Paul Wilson: Famous Hamilton vampire remembers local librarian from the grave

Jonathan Frid, born into a wealthy Hamilton construction family, chose another path in life. He had millions of fans on U.S. TV, and then it ended. He died this year and his will has brought at least one surprise.
Jonathan Frid of Hamilton was relieved to learn that his wildly successful U.S. soap opera was not on view in his hometown. (Margaret Houghton's collection)

She got the call this summer.

"Hello," said the person from the trustee’s office. "Are you the Margaret Houghton who’s worked at the library for years?"

"Yes," Houghton said. It’s 34 years. She’s archivist in the Local History department at Central.

"Well," said the caller, "you’ve been named in a will."

"Whose will?" Houghton asked.

"John Frid’s."

Frid. You may know that name. They were big in construction around here. There’s a street named for the family, just west of Dundurn.

One of the earliest publicity photos for Jonathan Frid, before he found fangs. (John Vickers, London)

But John Frid knew early on that he wanted nothing to do with construction. He wanted to act.


And for a short, strange moment in time, he was very big.

Frid graduated from McMaster, performed with the Players’ Guild here, studied acting in London, then at Yale. He moved to New York, changed his name to Jonathan, got some work on Broadway, shared some scenes with Katharine Hepburn.

And in 1967 he landed the part in a floundering afternoon soap on the ABC network called Dark Shadows.

He was to play Barnabas Collins, a vampire back from the dead. And every now and then he would be called on to show his fangs and nibble a woman on the neck. The role was to last just a few weeks, until someone drove a stake through his heart.

But Frid poured his heart into it. And the people loved him. Ratings went wild. He was getting 5,000 letters a week. A sample, from a housewife in Illinois: "I wish you’d bite ME on the neck. I get so excited watching you. I could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes."

Jonathan Frid, aka Barnabas Collins, singlehandedly turned the Dark Shadows franchise into gold. There were comics, posters, costumes, games, records. (Gold Key Comics)

Frid’s Barnabas was adored by 15 million viewers a week. Kids would rush home from school for a fix, five days a week at 4 o’clock. There were Dark Shadows comic books, novelettes, posters, jewelry, costumes, penny banks, puzzles, colouring books, card games, toys, sweaters, records."

It’s believed Frid was making $200,000 a year at the peak. The series lasted until 1971. There were a couple of Dark Shadows movies. And then, as such things do, it ended.

In the mid ‘90s, Frid moved back to the area, to a hideaway behind a hedge on Wilson Street in Ancaster. A few years after his return, I spoke to him there.

He declared that the soap in which he starred was "the most God-awful thing anyone ever dreamed up." He said he was delighted when he learned Hamilton hadn’t been watching Dark Shadows – WKBW out of Buffalo pulled the program after thousands of complaints from irate mothers.

But young Margaret Houghton had a way. At the family cottage on Lake Erie, with rabbit ears, you could pick up the ABC affiliate from Erie, Pa. just fine.

John Frid signed his will 10 years ago. He wanted most of his money to go to the Hamilton Community Foundation. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The years passed. Margaret started at the library. And in the late ’80s, she got a letter from New York. Frid was trying to pull together some history on his early acting days here.

Houghton, also archivist with the Players’ Guild of Hamilton, sent off copies of old photos, programs, clippings.

Half-a-dozen years later, when Frid moved back here, he stopped in at the library to thank Houghton in person. Then he became a frequent visitor.

He and Houghton talked about history, acting, plays. "He was quiet, almost shy," she says. "And very funny."

She would run into him every now and then at MacRoni’s on Main West. Frid never cooked, ate out every night. As he got older, he didn’t come into town much. Houghton guesses she hadn’t seen him for a decade.

Margaret Houghton left Ancaster Self-Storage with a loaded-down car, but she had to have the crew from Whitehall's take the encyclopedias away. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

She knew he was still out there. She had come across a Jonathan Frid website. For decades, he hadn’t like talking about Dark Shadows. But that changed, and he discovered there was money to made.

On the website, Frid was even selling calendars. Houghton was thinking she’d get one for the new year ahead.

But on April 14, Frid died of pneumonia. He was 87.

And then that call to Houghton from the trustee. She was later sent a copy of the will, signed by Frid 10 years ago.

He wanted no funeral. He is giving $5,000 or $10,000 each to a handful of family and friends. The bulk of his estate, after his home and all possessions are liquidated, are to go to the Hamilton Community Foundation.

But there is one more paragraph in that will, with instructions "to deliver to Margaret Houghton, librarian, my books for distribution as she sees fit in her sole and absolute discretion."

And she got a call last week from Whitehall’s, the auction people, saying they had about a dozen boxes of books in a locker at Ancaster Self-Storage. She could decide which of them she wanted to keep.

So up she went in her little red Escort. And there, in a jumble, were the literary remains of Jonathan Frid.

The recent remake of Dark Shadows featured a cameo appearance by Jonathan Frid. He's being welcomed at the door by Frid fan Johnny Depp. (Warner Brothers Pictures)

Houghton, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment downtown already laden with books, had to say no to the 30-volume Encyclopedia Britannica. But Frid was clearly a man who used those big books. In one volume, for instance, there were yellow Post-it notes on Prosody, Quebec and Richard I.

Houghton packed everything else into the car, for careful consideration at home. The Dark Shadows Companion, a 25th-anniversary collection. The Brando biography. Bette Davis too. A 2,363-page Illustrated Shakespeare, more Post-its throughout. And Final Exit – The Practicalities of Self Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying.

There is no fortune here, but Houghton is moved all the same. "I’m touched he remembered me."

Last year they flew Frid to England for a cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s big remake of Dark Shadows. It stars Johnny Depp, a fan of Frid’s vampire since boyhood.

The movie opened this spring, a few weeks after Frid died. "Probably a good thing," Houghton says. "It got terrible reviews."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.