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Over the years, the entertainment industry has been filled with films and TV shows surrounding angsty, sexy vampires. But who was the original dreamboat bloodsucker? That honor belongs to Barnabas Collins, resident member of the undead on television's only gothic horror soap opera, Dark Shadows.
Airing each weekday afternoon on ABC from June 1966 to April 1971, the series was far more than just a “vampire soap opera.” In fact, Dark Shadows characters brought vampires, werewolves, and ghosts to daytime television and America’s living rooms, making superstars of Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, David Selby as Quentin Collins, and Lara Parker as Angelique Bouchard, among others.
And by "superstars," we mean superstars. When Frid went out in public, he was regularly swarmed by thousands of fans who wanted to catch a glimpse of him. “It was the time of The Beatles,” he said, “and I was getting something of the same kind of treatment that they were.” He was also getting tons of fan mail, including naked photos of women from around the country who were begging him to bite them. It was an odd time.
If you're one of the many people who used to run home from school every day to watch the fantastic oddity that was Dark Shadows, you're officially a member of Generation DS, and this collection of little-known facts is for you.
1. Dark Shadows was almost canceled in its first year.
A gothic romance novel brought to life, the series originally dealt with the strange happenings of the Collins family at their mansion, Collinwood, with occasional brief trips into the world of the supernatural. However, the original stories weren't connecting with the audience.
“The show was limping along, really limping,” head writer Sam Hall remembered, “and ABC said, ‘We’re canceling it. Unless you pick up in 26 weeks, you’re finished.’ [Series creator Dan Curtis] had always wanted to do a vampire picture, so he decided to bring a vampire — Barnabas Collins — on the series.” That's when everything changed.
The concept was that the 175-year-old Barnabas was inadvertently freed from his chained coffin and immediately showed up at Collinwood. Once there, he passed himself off as a cousin from England and was invited to live in the family Old House on the property. He did so, and began a secret reign of terror, as vampires are wont to do.
And for those wondering where the character got his name, producer Robert Costello remembered, “I got the name Barnabas off a tombstone in Flushing, Queens [New York]. I don’t remember the last name, but it was registered in Flushing and dated back to, I think, the 18th Century. The name just sounded right.”
2. Barnabas Collins wasn't originally supposed to be a major character, much less a hero.
“Barnabas was brought in because I wanted to see exactly how much I could get away with,” Curtis said, “never intending that he would be anything more than a vampire that I kill. I wanted to see how far I could go on the show into the supernatural, and I figured there was nothing more bizarre than a vampire. If it didn’t work, I figured we could always drive a stake into his heart.” Obviously, things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Barnabas was an instant pop culture sensation, becoming a “hero” of sorts to the viewers, despite the fact that he was quite literally a monster. Given that popularity, it created a new problem for the show: How do you keep a character around who spends his evenings murdering people? The answer was to make him more sympathetic.
To do that, the show did something unexpected: It shifted back in time to 1795 where we met the pre-vampire Barnabas and the rest of that era’s Collins family (giving the regular actors an opportunity to play different characters in what became a true costume drama). In the past, we learned that Barnabas was engaged to be married to Josette du Pres, but had an affair with Josette’s servant, Angelique Bouchard (played by Lara Parker). When he attempted to end the affair, Angelique, revealing herself to be a witch, cursed him with vampirism, setting him down his long, lonely path. The blast-to-the-past storyline concluded when Barnabas’ father, who was unable to kill his son, imprisoned him in the coffin from which he'd be freed in the present-day narrative.
“We just felt we couldn’t get that much mileage out of a character who is pure evil,” writer Ron Sproat said. “When you’re dealing with two and a half hours a week and you’re seeing a lot of the character, it just has to have more dimension than that.”
The backstory approach worked: Barnabas Collins connected with the audience and became Dark Shadows' vampire mega-star. “Barnabas was a sympathetic vampire,” Frid said. “He was a man with an addiction who drank blood only to survive. The audience felt pity for him, and many of the women wanted to mother him. Secondly, I’ve always felt that there was a love/hate relationship between the audience — particularly children — and Barnabas. In some ways, he was looked upon as a darker version of Santa Claus: friendly enough that you were intrigued by him, yet mysterious enough that he frightened you.”
3. Jonathan Frid almost wasn’t cast as the 'undead sex symbol.’
The role of Barnabas Collins went to Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, though Sproat recalled that another close contender was actor and game show host Bert Convy. “Dan didn’t like that,” he explained, “because it wasn’t scary enough. He handed me a picture of Jon and said, ‘This is our new vampire.’” For his part, Frid was classically trained, had just wrapped up a role as a defense attorney in a national tour of the play Hostile Witness, and had come back to his New York apartment to pack things up. He was moving across the country to California and planned to take a position as a professor of drama.
