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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jonathan Frid - the legend

For therapeutic reasons and also wanting to "put it out there" some things about Jonathan Frid in the wake of his passing, I am blogging about three aspects of John (as I called him).  These will appear here in three separate posts: the type of man he was, how he worked and what working with him was like, and the blog entry you are reading now;- the legend surrounding John from the perspective of a fan who grew up admiring him for his role as Barnabas Collins.

First, he would scoff at the title of this blog entry - Jonathan Frid, the legend - saying it sounded idiotic.  But I really don't know what else to call it.  The words applied to John over the course of his career after DARK SHADOWS included words like legendary, cult hero, and even immortal.  One of the reasons John sometimes had difficulty embracing the legend Barnabas Collins had become is that the character had taken on a life of its own, an importance, far beyond what his experience was as an actor.  A character of that dimension takes hold of the collective imaginations of viewers, as well as a personal context to individual fans, that is best demonstration by the expressions of a very real sense of loss to DS fans.  It's still a profound sense of loss even though Barnabas still exists anytime a fan wants to watch an episode of DS.  But the one real thing a fan could touch, communicate with or see on a stage was Jonathan Frid and now that opportunity is gone.  There is where the deep sense of sadness lies for fans.

It has never been a secret how baffling fame was to John.  He didn't understand why or how he became a celebrity.  He very much appreciated fans but not in the context of being a celebrity but rather an actor who is there to entertain an audience and to build on that audience.  John didn't think he was all that.  People liked him for something he wasn't, or so he thought.  On the street he would rather not be recognized.  When he moved back to his native Canada, if he was known at all it was for being a member of the Frid family and their legacy of community service which he too was involved in.  In time, word would filter around in his neighborhood that he was a famous actor who worked in the States.  When asked about this, John would be polite and acknowledge it but asked that the person not "spread it around."  He once told me that he never ever wanted to be that famous again as it was back in the hey dey of DARK SHADOWS.  He objected to losing his privacy, which included being able to walk around like everyone else.

It was an experience John never wanted in the first place.  In a 1961 interview John did while in summer stock in upstate New York, the reporter asked about his ambitions and John said that he was working to gain all the professional experience he could in the theater.  He would like to be on Broadway at least once but had no desire to become a Broadway "star."  John went on to say that being a celebrity was completely different than just being an actor and that's not something he wanted.  At some point he wanted to take his experience and knowledge and become a drama professor.  This was six years before John's life was changed forever.

So what was the big deal about being a celebrity?  Why object so to it?  That goes to the roots of John's personality.  He was a fiercely private person about everything in his life.  Being the youngest child, I suspect this came about because his elder brothers may have been a little bossy, told him what to do and interfered with his plans.  His brothers would want to go see a western and John wanted to see something else.  The minute you become a celebrity, you need handlers including a press agent, and work to keep whatever image it is you want to project.  For John that was not only too much work but unappealing.   Phoniness of any sort drove him up a wall and he would not participate in it.  If he was cranky during an interview, he could be less than diplomatic and even say things he didn't really mean.  But he wanted the freedom to be human, to be cranky, or not feel well and just be who he was at least at that moment.  If you are a professional celebrity, you can't do this.

So when fans or writers would write about  Barnabas, his allure and impact on pop culture, it was as if someone else was being described to John.  Of course, it was as Barnabas is a fictional character .  The problem was there were many people who felt Barnabas and John were one in the same.  For a person who hates phoniness and is very much an individual, this is annoying, not because John disliked the character of Barnabas but because HE WAS NOT BARNABAS.  He was John Frid, a human being, an actor.  He wasn't a fictional person.

Part of what compelled fans to make the association with John was his charisma.  The magnetism on screen was also evident off-screen as well.  John's powerful, virtuoso voice on top of his existing charisma only served to forge the impression that the dynamic, vacillating vampire  who was so compelling to watch was the heart and soul of its creator John Frid.

Throughout his life, John had numerous individuals assist him, especially during and after the success of DARK SHADOWS.  Apart from competence to do the tasks he asked, the two components in getting along with John were having a sense of humor and not treating him as if he were anything special, other than being your employer.  If you were awe of him and leaping to do everything for him, you were quickly out the door.

