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Remembering Dark Shadows Creator Dan Curtis


The man who created Collinwood and its cursed crew of inhabitants died in early 2006, just weeks after the death of his wife of more than fifty years.

Dan Curtis died around 6 a.m., March 27, at his California home after a brief battle with cancer. He was 78. Curtis' wife, Norma, died twenty days earlier of heart failure. They had been married for 54 years.

Forty years ago, Dan and Norma had a fateful conversation at their breakfast table which set in motion a series of events that forever changed the face of daytime television, launched the careers of many TV stars, and impacted the lives of millions of fans around the world.

Dan had a spooky nightmare, which he told his wife about at their breakfast table.

Later, he described the dream to 16 magazine: "I saw a girl with long, dark hair. She was about 19, and she was on a train that stopped in the dark, isolated town. She got off the train and started walking and walking. Finally, she came to a huge, forbidding house. She turned and slowly walked up the long path towards the house. At the door, she lifted a huge brass knocker and gently tapped it three times. I heard a dog howl, and then--just as the door creaked open--I woke up!"

When Dan, already a television producer, recounted the nightmare to Norma, she replied that it sounded like a good opening scene for a TV series. Dan agreed, and soon he pitched the idea to ABC network executives, who gave him a green light to assemble a creative team to flesh out the basic story from his dream.

The dream team developed a Gothic-toned soap opera called Dark Shadows. Its first episode, which aired in the afternoon of June 27, 1966, focused on a young woman with long, dark hair, who arrived at a isolated Maine mansion called Collinwood, home to the Collins family. Ratings for the show were fairly low until Curtis took a creative gamble and introduced supernatural members of the Collins family tree. A Phoenix, played by Diana Millay first goosed the ratings. Later a melancholy, heroic vampire named Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) catapultedDark Shadows into television history.

That fateful morning at the breakfast table, neither Dan nor Norma could have imagined the impact Dark Shadows would have. It attracted a rabidly loyal army of fans, ranging from college professors to housewives to grade-school children -- many of whom still meet at annual Dark Shadows Festivals in New York and California. The main Barnabas Collins storyline, which includes a love triangle between Barnabas, a naive young woman named Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and a vengeful witch named Angelique (Lara Parker) kept fans enthralled, and fired their creativity, inspiring many to create their own books, websites, and fanzines dedicated to the show.

The series went into syndication in the 1970s, most recently airing on the Sci-Fi channel and attracting a whole new legion of fans. Episodes have also been released on VHS and DVD, an extremely rare occurrence for a soap opera. Other DS-related memorabilia has been on the market since the show originally aired -- including novels, board games, puzzles, a View-Master set, and bubblegum cards. While such merchandising of TV shows and movies is commonplace today, in the 1970s it was relatively unusual, and was especially unprecedented for a daytime drama.

Dark Shadows' influence has been seen in many modern soap operas, such as Port Charles (1997-2003 on ABC), which featured a coven of vampires, and Passions (currently airing on NBC) with manipulative witch Tabitha as a main character.

Among the TV stars who got their first major television exposure on Dark Shadows are David Selby (Falcon Crest), Kate Jackson (Charlie's Angels), John Karlen (Cagney and Lacey) and Marsha Mason (Fraiser). The cast was headed by Golden Age film star Joan Bennett and also featured a variety of prestigious New York stage actors including Donna McKechnie, Louis Edmonds, and Nancy Barrett.

Prior to creating Dark Shadows, Curtis was the creator/producer of golf-related TV shows. After DS, his work took a decidedly somber turn. He directed two theatrically released films based on Dark Shadows and produced a coffin-full of horrifying TV movies including Night Stalker (1972); Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (all 1973); as well as Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 cult classic etched into the minds of babyboomers for its particularly frightening story of a sharp-toothed, cursed Zuni doll that terrorized a character played by Karen Black.

Curtis reached a creative peak in the mid-1980s, when he produced, directed, and co-wrote two of the biggest blockbuster mini-series in TV history, Winds of War and War and Remembrance, based on novels by Herman Wouk. The 16-hour Winds of War (1983) starred Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw, and remains among TV's highest-rated miniseries. Curtis followed it with a 29-hour sequel in 1988, starring Jane Seymour and John Gielgud. War and Remembrance earned Curtis many honors, including an Emmy for best mini-series, and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials.

Curtis was a loyal supporter of his favorite artists, working repeatedly with composer Bob Cobert, for example, and frequently casting Dark Shadows alums, including John Karlen in the 1979 TV movie Last Ride of the Dalton Gang.

In 1990, Curtis returned to Collinwood, producing a primetime remake of Dark Shadows for NBC. It starred Ben Cross as Barnabas and movie "scream queen" Barbara Steele as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the vampire's infatuated nemesis. In 2004, he was much less involved with a modernized version of Barnabas' story, a pilot for the WB network, which was not picked up.

Though Dan's pace slowed as he aged, the prolific producer continued working well into his 70s. Among other projects, he considered an animated version of Dark Shadows as well as a Broadway musical based on the show.

His final two projects were the emotionally riveting reality-based 2005 TV movies Saving Milly and Our Fathers.

Madeleine Stowe starred in Saving Milly, based on the best-selling book by political journalist Mort Kondracke, about his wife's battle with Parkinson's disease. Our Fathers, presented on Showtime, focused on the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal and cover-up. It starred Christopher Plummer as Cardinal Bernard Law.

In 2005, the medical conditions of both Dan and Norma rapidly declined. Near the end of the year, Dan was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a condition he chose not to make public. He quietly closed his Dan Curtis Productions office and informed those closest to him about his condition. Norma died a few months later, on March 7, 2006, of heart failure. Dan followed her three weeks later. The 78-year-old died in their Brentwood, California, home in the early morning of March 27.

A larger-than-life presence with dark, piercing eyes, and a mop of curly hair, Curtis could be stubborn about sharing control of his favorite projects. In 2000, while he was thinking about producing the Broadway musical version of Dark Shadows, a Daily News reporter asked him what theater experience he brought to the project.

"How's this? Zero stage credits. None!" he exclaimed. "But what the hell? If they can do Jekyll and Hyde as a stage musical, why couldn't we do Dark Shadows? It is a Gothic romance, and there is a Dark Shadows story, which is now part of the culture."

-- Craig Hamrick

Dan and Norma are survived by daughters Cathy and Tracy. A third daughter, Linda, died in 1975.

Sympathy cards can be sent to The Curtis Family, care of ShadowGram/Marcy Robin, P.O. Box 1766, Temple City, CA 91780-7766.

Donations in Dan and Norma's memory may be made to Dr. Jeffrey Cummings' Alzheimer's Research c/o UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Center, 710 Westwood Plaza, Suite 20238, Los Angeles, CA 90095.






Dark Shadows Online © 2006 Craig Hamrick.
Dark Shadows © Dan Curtis Productions. All Rights Reserved.

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