Losing cast members from Dark Shadows is, unfortunately, something that oldtime fans of the show have gotten used to, yet it’s always a sad moment and that’s particularly true with the loss of Lara Parker, who made such an impact in her role as Angelique Bouchard.
I had the opportunity to interview Lara a number of times over the years and was always amazed at how friendly and open to chatting she always was. Most recently it was when she and Kathryn Leigh Scott were promoting a documentary on DS creator Dan Curtis. What follows is that interview in memory of Lara.
How do you contrast Dan Curtis back in the day to the man we’re looking back at now?
LARA PARKER: Well, when he first started out he was the producer of the show and secretly wanted to direct, but hadn’t directed yet. So we were around when he did his first directing gig, when he was, you know, all thumbs and fingers and a little bit scared. On the first day, I think he forgot to say “action.” Somebody said, “Hey, you have to say action or the actress won’t talk.” [To Kathryn] Were you in that first scene when they had the rain with the umbrellas?
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Yes, House of Dark Shadows was the first feature. The one that Lara was in was Night of Dark Shadows, which was the second one. But I was also on the first day of the show, and you could tell that Dan had an interest in directing. He was always standing over the shoulder of Lela Swift, who came out of the Golden Age of Television. Lela was really his mentor and he looked to her from the very first day. Then we did a couple of episodes of Dark Shadows right before he was going to direct the film that I was in. And again, you know, it was Lela standing next to his shoulder, helping him compose the shots. She was his mentor, which is really lovely.
Directorially he certainly came a long way from ‘Dark Shadows.’
LARA PARKER: He went on to do so many great things. You know, he used to say, “I’m done with Dark Shadows!” War and Remembrance and those mini-series he did were so spectacular and certainly a cut above being in the studio trying to make horror movies with a fan and a smoke machine and a little bit of blood.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: The one thing that I hope we were able to convey that I certainly wanted to convey in the documentary Master of Dark Shadows is the fact that Dan’s great strength is that he created a family. From the very beginning of Dark Shadows, the actors were his family. He’d take us all out for big dinners, he would take me aside and say that my skirt was a little too short — it was in the days of the mini-skirt — and really cast an eye on my boyfriends. On one occasion [he] actually fixed me up, because he thought I was dating the wrong kind of guy. So he created this lovely family atmosphere. He created that with every other company he worked with.
LARA PARKER: The tight-knit group; they all cared about each other a lot. Still do. Those of us there are still around, we see each other every year. You know, John Karlen‘s now in the hospital. Everybody’s been to visit him several times. It’s very touching in a lot of ways.
From the outside looking in, ‘Dark Shadows’ was one thing. What was it like making the show?
LARA PARKER: Well, we were just showing up in the morning and doing the job, which entailed three rehearsals in the rehearsal room with tape on the floor and then we’d go down and block it for the cameras. Between your scenes, you’d be running lines, we’d be getting our hair done, getting makeup done and trying to remember everything they’ve told you to do in terms of blocking and very dramatic scenes. Of course that involves things like chroma key. And as I said, smoke machines and blood and screaming for ghosts to return to their graves. It wasn’t sitting around the kitchen table talking about Jane’s divorce; it was big heavy drama, which we played with total conviction. Then, after we do camera blocking, we would hopefully get a dress rehearsal. And then we go on the air and every mistake we made went on the air. There was no editing, which is why we have blooper tapes that have captured moments in which, you know, the characters walk through the graveyard and knock over some styrofoam gravestones. Or if somebody slammed the door, the picture fell off the wall; or you could see the drywall buckling, ’cause that’s all it was. Then there were people walking through the shots and microphones descending out of the air in front of your nose. All of it went on the air, and I think part of the charm was some kind of realization that deep down inside this was being done like summer stock. That these really were actors doing this show, and I think it made it more personal to a lot of the fans. There were so many elements of Dark Shadows that made it outstanding and unique and there’s never been a show like it. As Dan used to say, it wasn’t a horror show. It was Gothic romance.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Lara’s right about that. We used to call the dress rehearsal “the stumble through,” because everything that could go wrong went wrong. One of my favorite memories is, when I was doing the show, I was playing Josette Du Pres and the note was, “Kathryn, when the hand comes up out of the grave, turn to camera three and scream.” Those were the kinds of notes that you would get at the end of the stumble through, and then we went live. So, as Lara brought up, and I cannot stress it enough, we were live. There was only, I think two instances when we had to come back and do the show over on a Sunday. The first time, something happened with one of the actors and everything ground to a halt and you heard Dan’s voice, “That’s it. We’re coming back Sunday!” We could not edit; it was too expensive and virtually impossible to do the editing. So the reason, as Lara brought up, that we had the blooper reel is that we would complain, cry, beg to do something over and Dan would say, “Nobody’s going to see this except housewives and kids. They’ll only see it once.” So now we have the blooper reel.