However, the phone began ringing as soon as he entered his apartment. It was his agent on the other end, telling him about Dark Shadows. Frid was reluctant to audition at first, but was told it would be a short gig and extra cash that would help get him to California. Against his better judgment, he tried out for the role. “You know the rest of the story,” Frid said. “It was just that freaky phone call. If I had been two minutes later...”
4. Dark Shadows was extremely short-lived compared to most soaps.
By soap opera standards, Dark Shadows had an extremely short life, running from June 27, 1966 to April 2, 1971, producing 1,225 episodes over the course of those years. It also spawned wide-ranging merchandise, from board games to trading cards, posters, models, comic books, novels, and Halloween costumes. There were even a variety of big and small screen spin-offs.
So if it was that popular, why did the show only last five years? “Because Dan was so insane,” Hall said, laughing and referring to the bizarre supernatural plots they would stretch out on the series. “After a year of success he started to say, ‘We’ve got to get more scares, more romance, more mystery,’ and we finally ended up with plots…. We had one plot I didn’t even understand. You needed subtitles to get it. Every plot got stranger and stranger and stranger, and we just 'out-stranged' ourselves.” Of course, if any of the afternoon soap operas were going to find themselves going overboard with their storyline’s theatrics, it would have to be this one! Dark Shadows was never known for being subtle, after all.
5. The show was taped in Manhattan.
Where was Dark Shadows filmed, you ask? Well, exteriors of the brooding 40-room Collinwood mansion were shot in Newport, Rhode Island, while footage of the Old House (where Barnabas lived) was recorded in Tarrytown, New York. As for the town of Collinsport, it was actually Essex, Connecticut, that appeared on the series.
For the show itself, however, actors filmed at the formerly tiny ABC Studios at on 53rd Street in New York City. Unfortunately for fans eager to visit the landmark for the show, that building has since been torn down and transformed into a residential development.
That said, fans eagerly flocked to the studio’s location while the show was still in its heyday. Each afternoon when the show finished taping, the stars would exit the studio only to be greeted by throngs of children and adults who would clamor for photographs and autographs — hundreds of them all begging for attention. Curtis described the dizzying situation they were faced with each day: “We’d come out of this little dinky studio on 53rd Street and there’d be 500 screaming kids outside. It was unbelievable. I have never seen anything like it. We had the time of our lives in those crazy days. It really was a lot of fun.”
6. The show may have ended, but the franchise definitely didn't.
The Dark Shadows original cast made the leap to the big screen in 1970's House of Dark Shadows, while the show was still airing. Basically it's a retelling of the Barnabas storyline, although this time Dan Curtis removed almost all semblances of sympathy from the character. “The feature film wasn’t done like the soap,” said Curtis. “It was done like a very classy piece of film. It was the same premise, except we killed everybody, which we couldn’t do on the show.” Sproat added with a laugh, “Dan finally said, ‘You’re going to do it my way.’”
Night of Dark Shadows, which featured the cast of Dark Shadows, reached theaters in 1971. It used Collinwood as the base of operations, but this time it was a ghost story with new characters (played by the series’ actors David Selby and Kate Jackson) moving in. Shortly thereafter, Selby’s character is possessed by evil spirits tied to the witch Angelique (Parker reprising her role from the show). There was an intent to continue the series of films as an anthology of sorts with Collinwood remaining the only regular aspect, but those plans ultimately fell apart.
Interestingly, next to Barnabas, Selby as Quentin Collins became the most popular character on the show. The character went from being a zombie to a werewolf, and a Dorian Gray type. What few people may realize is that Frid was directly responsible for the character’s arrival. “In 1968, I went to Dan Curtis and said, ‘You’re overworking me. I think you should create another character and give me a run for my money,’” detailed Frid. “[Curtis] said, ‘You don’t want that,’ and I said, ‘I’d rather have anything than work these hours. Give me some competition.’ They tried two or three things until Selby came along. The ratings were going down at that point, and we were delighted that Selby boosted them. If it hadn’t been for him, the show would have gone off the air in four months. He gave it a much-needed shot in the arm.”
After Night of Dark Shadows, things were quiet at Collinwood until the 1991 one-hour primetime version with a new Dark Shadows cast, including Ben Cross as Barnabas. Then there was the 2004 WB pilot that didn’t go to series, and in 2012, Johnny Depp played Barnabas in the Tim Burton movie version of Dark Shadows (but the less said about that one, the better).
There may be a new wave of vampire TV shows on the way but, seriously, how could they possibly compare to the thrill of having Barnabas and the Collins clan entering our homes five days a week? Easy answer: They can't.