Biographies and documentaries about actors tend to focus on scandalous stuff — their tumultuous family life, tragedies, addiction problems…whatever personal turmoil helped (or hindered) them as they built their career. Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story has none of that. Instead, it offers a thoroughly detailed look at a man who loved acting more than anything — a quality that helped endear him not just to audiences, but to seemingly everyone he ever met.
In particular, this documentary will appeal very strongly to fans of Dark Shadows — Dan Curtis’ spooky soap opera that became a pop-culture sensation in 1969 after Frid was cast as the soulful, velvet-voiced vampire Barnabas Collins. (An anecdote shared by Curtis reveals that the choice was made after Curtis saw a photo of Frid in a cape and thought he’d make a good vampire.) Everyone loving the actor might sound suspect, and of course, any documentary is going to try and spin the story it wants to tell. But the people interviewed in Mary O’ Leary’s Dark Shadows and Beyond — representing a wide array of Frid’s friends, family, acquaintances, and Dark Shadows and other co-stars — are startlingly unanimous in their flattering assessment of the actor, who passed away in 2012. If you’re looking for an exposé or Hollywood gossip, you won’t find it here — but you will find a very detailed, very earnest chronicle of Frid’s career, as well as many memories of his kind, generous nature.
The sudden stardom Frid experienced was a nice surprise, but TV fame wasn’t something the actor had set as a goal; as Dark Shadows and Beyond explores, he found his calling during his Canadian childhood when he was cast in a school play, and pursued acting in college and grad school while becoming a standout in local theatre groups. He was classically trained, appearing in Shakespeare plays alongside Katharine Hepburn and getting tips from his idol, Laurence Olivier, while working in England. Though he didn’t find breakout success until later in life — letters written to his supportive parents and read in the documentary reveal his disappointments while auditioning for parts on Broadway — it seems he never lost faith in his talent.
Though Dark Shadows was a daytime soap opera not exactly known for its production values (or rehearsal time, something reflected on by his Dark Shadows co-stars; the doc features interviews with David Selby, Lara Parker, Nancy Barrett, Marie Wallace, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and James Storm), Frid learned to keep up with its fast-paced schedule and appreciated how a show that ran every day gave him the room to explore all facets of his character. “In this one role I’ve played a dozen roles,” he says in one of several archival interviews included in the film. Dark Shadows was fond of time shifts — including a leap backward that allowed Frid to play Barnabas before his vampiric transformation — but he’s also speaking about how Barnabas was such a complicated character no matter the circumstances he found himself in. As a vampire, he was never merely a monster, he was a tragic figure who felt deep emotions (including guilt) — complexities that Frid’s well-honed acting skills allowed him to pull off, and in turn, made the character a sensation.
As the title suggests, Dark Shadows and Beyond also delves into Frid’s post-TV career, in which he toured in a series of one-man shows that capitalised on the Barnabas Collins fan base (the shows often included recitations of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare) while allowing the actor to explore his love of the stage. There are very few negative moments in the documentary. It quickly touches on the fact that Frid’s dislike of how Barnabas was portrayed in the 1970 feature film House of Dark Shadows (and his reluctance to sign on for a sequel) is what led to his departure from the TV series, which was subsequently cancelled. We also get a sense that Frid got a little tired of always being expected to play the vampire for his adoring public. Still, he was a good sport, agreeing to host a “Miss American Vampire Pageant” and go on extended tours in Latin America, where a dubbed-in-Spanish version of Dark Shadows brought him a second wave of superstardom.
Really the only shade thrown in Dark Shadows and Beyond is at the Johnny Depp-starring Tim Burton movie, which featured cameos by Frid and his co-stars but is otherwise only briefly (and disdainfully) mentioned here. Frid’s personal life also gets what feels like short shrift, but it seems there wasn’t much to tell — it’s acknowledged that he was gay, but was private about it and never really had a significant long-term partner. His most important relationships were clearly with his friends and family — as well as with his fans, who continued to support his love of performing until the very end.
Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story hits digital platforms, DVD, and Blu-ray on October 5.
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