My favorite was during the end credits when Jonathan walked in front of the camera carrying his street clothes.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: He’s got his clothes over the shoulder. And you know, it’s priceless. It’s just wonderful. I love it.
LARA PARKER: One of the actors — was it Louie Edmonds? — just left. He went to the dressing room, took his pants off and forgot he was in the next scene.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: The cardinal rule was do not leave the set until you’re released, but Louie wandered off. He went up to the dressing room and I knew his scene was coming next. The costume woman saw the look on my face and the two of us ran — I ran faster; I was, like, 19 or 20 — I ran up those stairs and there was Louis in his undershorts. There was this panic and we got him down in front of the fireplace with a brandy sniffer and he did the scene just wearing a smoking jacket.
What do you feel it is about ‘Dark Shadows’ that has kept the memory of it alive for so many years?
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Many reasons, but one of the important ones is that we helped kids get through some really tough times in their lives. Even when we have our Dark Shadows Festivals [conventions]. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me or how many letters I get from somebody saying, “You saw me through my parents divorce; my father drank; I remember sitting on the couch with my grandma watching Dark Shadows and it got me through it.” Growing up is hard even when you’ve got a stable home life and the truth is whatever happened on the playground that day, or whatever the teacher did to you, you could run home from school and lose yourself in the fantasy of Dark Shadows. I think that is the reason so many people of a certain demographic age group hold it so dear. But there were other reasons that made that show special.
LARA PARKER: I have a slightly different take on it. I think a lot of the people loved both my character and the vampire character, because even though they were horror characters of a vampire and a witch, they were both sympathetic. A lot of girls, just as Catherine said, or young men, have said to me, “You got me through my adolescence, because you were such a strong bitch of a witch. If I could have been like you, I could have cast a spell and sent some horrible person who was bullying me to some terrible world with a pin and a doll; it would have been so wonderful to be able to do that.” We’ve been told this so many times that if it hadn’t been for Dark Shadows, they would never have made it. And these are the people who are the deepest fans. The other thing is that Dan used, in the scripts, all the great classics of horror literature that everyone had comes and you know and love for over a hundred years, starting with Jane Eyre, the governess who goes to the spooky house and has the crazy little kid to take care of. Then there was Turn of the Screw and then you go on to Frankenstein, Picture of Dorian Gray, Wuthering Heights …
They did pretty much all of them.
LARA PARKER: But Dan used to say, “Look, this isn’t horror. This is gothic romance,” which is different. Instead of in-your-face blood and guts and screams, and the kind of thing that you pull away from, it was deep characterizations played by mostly theater actors with tremendous commitment. Truth of the moment was more important than anything else. Even if you were telling some monster to return to his grave and not bother you anymore, there was never a tongue-in-cheek send up or a camp thing where it’s like, “You and I both know this is not real.” No, we played it completely and totally with conviction, and that’s the thing that they they didn’t quite get around to with with the Tim Burton movie.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: The other thing we’re both saying is that every character in that show is an outsider, and that’s the other great appeal to young people who all feel like outsiders. Maggie Evans, the character that I played at the very beginning of the show, was absolutely an outsider. She’s from the wrong side of the tracks, her mother died when she was very young, her father was an alcoholic, she was competing with the rich kids in town and the boy that she had her eye on was snatched by the, the rich girl up on the hill. All of those things that we told in old-fashioned bodice ripper style, really go to the heart of what it’s like to be a kid or a teenager.
LARA PARKER: Also, we had a generation that was smoking a little grass and, you know, maybe falling asleep at four in the morning, waking up right about the time that this television show that kind of matched their fantasies was on the air.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: I hope you’re talking about college kids.
LARA PARKER: And then we had housewives — hoards and hoards of housewives in love with a Shakespearian actor who couldn’t remember his lines; who played the part of a monster, who was a sympathetic, guilt ridden, mysterious but miserable person who had been cursed into this ungodly state. And all he wanted to do was get out of it. The last thing he wanted to do was bite anybody. And then we had the Proctor and Gamble lady in the green room watching to make sure that there wasn’t too much blood, because of Standards & Practices. Also, if a man bit a woman, of course he bit her on the neck and it was very sexual act, but if a man bit a man, he had to bite him on the wrist.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: We really broke ground with that show. I’m thoroughly bias, but no question about it that nobody else got it right. Absolutely not.
