster, BC, praised his “great charm and dignity” and “his most evil, corrupt and forceful domination of your victims.” A housewife in Illinois wrote : “1 wish you’d bite me on the neck. I get so excited watching you, I could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes,”
The phenomenon spread. A nineyear-old in Rockville, Maryland, showed up for her dentist appointment watching Barnabas on a portable TV. A sixthgrade science teacher in Flint, Michigan, reported that her entire class could locate the jugular vein, thanks to Barnabas. At Penn State University, where Jonathan had been invited to play the lead in Richard III in 1965, a stern warning was issued to students cutting classes to watch the soaper.
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Yet the thing built slowly enough that its full impact didn’t hit Jonathan until a year after he took the role, when he was making a 10-city public-appearance tour complete with chartered Lear jet and publicity-man escort. Driving up to a supermarket at their first stop in Charleston, Jonathan suddenly felt the physical shock of the crowd of 2,500 waiting to greet him: “I didn’t believe it. It was the stepping stone from being somebody who went to the CNE to watch Frank Sinatra being idolized, to being Frank Sinatra.” Suddenly they were ripping and tearing at his clothes; it took 14 policemen and five squad cars to manoeuvre him to safety.
The rest of the tour was a continuing triumph: 5,000 at the Grand Rapids airport to watch him ride into town on the roof of a hearse (an experience he does not deign to repeat). At a Fort Wayne shopping centre a mob of 15,000 (more than Richard Nixon or Robert Kennedy were able to draw in that presidential election year) crunched through plateglass windows in the press to see Barnabas. “They were grabbing at me like animals. We had to run for our lives,” Frid recalls. He escaped through a warehouse with a police escort.
Frid has since learned to relish that rarified sensation of mob worship: “Part of the fun of these crowds is to go with it, to ride it like the rapids or surf-boarding. You’ve got to stay with the wave.” Yet between these sessions of mass ecstasy his life had then become “a constant agony, a nightmare every day.”
For months he was written into almost every episode, a half-hour show five days a week, as the Dark Shadows plot line explored the sad details of how Barnabas had gotten the way he was. (He was bitten to death by a mad bat 180 years ago.) Always “the slowest study in the history of the theatre,” Frid would rise at 6.30 every morning and grapple with the script over breakfast before reporting to work at eight. The cast rehearsed until taping at 3.15, with a brief lunch break at 10.30 which Frid used for shaving. After taping, they had a dry run of the next day’s “incredibly complicated” script until around 6.30 p.m. Frid spent each evening at home, cramming the lines that would get him up again at 6.30 the next morning. He recalls, “I was panic-stricken every day. I had to wing it like mad.”
As he wearily discovered, “a work bonanza like this means no social life at all.” He rarely salvaged enough time for the small rites of daily living: buying stamps, paying bills, fetching laundry. When his clean underwear ran out, he wore bathing suits to work.
This year the pressure finally eased, and the scripts came under control. Frid turned down an offer to spend the summer touring as Dracula because he doesn’t want to be typed. Instead, he passed the summer decorating his apartment, a five - room extravagance with three baths, seven closets, a genuine rock garden and a stereo system piped everywhere from johns to rocks. While we talked, Frid looked around the apartment’s half-finished splendor and sighed, “I still feel like I’m staying in a hotel. My grandparents had an old house in Waterdown, Ontario, where we used to go in summer. There was a home, and it takes years and generations before a house is really that.”
Now what he wants is “someone who will lick me into shape and tell me ‘learn this’ or ‘rehearse that.’ I’ve been dilettantish for two years in terms of hard-boiled management of myself.” When the Barnabas-fever first crested he brought down advisers from the family firm in Hamilton and consulted an eminent lawyer; they told him not to bother with a business manager — “ridiculous advice, just so wrong,” he moans now.
When the gravity of his chaos weighs down on Frid, he is apt to grasp at the nearest available straws. Last summer he was considering installing his decorator, a middle-aged friend named Ruth, as general factotum to answer fan mail, retrieve laundry and “put some order in my life.” In the fall he was thinking of making actor friend Bob Teuscher his business manager. A friend as business manager — an actor-poet friend? The hapless Barnabas himself could not do better.
In fact, Jonathan and Barnabas have much in common. Both are gloomy, brooding chaps, civilized and vulnerable, given to lonely ruminations and courtly Victorian manners. Both stumble from one crisis to another with the help of inordinate good luck. Both give off an air of kindly helplessness, which may actually be the catnip element of the Barnabas sex appeal. In interviews, Frid habitually compares Barnabas to Macbeth, Hamlet and Richard III. Yet he gives short shrift to critics who express dismay that a Shakespearean specialist with all those years of theatrical academics behind him could soil his high brow with TV melodrama. “Listen, this role reaches about the limits of my intelligence,” Frid says. “Shakespeare is pretty big potatoes, and how I ever coped with it I’ll never know.”
In a curious way Jonathan Frid seems to be, like Barnabas Collins, a refugee from another time. A casting agent who knows Frid well calls him “kind of square and old-fashioned, almost too nice for this business.” His favorite suit is actually a Barnabas costume, an Edwardian double-breasted that he bought from the show’s wardrobe department. Chainsmoking, he gives off a bored serenity that masks 'an impressive amount of insecurity and indecision.
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Actor friends agree he has changed very little with success. His loner streak still runs deep. He relaxes by reading the obituaries in the New York Times: “Such marvelous pieces of history. Fascinating!” He prefers a bar to a cocktail party because “you can be a dud at a bar as long as you buy your own drinks. Some of my best creative thoughts happen when I’m sitting alone at a bar surrounded by noisy people.”
Frid has no idea how many fan clubs have been organized in his name, though he does know he gets more than 5,000 letters a month. One euphoric New Year he spent $1,000 on a special mailing to his fans (“My God, Clark Gable wouldn’t have done that”). Since then he has limited his personal answers to gifts and really interesting letters; but all his mail is answered in one way or another. Yet the phenomenon rolls on. When Frid took two weeks off to do Dial M For Murder in Sullivan, Illinois, the tickets were sold out weeks in advance. Coming up is the shooting of the first Dark Shadows feature film, possibly one of a series. His co-star is Joan Bennett.
Sitting in his walnut-paneled study, flanked by mounds of Dark Shadows scripts, scrapbooks lovingly assembled by the faithful, and bronze plaques with such inscriptions as “16 Magazine 7th Annual Geegee Award” and “Barnabas We Love You, Charleston, S.C., Teens,” Jonathan Frid stretched out his long legs and put himself in a nutshell: “The summing-up of my life, if you get down to the real nitty-gritty, is there isn’t anything terribly exciting there.”
Even so, the vampire business is a little more diverting than teaching drama somewhere in California, which is what Frid was about to do when his agent persuaded him to audition for the part of Barnabas. And, besides, it’s not everyone who can inspire the opposite sex to demand: “Bite me, Barnabas. Bite me\” □