As Dark Shadows Creeps Back to TV, the Old Show Still Haunts Its Cast
01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Vampires you kill with a stake through the heart. Werewolves, with silver bullets. Ah, but canceled TV series, they don't. They just retire to the fog-shrouded land of the un-dead, waiting to be summoned someday by network executives who would practice any black art to have a hit. And so, 20 years after sinking into the grave, Dark Shadows—ABC's cobwebby soap opera about the lives and loves of spirits and ghouls, which spawned a huge occult cult from 1966 to 1971 and which still sets the standard for the most radical departure from the formulas of daytime drama—materializes on NBC this week. Starring Ben ("Chariots of Fire) Cross, 43, as Barnabas Collins, the vampire with the Byronic soul and the interesting hair, the newly risen show airs Jan. 13 and 14 as a miniseries, then starts its prime-time series run Jan. 18. If the resuscitated Shadows can match the popularity of the original—which spawned two feature films, three dozen paperback novels and, more recently, a series of video releases—it could be a supernatural pop phenomenon on the order of, say...Barnabas Simpson. Correspondents Alan Carter, Craig Tomashoff and John Griffiths talked to the original Not Ready for Daylight Players.
Dan Curtis, 62, the Dr. Frankenstein of Dark Shadows, created the original and is producer of the new series. He directed the Winds of War and War and Remembrance miniseries: This wasn't supposed to be a supernatural show. It was supposed to be a gothic mystery. We had a six-month deal on ABC, and the show was going nowhere. It was boring. The characters talked about things happening in closed-off rooms, but you never saw what they were talking about. So...a ghost appeared. The ratings started to go up. Then we had a weird story about little David Collins's mother, who was a phoenix and came back for him. The ratings went higher. I said. "I'm going to see how far I can go with this thing. I'll do a vampire."
It was a Shakespearean-trained actor, Jonathan Frid, now 65, who did the vampire—Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century bloodsucker locked away in 1795 and liberated from his crypt two centuries later. Frid now tours with a series of solo shows, including one devoted to his beloved bard: I only did the part for some pocket money to go teach on the West Coast. And, of course, because I didn't particularly want the job, I got it. An audition room full of cadaverous-looking creeps, and I must have really looked the part....
Curtis: We had the classic tragic figure—a romantic, a vampire who hates himself.
Frid: Barnabas was supposed to be this nervous wreck. I mean, if you came out of your coffin after hundreds of years, how would you talk? Where would you go? So he was very vulnerable.
Curtis: I was just going to bring him in as a straight-out killer. All of a sudden, he turned into a giant hit. I wondered how the hell I could perpetuate a vampire. But I did it. I ripped off all the horror classics, all the old horror movies. The one thing I wouldn't do was a mummy. I mean, the guy"s always dragging his leg. How could he catch anybody?
Mummies, no, but the show had just about everything else except the possessed kitchen sink: witches, warlocks, Frankensteins, ghosts, Jekylls and Hydes—played mostly by a cast of young unknowns, including Kate Jackson, now 41, as a ghost, David (Falcon Crest) Selby, 49, as Quentin the werewolf, and John (Cagney & Lacey) Karlen, 56, as Barnabas's henchman and valet, Willie.
Jackson: I didn't speak for three months. Ghosts tilt their heads down and tilt their eyes up and gently beckon and never blink. That's what I did.
Lara Parker, 48, was the spellbindingly sexy witch, Angelique, eternally pursuing Barnabas. Since Shadows, she has done a number of small TV roles: I was just a young, naive actress who wanted to play the lead. 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."
Barnabas, on the other hand, was willing to spend eternity pursuing his true love, Josette, played—in a number of incarnations—by Kathryn Leigh Scott, 44. Scott recently wrote The Dark Shadows Companion and has guest-starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation and other series: I spent four years wandering through corridors of dry ice, saying, "Barnabas, where are you?" I was 19, and I learned to act in front of a million people. Show me somebody who would like to have their first job in summer stock taped and sold in video stores.
Actually, the show was more like Transylvanian summer stock: haunted rooms with ghost-thin walls, cues whispered off-camera and a boom mike so conspicuous that critics referred to the show as Mike Shadows.
Curtis: It was like we had a budget of $2.12 to work with. It was a joke.
Parker: We would tape from 3:30 to 4 P.M. The show went on the air at 4. so as soon as we finished, we'd go upstairs and get in a tiny room to watch and laugh at ourselves. We used to be horrified. The show was done as a live taping, so all the mistakes we made went on the air.
Selby: Jonathan Frid was caught carrying his shoes!
Jackson: I had to say this long speech explaining why I was back from the dead. I was standing in an 1800s dress, with candles all around, and the back of the dress caught fire. I was already messing up the lines, and all I could think was, "Why is David Henesy [who played the littlest Collins, David] dancing around back there?" He kept me from having to scream. "Aaaaaaaah! My dress is on fire!"
Frid: I always thought I looked like this damn silly ass. I couldn't believe people were ever really scared.
If not scared, maybe seduced. If not seduced, maybe amused. Or...well, it's hard to say, exactly....
Selby: The show was intriguingly gothic to some, campy to others.
Scott: It was a bad time when we were on the air. Vietnam, the Democratic Convention. We were a breath of fresh air.
Frid: Occasionally it would coalesce into something lovely: at its best, a Dark Brigadoon. A never-never land.
For the original cast, though, celebrity from the show has been ever-ever.
Karlen: Once a blind lady at the race track recognized my voice. "That's Willie!" she said. I found that bizarre. I still get more recognition from fans of Dark Shadows than from Cagney & Lacey.
Frid: This morning I was walking home from getting groceries. I missed the light because the traffic was heavy. This truck wasn't moving. I thought the driver may have had a stroke. All these people are honking. And I caught the side of his face, this truck driver, and I'm screaming, "Can I cross? Are you going?" He was dumbstruck. He had recognized me! I want to be the Johnny Weissmuller of Dark Shadows. He's the Tarzan everyone knows. He wasn't the original, but he's the one people remember.