Mary O’Leary, winner of 7 Daytime Emmy Awards, paves new path with Jonathan Frid documentary

Interview by Gordon Shelly
Photos provided by Mary O’Leary

After graduating from Rhode Island College Mary O’Leary began a career as stage manger at Trinity Rep, a regional theatre in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. She then moved to New York City with a dream of working on Broadway.

Her goals shifted when she was hired in 1984 to work in the production office of the daytime television drama, Guiding Light where she worked her way up through the ranks and went on to a produce four other daytime dramas: Another World, One Life to Live, General Hospital, and The Young and The Restless.

Along the way she picked up 7 Daytime Emmy Awards. O’Leary says of this time, “I loved my years producing soap operas. They taught me how to tell a story with heart.”

Her most recent project, Dark Shadows and Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story, is a documentary about the popular actor famous for his portrayal of Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows.

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas in front of portrait 1967

INFLUX MAGAZINE: It is apparent that you have a passion for the subject matter in Dark Shadows And Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story. What was the inspiration that made you decide to move forward with this ambitious project?

O’Leary: Executive Producer, Jim Pierson on behalf of MPI Media Group came to me with a proposal (and budget) to conceive, direct and produce a documentary on actor Jonathan Frid. He portrayed the vampire Barnabas Collins on the late 1960’s gothic serial Dark Shadows and was a dear friend of mine. He passed away in 2012. I wanted to tell his story, so I jumped at the chance.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: From conception to completion, how long did it take to finish the project? Can you speak to some of the challenges in doing so?

O’Leary: I began in April 2019 and a final cut of Dark Shadows And Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story was delivered to MPI Media Group in June 2021. It was released on October 5, 2021 on Apple TV.  Challenges, well, of course – the pandemic. I was thrilled when I found a recording in the UCLA Archives of Jonathan in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 from 1960. With the lockdown it took almost a year, but I got it!  Due to restrictions, I could not be in Voice Trax West (in Studio City) when the voiceover actors were recorded. I was at home listening and giving feedback. Also, I worked with my editor strictly remotely.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: What impact did Dark Shadows have on you? Did it in anyway influence your experiences in television?

O’Leary: As kid it was fun to race home from school to watch Dark Shadows, which was filled ghosts, witches and a sympathetic vampire. It was such a unique show it did spark my desire to work in TV. Thirteen years after its cancellation I was happy to discover the show in reruns and could appreciate the writing and acting in a new light. If given the opportunity, I wanted to work with Jonathan Frid.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: How well did you know Jonathan Frid and how did that friendship help in creating this documentary?

O’Leary: In 1985 Jonathan hired me to help him with development of a one-man show and handle all the bookings and marketing.  We spent endless hours together eventually developing three one-man shows that the toured the country for almost a decade. He shared many stories about his family, theatre career and years on Dark Shadows. Those stories helped shape the documentary.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: What was the experience like doing research and gathering archival footage and arranging so many interview?

O’Leary: Researching was an adventure. At times frustrating, but so exciting when I found a rare photo or archival video of Jonathan on stage.  We averaged about two to four interviews a day and filmed in 11 different locations in the US and 3 locations in Ontario, Canada. With pre-production carefully plotted out and very adept crews (different in every city) our shoot days ran smoothly. My favorite location was the courtyard of the Old Mission at Santa Barbara – it was fabulous!  Pete’s Tavern in NYC looked great, but a choosing a restaurant that was  prepping to open was not good for my sound recordist!

INFLUX MAGAZINE: It seems that Jonathan Frid had an amazing influence on many people. Were there any experience/influences anyone shared during the making of the documentary the surprised you?

O’Leary: I knew two of my interviewees thought of Jonathan as mentor, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of emotion shown by both of them – Elena Nacanther and Will McKinley – as they shared their stories. They helped create poignant moments in the documentary.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: Over the course of this documentary, you were able to talk to people who knew Jonathan through his life and career. How did their input and insight help shape the documentary?

O’Leary: I was grateful to get an interview with a contemporary of Jonathan’s Barry Fuller, who is a regional theatre actor in Memphis. His awareness of Jonathan’s personal life enabled me to present a complete portrait. TV Talk Show Host Dick Cavett  surprised me with funny stories about their time at the Yale School of Drama and at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT.  His sharing those theatrical memories helped me set the focus early in the documentary.  And later when I needed to draw everything together actor Anthony Zerbe (Omega Man, Harry O) gave a powerful speech defining the art of acting. It was priceless.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: Was there anyone in particular who really assisted in make in this come together as a final project? What role did they play?

O’Leary: The most essential person on this documentary was my editor and post producer, Michael Giglio. He did not know the television series Dark Shadows or actor Jonathan Frid, so his objective point of view was an asset throughout, but especially in the final stages of cutting for time. Using his graphic skills, he created terrific opening titles and he gave fantastic  suggestions when we worked on the music score together.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: Having finished the film and and had screenings have you heard from family members, friends, and /or colleagues involved? How have they responded to the finished movie.

O’Leary: I am happy to say his family and colleagues were unanimous in their praise. They said Dark Shadows And Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story captured the heart of the man they knew.  Jonathan’s Dark Shadows co-star David Selby (Falcon Crest) said in a recent podcast, ”The documentary is a fitting tribute to a very special man.”  Dark Shadows fans have also been enthusiastic in their praise. They are delighted to get acquainted with the man beneath the vampire’s cloak.

Mary O’Leary with Jonathan Frid in 1985

INFLUX MAGAZINE: How did the vision of the documentary change from when you first started, to the final film?

O’Leary: My vision did not change. I wanted fans to understand Jonathan’s characterization of a guilt-ridden vampire was forged by his training at RADA in London and the Yale School of Drama and his years performing off-Broadway and in regional theatres across the United States. I loved what a reviewer from the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Dark Shadows and Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story ultimately evolves into a love letter for the performing arts, exemplified by a man who’s devotion to his craft became the driving force in his life.”

INFLUX MAGAZINE: Is there a particular message or takeaway you would like a viewer to have about Jonathan Frid after viewing the movie?

O’Leary: You don’t have to know Dark Shadows to enjoy this film. It is a portrait of a man who took an interest in people he meet. He listened and made the person feel validated.  He treated everyone with respect and kindness. In our world today I think we could all take a lesson from his book.

INFLUX MAGAZINE: With so many great successes on the festival circuit, what’s next for Dark Shadows And Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story?

O’Leary: I am thrilled by the accolades my documentary has received, which have included a Daytime Emmy nomination as Outstanding Daytime Special, a Telly Award for excellence, and numerous film festival awards.  All I want is for people to watch it!  There are so many films for viewers to choose from these days, I  keep promoting Dark Shadows And Beyond – The Jonathan Frid Story through interviews such as this one, to encourage people to look for it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Plex, Pluto, Tubi or VUDU!

INFLUX MAGAZINE: Is there anything else you would like to add about the movie. Anything additional you would like the readers to know?

O’Leary: I was thrilled when actor Ian Buchanan  (General Hospital, Twin Peaks) agreed to take part in the documentary. He read letters Jonathan wrote to his parents in the 1960’s. In a recent interview Ian said, “More than a decade after his passing, Jonathan is still so beloved by his fans. The accolades this documentary has received from film festival, and the the TV Academy are a confirmation of his timeless appeal and a testament to the way Mary O’Leary has told his story.”

INFLUX MAGAZINE: What’s next for Mary O’Leary?

O’Leary: I am available for work. I would loved to work on another documentary.

Jonathan Frid with a painting done by a fan at Dark Shadows convention 1983