Jonathan Frid, whose turn as the brooding, lovelorn vampire Barnabas Collins made Dark Shadows a cult hit, died late last week—sadly, right before Johnny Depp’s resurrection of the role in Tim Burton’s big-screen version was set to revive interest in Frid’s most famous work. Frid died from natural causes on the somehow appropriate date of Friday the 13th. He was 87.
A classically trained stage actor who had his sights set on becoming an acting teacher, Frid accepted the role of Barnabas only on the condition that it be temporary, a quick way to make cash to fund his move to the West Coast. After Barnabas debuted during the gothic soap opera’s second season and became its breakout star, Frid soon scrapped those plans, committing to playing the character that would come to define his entire career.
As Barnabas, Frid was called upon to make the centuries-old bloodsucker not only sympathetic but, over time, the show’s central protagonist. Barnabas was introduced as a typical villain, accidentally freed from his locked coffin within the Collins family crypt and immediately preying upon several innocent townspeople, while also kidnapping and victimizing various women who resembled his long-lost love Josette. But as episodes progressed, Barnabas transformed into something of a hero, his eternally complicated quests for love and frequent selfless sacrifice for his family making him out to be a “reluctant” vampire whose evil nature was his own oft-lamented flaw. The depth and complexity Frid brought to the role—powered by Frid’s understanding that Barnabas was only deceiving himself as to who he really was—plus Frid’s naturally regal bearing (even amid a show so frequently plagued by flubs) quickly made Barnabas a tragic and romantic figure beloved not only by the many women of Collinsport, but viewers of the show.
Burton’s Dark Shadows, of course, takes a far more comedic tack, and while Depp pushed for the film for years based solely on his childhood love of Frid’s performance, Depp’s version of Barnabas seems to play everything that once made it eerily special for broad, undead-fish-out-of-water laughs. That’s judging by the trailer, anyway; time will soon tell whether the actual film will do Frid justice. But Frid, at least, offered his endorsement by visiting with Depp on set and even appearing in the new movie in a cameo role. Fittingly, the new Dark Shadows will be Frid’s final on-screen appearance, capping off a career that also included roles in Oliver Stone’s directorial debut Seizure and stage plays such as Dial M For Murder and Arsenic And Old Lace, but which remained, like so many, thoroughly in the thrall of Barnabas Collins.