One of the things I think was so innovative about the show, and again I don’t think he gets the credit for it now that it probably did then, was taking your cast and saying, “We’re going to go to 1795 and everybody’s going to play their ancestors.”
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: I came to the studio one day and, and I saw our producer, Bob Costello and June Puleo, the costume woman working with this clothes dummy, putting a dress on her and a wig. She had fright makeup on and there was a green light shining on her. I asked, “What’s that?” and they said it was the ghost of Josette Du Pres, which had to do with that mysterious portrait that suddenly appeared over the mantle piece in Barnabas’ Old House. I said, “Well, it looks like a clothes dummy,” so I got to stand in for the dummy — at no extra pay. So the makeup and costume was put on me, I got up there, and because the fan was blowing in my face, my eyes watered. I held my arms up and it was so effective that Dan said that he wanted me to play Josette, but ABC said you can’t have the same actress play two different roles. Dan said, “Why not?” — he always said that — and he said, “I’m going to trust the audience to follow this.” And they did. Suddenly there’s Maggie Evans transformed into the 1795 Josette and everybody followed. [To Lara] How many characters did you end up playing?
LARA PARKER: Probably about three or four. So, yes, it was like a repertory company. Absolutely. Which was very endearing to the audience, because you get to see the actors playing different roles. I mean, it was just one of the many, many charms of this show and also very smart on his part. The other thing is, when you died, you’d be, like, “Oh, this is my last day,” and Dan would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be back in some other form, because your character is so popular.”
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: And that’s actually how Lara and I got to play those scenes as Angelique and Josette. Lara came on the show about six months in. I was on the very first day that Jonathan came on to the show, and that was our turnaround. That was when the ratings took off, because those first 13 weeks were really rocky.
LARA PARKER: But the show was good in the beginning. If you go back and watch those early shows, it was subtle and more intellectual and more sophisticated. We had Mitch Ryan on and Joan Bennett, a movie star.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: But when Jonathan came on, he arrived with the character of Barnabas fully formed. I’ve never seen anything like it. And he showed up with the spiked hair, the wolf head cane and cape — everything that we came to know as Barnabas was there. Going along with what Lara said, we were pretty proud of what we were doing, and then to be told that now we’re going to have a vampire on the show, I remember Joan Bennett said she thought we were turning it into a kiddie fright show. But with Jonathan, we gained our cult success because of what he created.
What was it like interacting with the fans then and now?
LARA PARKER: If I were on the subway platform when the kids got out of school, they would start screaming and they would run to the other end of the platform and up the stairs to get away from me. Other times, everybody’s shouting and not coming for an autograph, but fleeing because I did these horrible things to people. I stuck pins in dolls and made people choke and die. On the other hand, as we said earlier, they loved my character, because she was tough and strong.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: And I have to say, I’ve always thought the Dark Shadows fans are attracted to the many elements that we’ve already addressed. The show’s content appeals to them and the characters and so on. But from the very beginning, they were incredibly polite. I remember coming out and, you know, they’d have their autograph books and everything, but it was always, “Miss Scott, Miss Parker…”
LARA PARKER: I don’t think I have ever experienced a moment of rudeness. There was a period of time when we had a couple of bodyguards. There were, you know, some of the conventions, the show was still really big and thousands of people showed up and they’d say, you know, “Make room for the stars.” Nobody touched the stars, and we just burst out laughing.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Our Dark Shadows fans are truly a cut above. And we know many of them as friends now that we see every year, and that’s really lovely. I feel like they’ve kind of grown up with this. There are probably 20 or more clubs active on Facebook right now. For me, it was my very first professional job and one of the wonderful things is that the Dark Shadows fans have stayed with us no matter what else we’ve done. And this was the beginning of our careers, so they’ve been supportive of everything. Whether it’s the books that Lara and I write, or it’s the other shows that we’ve done or whatever, that’s part of who they know as us. That’s really nice.
The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie was a lost opportunity to reinvigorate the franchise. What’s your feeling about it?
LARA PARKER: Well, the tone was wrong, because it was a joke between the director, the actors and the audience. And as I said earlier, we didn’t do that. We didn’t have a vampire that hung from the chandelier like a bat; he was visibly sophisticated, intelligent man that would never have done that.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: It felt like a Saturday Night Live, and that was the bigger problem.
LARA PARKER: He could have taken that franchise and turned it into something that was really remarkable, but instead they chose a different tone. And that lack, I think, of the mystery and the commitment and the reality of our show was just too bad. And it also was not really a story. The thing that made Dark Shadows so good were the stories with well-written conflict on every page carrying you through to the next day and the next day and the next day. We wanted desperately to know what happened next. You didn’t want to know what happened next in Tim Burton’s movie. You just knew it was going to be another set piece with, you know, her face was going to shatter or some amazing thing was going to happen, but you’re not gripped by the story, which was the most important thing on Dark Shadows.
