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

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  • Michael Evenden

    Rumor spoke of gay writers for Dark Shadows as well; in a quick internet search, one can see that, according to Playbill, Ron Sproat, who created the character of Barnabas, was gay. The appeal of the show to boys with a fearful, hidden passion is obvious . . .

  • FreddyMertz

    Hat tip!…right on all points…you actually watched the show. I too loved the camp of it. I’ll still go see the movie, just to compare.

  • Rooney

    Johnny Depp ruins everything. I’m only going to watch it because Michelle Pfeiffer is in it.

  • dvlaries

    In the 60s ABC got all the respect as a network as UPN in its start-up days. The running joke was if you wanted to end the Vietnam War, put it on ABC; it’ll be over in 13 weeks. A cultural smash, even in a daytime one, was a welcome element in turning things around.

    Dark Shadows limped through its first year, just another dreary soap with dreary characters, and with a cancellation threat in the air, creator Dan Curtis decided to throw in a real vampire. “What the hell, better to go down in flames rather than just sputter out of gas.” The turnaround with the introduction of Barnabas Collins was so swift and dramatic, star Joan Bennett said she felt like one of the Beatles.

    In the late 60s, Dark Shadows got more kids directly home from school with no dawdling than any other phenomena. Tie-ins like comic books, lunch boxes and records were quickly commonplace; “Quentin’s Theme,” directly from the show, reached No. 19 Billboard. This kid stayed with it till the last, April 1971. Regrettably, competitive annual daytime Emmy awards were not inaugurated till two years after Shadows left the air.

    And yes, this show had some prime male eye-candy, alright. When witch Angelique was made a vampire herself -punished by warlock Nicholas Blair- she got to sink her fangs into every hunk then on the show: Don Briscoe, Roger Davis, Joel Crothers and finally Frid. David Selby wasn’t around yet, or she’d have got him too.

    I expect the movie to be an affectionate send-up, enjoyable in its own right but baring little relation to the original expect in character names. Those with lasting memories of Dark Shadows’ founding intent, know it’s always meant to be a small-screen pleasure, not a big one.

  • Ted B. (Charging Rhino)

    Barnabas Collins was the archetype “man with a secret” (closeted) who still refused to change was he was. And unlike what we’ve seen in the previews, never had any problems dealing with the reverse-anachronisms of modern civilization. He was always smooth in any social interaction.

    He raged.
    He coped.
    He managed to get on.
    and he succeeded.

  • Dagrlzrd

    I was not allowed to watch Dark Shadows as a kid. My Grandmother thought that it would give me nightmares.But unbeknownst to her, I hid around the corner of the dinning room and got to see quite a bit. What gave me nightmares was when they took away my baby doll and Easy-Bake oven,cause little boys shouldn’t play with such things for too long. Why I ever got them in the first place I shall never know.I was too young to know what Gay was at that time, but I do remember wanting Barnabas to bite me.I think the new movie looks kinda fun,and Johnny Depp has done some pretty good work as an actor. Tim Burton is twisted,and I cannot recall seeing anything that he has done that I did not enjoy.There is too much drama,negativity,and bullshit in this world,so anytime I get the chance to laugh or be entertained even a little I will take it.

  • Ginasf

    Dark Shadows was a classic, creative show and this trashy, dim-witted abomination shows how low our culture has sank in cannibalizing the past and dousing it with stupid CGI. And yes, I agree there were a lot of interesting sexual undertones in the original series which will, no doubt, be dumbed-down in this new “mass-marketed one weekend then forgotten” schlock. Tim Burton has become utterly witless and Depp is a bore.

  • Fockinmeen

    Re Louis Edmonds. I swear this is a true story.

    I was casting an off-Bway musical circa 1982. Louis Edmonds showed up at the audition and was wearing a green military jumpsuit; the kind w/the zipper going from crotch to neck. (I had one too and I looked good in it.)

    The director, Grover Dale, part of the ttriumvirate of queers who married their best girlfriends (Michael Bennett, Anthony Perkins, and GD) commented on Edmonds’ outfit.

    Standing at center stage, Edmonds asked him, “Do you like it?” and proceeded, in one fell swoop, to unzip the suit as far down as it would go, which left him standing there naked as he wasn’t wearing any underwear. (He had an all-over tan and blond pubes.) Edmonds clearly had practiced the trick and found it immensely enjoyable. The uptight queen, Dale, was horrified.

    He did not cast Edmonds.

  • Dagrlzrd

    That is so mean to say that Burton is witless and Depp is a bore.After all only Rumpelstiltskin could spin straw into gold.And I do mean straw.

  • Fockinmeen

    Sam Hall was, I think, the lead writer.

    I wound up sitting next to Sam and Grayson Hall at a production of BUS STOP, which actually took place in a bar! So we talked for a long time.

    Grayson said she had never in her life expected to a be a TV star. Curtis grabbed as many “classical” story plots he could think of out-of-the-air. Sam explained that he figured they were timeless and they were classics so that had to work. Also, I suppose most if not all were public domain, so they were not only timeless but free.

