Jennings, Chris Jennings, Chris Collins, Tim Shaw
in: 95 episodes
episode: # 554, August 8, 1968
episode: # 1001, April 27, 1970
Cecil Donald Briscoe, March 20, 1940, Mississippi
October 31, 2004, Memphis
Don Briscoe played tortured souls on Dark Shadows, plagued by the torments of vampirism and a werewolf curse--situations that tragically mirrored his real life. For decades, the handsome actor battled bipolar disorder, and after walking away from world-wide fame, he died a near-recluse.
Don had humble Southern origins: He was born in a log cabin on his grandfather's cotton farm near Scobey, Mississippi. He grew up in Memphis, where his father (Cecil Dixon Briscoe) was a service manager at Firestone and his mother (Pauline) was director of admissions at City of Memphis Hospital.
After gravitating toward speech and drama at Treadwell High School in Memphis, Don attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then Columbia University in New York, where he studied acting and earned his master's degree in English.
early acting credits include New York stage appearances in Come
Back Little Sheba, The Tavern, and Friends and Romans.
On TV, he played Tony Merritt on Days of Our Lives in 1966,
and he made a cameo appearance during the second season of I
Dream of Jeannie; he played a NASA officer in the episode titled "A Secretary is Not a Toy," which aired March 20, 1967.
1968, Don joined the cast of Dark Shadows as Tom Jennings,
a handyman and vampire who menaced Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall). After Tom was staked, Don later
played his character's twin, Chris, a werewolf. Don's sexy, brooding good looks
made him an instant favorite among fans, and he became the subject
of countless fan magazine photos and articles.
1970, he took part in a photo spread in 16 magazine with
the groovy title "Don Briscoe Invites You: 'Come to My Pad.'"
The photos show the actor in his east side tenement apartment,
lounging against a huge stack of books (with the caption, "like
to join me? Pull up an encyclopedia and sit down") standing
with his shirt open and his bare chest exposed, and pulling a peach
out of a tiny refrigerator that seemed to house only ginger beer
Don's sex appeal was a capitalized on in the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows, in which he played Todd, Carolyn's fiancee
and the pajama-clad target of her vampire attacks. He was also featured prominently in some of the film's advertising, with the suggestive catch-phrase "Come see how the vampires do it."
While on Dark Shadows, Don briefly took over the lead role of Donald in the groundbreaking, gay-themed Off-Broadway play Boys in the Band. (Keith Prentice and Christopher Bernau also appeared in the play at various times during its initial run.)
Suffering from ill health brought on by drug experimentation, Don
left Dark Shadows and New York. In his final episode, which
aired in early 1970, he was clearly unwell.
According to his sister, Bonny Jenkins, Don drifted to California and suffered a mental breakdown. "He got into the drug culture very heavily in California, which was unfortunate," she told a newspaper reporter years later. "I think he was searching for something spiritual, but he was looking in the wrong places."
DS costar and longtime friend Roger Davis told the same reporter, "Whatever mental problems developed for Don, they were really kind of tied into the sixties scene in New York."
Seeking stability, Don returned home to Memphis in the early 1970s and moved in with his parents. He intended the stay to be brief, but diagnosed with bipolar disorder and declared legally disabled, he remained there, shunning the spotlight, for the rest of his life.
In 1990, dedicated fans Jeff Thompson and Joe Intelgia tracked down the reclusive actor. As Thompson reported in the Shadows of the Night fanzine soon after, Briscoe said he had "completely retired" from acting, and had no intentions of ever attending a Dark Shadows Festival. He had been in touch with some of his castmates fairly recently, however. "Roger Davis called me a year ago," Briscoe told the fans. "Kathryn Leigh Scott sent me a copy of her book (My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows). It was very well done." Thompson and Integlia asked Briscoe to be record a videotaped greeting for his fans, but he declined. "I'm not one for interviews," he explained.
Thompson reported that Don was a bit heavier than he'd been during his "teen idol" days. By the time of his death, he'd ballooned to over 300 pounds, which complicated his health. He had heart disease and in 2003 was hospitalized with lung problems. The following year, the body of the former monster-movie star was found in his home on Halloween.
"He suffered," said Bonny, who discovered her brother's body, after failing to reach him by phone for a couple of days. "He went through a lot of mental torture all these last years. He was a dear, sweet soul, but that disorder can be so evil...."
When Bonny found Don, he was peacefully lying in his bed. His official cause of death was heart disease.
Bonny said Don's spirits had rapidly declined along with his health, following the June 27, 2004, death of his 94-year-old father, which left him alone in the house. (His mother died in 1999.)
(Special thanks to DS fan Ed Shoulta, who alerted DSO to Don's death--and who attended his funeral. And to John Beifuss, Memphis movie critic, who wrote Don's touching obituary for the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, from which some information for this biography was obtained.)
Days of Our Lives (Tony Merritt, 1966), The Guiding Light.
TV: Jericho, I Dream of Jeannie, Iron Horse
COMMERCIAL: Camel Cigarettes, Folger's Coffee, Palmolive
House of Dark Shadows (Todd Jennings, 1970).
The Boys in the Band (Donald, 1969), Come Back Little Sheba
(1968), Light Up the Sky (1968), Friends and Romans (Tom Gallagher),
The Tavern (1964), Impromptu at Versailles (1964).
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Nick).
At Columbia University, Don and future DS costar Roger Davis were both members of the Columbia Players, headed by future horror movie director Brian De Palma.
• • •
Don's memorial services were held November 3, 2004, at Memorial Park Funeral home in Memphis. Since a substantial obituary wasn't published in local papers until several days later, only a few fans attended.
• • •
While living and working in New York, Don sometimes carried a portable TV with him, in a brown paper bag, so he could catch episodes and critique his own performance. A photo of Don and the tiny TV was once featured in 16 magazine.
• • •
As I became good friends with Louis Edmonds, while we worked on his biography, I asked him about Don, one of my favorite DS actors, and one I realized I would probably never meet.
Louis said Don was "too sensitive to survive in the cut-throat world of show business."
Louis also told me he had briefly harbored a crush on his handsome co-star and at first wondered if he, like Louis, might be gay. He was pleased when Don invited him to his apartment, for, Louis said, "some great pot." As they shared the marijuana, Louis was disappointed to learn Don was in fact heterosexual. "Alas, that was a romance which not meant to be," Louis told me with a sigh and a melancholy smile. Louis attended a performance of Boys in the Band while Don was in the play and was impressed by his performance. The actors remained friends until Don left New York.
• • •
In magazine interviews published while he was on Dark Shadows, Don professed a desire for world peace and solitude, and after leaving the show, he removed himself from the public spotlight entirely.
• • •
Don was pictured on several DS collectible items, including:
√ Several different bubble gum cards, including a couple in an orange-bordered set issued just a few years ago by Imagine Inc.
√ On pages of many of the calendars released each year by the Dark Shadows Festival -- as well as in the programs for just about every year's Fest.
√ On the back cover of the Dark Shadows Soundtrack Album.
√ On various promotional pieces related to the film House of Dark Shadows -- such as newspaper ads and lobby cards.