Scream to Screen: Digging Up The Gay Origins Of Dark Shadows

Tim Burton’s re-imagining of the 1960s spooky soap Dark Shadows swoops into theaters tomorrow and as an old-school fan of the original, I’m not convinced he’s gotten the tone right: There’s something about Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins that feels like a vampire version of Austin Powers —and an insult to the source material.

Dark Shadows was a monument to campy goth melodrama—and that’s where the humor should come from: The flubbed lines, the boom mics and crew members showing up in shots, sets falling apart during deadly-serious scenes—not stale fish-out-of-water jokes. That unintentional campiness was a huge part of what drew me to DS when I watched it on the Sci-Fi Channel back when I was a kid (and it was still called the Sci-Fi Channel).

Revisiting the show, though, I wonder if it was just Dark Shadows‘ ridiculous grandiosity that sucked me in, or was it the preponderance of homos on set? On a fan forum, someone once posted that it would be easier to list the Dark Shadows actors who weren’t gay rather than those that were. That’s an exaggeration, but there were plenty of gay ghouls haunting Collinwood. Let’s take a look, shall we?


Louis Edmonds (Roger Collins)

Louis “Big Lou” Edmonds was the most beloved member of the original Dark Shadows cast, despite often finding himself playing humorless icy father figures like Roger Collins and Barnabas’s own severe patriarch, Joshua. “He would be saying something incredibly droll—or naughty—one minute, and then… he would slip into character, leaving Nancy Barrett and I very much out of character and trying not to laugh at whatever witticism he had just uttered,” co-star Alexandra Moltke (Victoria Winter) told Barnabas & Company author Craig Hamrick in 1995.

Edmonds was out to friends and coworkers his entire life though he only came out publicly in his 70s, in the authorized biography Big Lou: The Life and Career of Actor Louis Edmonds. Turns out he was a regular in Fire Island’s Cherry Grove, where he hosted friends and co-stars—like Barnabas Collins himself, Jonathan Frid (in swimsuit shot above, with Edmonds at left).


Click through for more gay secrets from the original Dark Shadows!

Photo: Louis Edmonds, Edwin Snyder, ABC

Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins)

You can’t talk Dark Shadows without taking about Barnabas Collins, and you can’t talk about Barnabas Collins without talking about Jonathan Frid. The actor, who quickly became the focus of the series when his character was introduced a year into its run, wasn’t officially out and rarely spoke publicly about his private life. But fan speculation has been reignited since the 87-year-old Frid’s death last month. Village Voice scribe Michael Musto said, “Frid always came off like a fey cross between Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.” And there was the hot fan who once approached Frid, “only to have the actor coo, ‘Let’s talk about you.’” Musto supposedly uncovered the gay bars Frid used to hang out in and the hustlers he used to hire. That’s good enough for me!


Joel Crothers (Joe Haskell)

For my money, Joel Crothers was the series one certifiable hunk. He played fisherman Joe Haskell, the all-American good-guy boyfriend of bad girl Carolyn Stoddard—and later the fiancée of frequently victimized waitress Maggie Evans.  There was also his role as the dastardly, though no less dreamy, Lt. Nathan Forbes during Victoria Winters’ trip back in time to 1795. (Hey, it was a soap opera!)

Later in his career, Santa Barbara, Crothers would be noted by gossip columnist Liz Smith for his striking resemblance to Tom Selleck. But during his time on Dark Shadows (1966-69), he was a fresh-faced twink. Though he got star billing in the original off-Broadway run of Torch Song Trilogy, Crothers never came out publicly: When he died  in 1985 from AIDS-complications, he was engaged to actress Veleka Gray.


Keith Prentice (Morgan Collins)

Toward the end of its run, Dark Shadows had a bit of an incestuous relationship with The Boys in the Band. Several cast members appeared at various times in the play’s original Off-Broadway run, but out actor Keith Prentice was the only one to appear in the film version. He also appeared opposite Al Pacino in 1980’s Cruising but during Dark Shadows’ latter-day decline, he played the not-especially-memorable dual roles of Morgan Collins and James Forsythe. During his time on the show, Prentice became close with Louis Edmonds and often stayed with the senior cast member and his lover. Prentice succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1992.


Christopher Bernau (Phillip Todd)

Like Prentice, Christoper Bernau played the role of Larry in the stage version of The Boys in the Band, and was also a late addition to Dark Shadows. While most of the cast played different roles over the years, Barneau only ever played antique-shop owner Phillip Todd. He appeared in 23 episodes before the character plunged to his death off the series’ iconic Widow’s Hill. Bernau later gained further fame on Guiding Light, which he left when he became too ill from AIDS to show up to work. He died of a heart attack brought on by complications from the disease in 1989.