The 1960s era melodrama—which TV Guide included on their Top Cult Shows Ever list—hinged on the supernatural comings and goings at the Collins family’s Maine estate.
Werewolves, zombies and witches all appeared, but it was Barnabas Collins, a lovesick vampire troubled by his immortal existence—although it wasn’t until episode 410 that they actually used the “v” word. Until then they’d say, “He walks at night but he ain’t alive.”—who brought in upwards of 20 million afternoon viewers during the show’s heyday.
Collins, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid (who passed away last month at age 87), was the show’s biggest star and the reason Quentin Tarantino and Madonna never missed an episode.
Depp, who resurrects the character in the movie, was also a big fan.
“Jonathan Frid was the reason I used to run home from school to watch Dark Shadows,” he said, adding that as a child, he was so obsessed with Barnabas Collins that he wanted to be him.
The fame that came along with playing the lusty vampire was unexpected. When Frid won the role he was planning a move to San Diego to teach acting and only accepted the part as a three-week gig to make money for the move.
“Ever since Frid joined Dark Shadows in April 1967, the program’s ratings have zoomed,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, “and Frid’s popularity has soared so rapidly that not even television’s imagemakers, let alone the actor himself, can explain it.”
The character struck a chord with audiences—Frid suggested the show became successful because it offered an escape from the reality of the Vietnam war—but in his first weeks wearing Barnabas’s cape he had no idea of his popularity. When a producer handed him a piece of paper he only reluctantly accepted it, thinking it was a pink slip. It wasn’t. It was a piece of fan mail.
Frid also played the character on the big screen in House of Dark Shadows. Many other TV cast members also reprised their roles but be warned, the movie is much bloodier than the soap.
After Dark Shadows left the air in 1971 Frid worked primarily on stage, but his final performance, as a guest at a Collin’s Manor gala, is featured in Tim Burton’s movie.