He told me once that he couldn't have fans as friends.  Of course, that wasn't true and I asked him if I was chopped liver or something.   Were we not friends?  He recanted that statement but then amended it: friends don't ask me for an autograph for themselves, "friends don't scramble to do anything that I want," in other words, treat him like a celebrity or some big deal. In his private life, he detested that.   He expected that at conventions and from fans, whom he appreciated.  Conventions and public appearances were the appropriate arenas for adulation.  That's what fans do because they admire you and want to thank you for giving them the character of Barnabas.  (One of the reasons after returning to Canada John agreed to let me launch a website for him was the desire to stay in touch with fans and continue to entertain them.)  He divided up his world between his private and public life and insisted on keeping them separate.  (When he moved back to Canada in 1994, many of those who were integral to his public life lost contact with him.  For him, that part of his life was over and so were those relationships.  Frankly, I wondered if I would be one of them and decided not to pursue him in Canada (even though drove to Canada with him and stayed a week to assist him in the move).  I would leave it up to him to contact me if the relationship was going to continue.  Much to my surprise, John did call me and invite me and my friend Kay up to visit him about five months later after he was settled.  I really was quite surprised, but pleased as I liked him very much.

In order to stay grounded in reality and not fall into the "Hollywood" trap, it was important for John to remain the same John Frid who grew up in Hamilton.  That is where is personal identity rested and would remain all of his life.  He was fiercely proud of his native Canada, especially his home town of Hamilton.  For the last fourteen years of his life, John was the guy in Ancaster who judged garden competitions in local communities, he directed playlets for historical societies, attended the symphony (bought two tickets for the season so he would have a seat to put his coat on) and sometimes taught acting.  I would go up for a long weekend and accompany John on his judging garden and flower competitions and it was strange for me to be with him and other people when the other people were not in the least impressed with him as an actor.  They didn't even know he was an actor.  In such an environment, John was a different person than when attending public functions.  It's not that he was phony; but the public face and the private face could be very different.  They were two separate worlds for him and he operated the best way for wherever he found himself.  He had a greater, fundamental need for being in his private world.  It gave him solace and control he did not have in his public life.

So it should come as a surprise to no one that John Frid would quietly pass away with no memorial service, no fuss, no nothing.  He retained his sense of privacy to the very end.


Cheryl said...

That sure sounded like him; he never did like a fuss being made over him or people to "yes" him all the time. I remember when I was invited along with other people to watch him rehearse his one-man show, "Fools and Fiends," and he asked for feedback. Most just sat there and smiled, too nervous to offer an opinion; others eagerly said that they liked it, but offered nothing more. I actually had the balls to offer some sort of constructive advice (I can't recall what it was), and Will told me afterward that Jonathan said, "I like that girl! She's not afraid to talk to me."

I only wish I could talk to him one time again.

Patrick Lynch said...

Well said, well said. I'm sure a great many fans could not separate Mr. Frid from Barnabas, but some of us do see the difference and appreciate those glimpses of the man himself. It strikes me that his dilemma was shared by a few others from the same era. William Shatner being the most notable example. It took him years to come to terms with having portrayed a character who would become so iconic.

If anyone had a copy of Frid's picture album from 1969 and read what he said, one could see that Frid the man couldn't possibly also be Barnabas. He was too good at his craft to merely play himself. Barnabas did things that Frid would never have done, but Frid's understanding of human nature in both real life and in years on the stage gave him the vocabulary to bring Barnabas to life.

To his fans, myself included, Frid the man became all the more dear to us in his later years and we appreciated his website and his videos and even his sometimes gruff interviews. It means a lot.

Patrick Garrison said...


Well said indeed. I remember going over to Jonathan's the first time to do an interview with him for Joe Lilley's fanzine, with which we were affiliated at the time. In one sense, we did want to go over and interview Barnabas. I mean, that was the person we'd known from watching TV. Instead we got to meet a person far more interesting in his own right. The picture we took for that interview shows him sitting in his apartment in a chair, behind the chair, just peeking out, is a fan painting of Barnabas. Apropos for both.

Celebrity is a very lonely and thin atmosphere, so I don't and can't blame Jonathan (and this was true for Barnabas & made the character so compelling) for wanting to hold on to his humanity. Look at the toll it's taken: Elvis, Michael Jackson, most recently Whitney Houston. All died at relatively early ages, burned out by the ravages of living in a world surreal, rather than ordinary. When you get to the top, there is only one way from there to go. As an actor, or musician, the joy is in the work, the giving and getting back - living in a bubble is difficult.

So a toast in Jonathan's memory - one of his bloody mary's will do nicely - we are all richer people for his being here - whether he wanted to admit it or not. And for which we can all give a collective "thank you!"