    The work was incredibly grueling, but I never got the sense from either of them that it was never anything but huge fun!

    BTW, both were lovely people.

  • Kit

    Sometime in the ’80s–probably around the time Joel Crothers died–I ran across a reputable profile exposing Joel’s past as a porn star. His porn name was Wade Nichols or Wade Matthews or something like that. Never actually had a video or skin rag in my hand to prove it, but I did look for one. Joel was certainly easy on the eyes with his clothes on.

    Also, Felice Picano, in his memoir “Art and Sex in Greenwich Village,” discusses Joel getting cast in the Off-Broadway production of “Torch Song Trilogy.” He described Joel as being disinterested in the part and too caught up in his soap star status to be really interested in performing in the play, ultimately leaving it as soon as his contract would allow.

  • erasure25

    Don’t watch Dark Shadows. Go watch the other movie that’s opening this weekend, Girl in Progress. My (gay) friend is a producer and would totally appreciate it!!! Thanks!

  • Joe G.

    I thought there rumors about Grayson Hall being lesbian. No?

  • dvlaries

    @Fockinmeen: Grayson, quoted in the Dark Shadows handbook said the show was like a roller coaster ride, “you pray for it to end, but when it does the world seems a little duller.” When the end did come, Hall said to her acting peers, “I don’t know what you’re moping about, you’re only losing one paycheck, (indicating her husband) I’m losing two.”
    The 1970 parallel-time storyline, made while half the cast, including Frid, were making the first Shadows feature film, was as close a plagiarized remake of “Rebecca” as the show could get, with Selby in the Olivier part, Lara Parker a resurrected Rebecca herself, Katherine Leigh Scott in the Joan Fontaine part and Grayson in the stony Judith Anderson/Mrs. Danvers role. It played very well.
    This was a show that you fell in love with, and never never fall out of. I’m proud to have minted two younger rabid fans of it during its 1990s Sci-Fi run.

  • Rob S.

    I would suggest just watching the movie as if it’s something completely different and enjoy it for what it is. If you’re already dead-set on hating it, maybe just do something else that you will enjoy more. Why the vitriol?

  • Michael Evenden

    And, with a little more searching, i see that Joe Caldwell, with whom Ron Sproat created the character of Barnabas, was the most honored writer of the series (although Malcolm Marmorstein had a distinguished screenwriting career)–Yale playwriting credentials and international award-winning novels–and that, while I know of no evidence that he came out publicly and know little of his personal life, he wrote repeatedly on gay themes and characters, was active in AIDS work, and had an active correspondence with the gay community. In sum, Barnabas seems originally to have been a certifiably gay creation. (The Tim Burton movie has no gay vibe that I could perceive, and is mostly a comic homage to the series, full of series and period in-jokes, lushly designed and scored, but sparing itself the travails of much emotion, substituting a whirlwind pace and tongue-in-cheek tone; it has its pleasures, but will never explain why droves of strange kids were hooked on the original.)

  • Tikihead

    A gay comment stream, and nobody has mentioned Jon Smid’s sizeable package? I’ll be the first.

  • David Del Valle

    This is fascinating for me to read since I am at present working on a book regarding the “gay” subtext on Dark Shadows which also lead to the Here channel’s own gay tribute show Dante’s Cove. My rather gay experience with Sam Hall at his home with a camera crew will appear in the next issue of Diabolique magazine. I co-produced the 30th anniversary tribute show along with Barbara Steele in 1996.

  • gymmo

    @Kit: Although Joel Crothers was, supposedly, a closeted homosexual man, in fact engaged to a former female co-star of his from the television soap opera “Somerset” at the time of his 1985 death from an AIDS-related illness, Crothers was not, to my knowledge, ever an actor in adult films.

    Crothers had an extensive career on stage, as well in films and television from the time he was a boy, his most well-known roles in the TV soaps “Dark Shadows,” “The Secret Storm,” and “The Edge of Night.” Before his death, Crothers also appeared in the off-Broadway version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” c-starring with future stars Matthew Broderick and Estelle Getty, as well actor-director Fierstein.

    I think you are confusing Crothers with Dennis Parker (real name Dennis Posa, a/k/a “Wade Nichols, Wade Parker, Wade Vickers”), who did, in fact, appear in several so-called “pornographic” films, most of them actually heterosexual in nature, although an early one with a “gay” theme called “Boynapped.” Parker went on to become a more legitimate actor with his role in the TV soap opera “The Edge of Night,” wherein he portrayed police chief “Derek Mallory” for the last five years of that show.

    Parker also evolved into a singer, having recorded music in the disco genre for Casablanca Records, appeared in connection with such several times on “The Merv Griffin Show” in the late 1970s/early ’80s. Parker also died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. What is interestingly coincidental is Crothers and Parker/Nichols were co-stars in “The Edge of Night” in the same period, and both died from AIDS-related illnesses within months of each other.

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