Both of you, of course, ended up in the movie, albeit in a very small role.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: The lovely thing is that Tim Burton did invite Lara, David Selby [Quentin Collins], Jonathan and me to play little roles in it. It was the last thing that Jonathan Frid did and it was wonderful to be together again. But I remember Lara and I walking onto that set and looking around and it was so elaborate — the money you spent for an hour of that filming would have paid for a week of Dark Shadows. But here’s the real essence of it — Lara, are you going to agree with me? — I felt a bit of cynicism among some of the people that we spoke to who were playing our roles. You could feel it. And my heart sank.
LARA PARKER: Helena Bonham Carter, who was so friendly, came and talked to us. She was just a doll, you know, but she said, “We just can’t understand why Tim would want to make this millions and millions of dollars movie on this little soap opera.”
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Thank you. I wasn’t going to mention names.
LARA PARKER: Then we met Eva Green [Angelique], and she was very gracious and she walked the red carpet with us and she was just, she’s just beautiful and wonderful, you know? And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if she asked if I had any advice on how to play this character?” Because the way most of the characters on the show were played was with an understory. I mean, Angelique was vicious, but she also had a broken heart and was in a lot of pain. She loved somebody desperately who seduced her and abandoned her. There was big stuff going on there. But Eva Green’s version was a meany, meany, meany, meany witch. “Oh, I’m a witch, so I’m going to be really, really, really, really nasty.” And that’s not the way to play her. And that’s not the way Barnabas was played. But I was thrilled to be there, though we expected to have some kind of a scene with lines.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: I think Burton did want us to do more, but it was the end of it for Jonathan. He was frail and a little bit confused and he did two takes and said, “OK, well you’ve got it now,” and started walking off the set. I think that that was kind of the end of it. I mean, looks were exchanged and that was it.
What do you think can be done to keep this franchise alive beyond the original generation?
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: Well, it’s going to take a very fresh new look and somebody will come up with that. We’ve all made our suggestions along the way, but unfortunately perhaps Dan himself could have done that. He maybe should have when he had the chance.
LARA PARKER: Here’s the thing: there is somebody out there that sees the show, loves it for the first time or has loved it for a long time, and sees the possibility that it would be a great series. I mean, there are years and years of plots and stories already in place.
One of the subjects at hand is the Blu-ray, ‘Master of Dark Shadows,’ about Dan Curtis. What’s your feeling about that?
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: I hope what comes across is the incredible genius of Dan Curtis, although one of the things that perhaps doesn’t come across enough in the documentary is that this was a volatile man. This man was seized with creativity and he was a powerful person with a particular kind of charisma that made all of us want to please him.
LARA PARKER: He was intimidating. He was gruff, he was loud spoken, he knew what he wanted. Dark Shadows was not easy to do. Not everybody knows how to do it. It’s not horror, it’s Gothic romance. It has depth. And he would kind of shake his head because a lot of times he didn’t feel like people got what he did.
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: One of the things we drew on for Dark Shadows was The Turn of the Screw. And when in London I did Turn of the Screw with Dan, which was the first thing that I filmed in England. We were way up north a working with an entirely English crew. I think I was the only American in it. We were in the middle of an outdoor scene and were losing light and the A.D. [Assistant Director] called for a tea break. Dan blew up. I mean, all heck broke loose. It was one of those things where there was utter silence. And then it was, like, “Mr. Curtis, it’s a union rule.” Well, Dan flapped his arms and shouted, “Drink your tea!” It was too funny, because, of course, I’d known him for a good four years and we all have stories of that volatility. I hope there’s enough of that in the documentary, because it’s absolutely key to this man.
LARA PARKER: Just a really fascinating guy; one of a kind. Absolutely.
This all started in 1966, but how do you look back at it from 2019?
KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: For me, Dan Curtis was the chief catalyst in my life. The very first professional job was Dark Shadows. My first job filming in England, it was Dan. My first job in Hollywood, that was Dan. He nurtured my career when I started writing books. He was hugely supportive and I wonder if he’s still on my shoulder. So when I say gratitude, my career is Dan Curtis.
LARA PARKER: It was my first professional job and when it was over, I went to California to be a movie star. I had everything I needed, right? You know, experience and big nice eyes. And I did a lot of jobs on TV, but after about 20 years I realized that Angelique was the best part I ever got. Angeliqueenabled me to write the novels, and it gave me a following that I still have. It was a wonderful part.