Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Once upon a long ago time—half a century, to be precise—my friends and I used to rush home from school to catch an American Gothic soap opera called Dark Shadows. The imaginative brainchild of creator Dan Curtis, the weekday series was unlike anything on daytime television. While it is often quipped that Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove, Maine (Murder, She Wrote) is the murder center of the world, Curtis’ spooky Collinsport, Maine was the gathering place for witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts—all of whom conspired to keep the innocent Victoria Winters off-balance in her quest to decipher a murky past.
Miss a single episode and you could literally miss a hundred years, so artfully did the storylines incorporate reincarnation, time travel, parallel time and dead relatives who, bless their hearts, just couldn’t stay dead and entombed in the Collins family crypt. From 1966 to 1971, the series developed what subsequently became a cult following that still exists today. Despite the wonky missteps of a feature length film called House of Dark Shadows in 1970, Night of Dark Shadows in 1971, a prime time series reboot in 1991 called Dark Shadows: The Revival and a Tim Burton horror comedy in 2012 called Dark Shadows, it’s the original that still stirs fond memories. Among my own favorite memories was the introduction of a brooding werewolf named Quentin who had a propensity for flying into a rage and hurling brandy snifters into the fireplace or against a wall. David Selby, the actor who made the role of Quentin so swoon-worthy, not only continues to act in film, television and onstage but is also an accomplished author, a distinction that earned him an interview slot on You Read It Here First.
The 6’3” West Virginia native is unabashed in his praise of why Dark Shadows was a much needed respite during the decade it debuted. “We had the Vietnam War going on, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and I think people in general were feeling anxious about the state of the world. The show was fantasy escapism that gave viewers something ‘different,’ fun and totally strange to look forward to every day.”
That it attracted notable stage actors such as Jonathan Frid, Joan Bennett and Nancy Barrett was a treat matched only by the tight-knit sense of family the cast enjoyed working together in a small studio in Manhattan. “We’d rehearse upstairs and then we’d run downstairs to shoot our scenes. We’d also get exhausted running to and from scenes if the sets were at opposite ends of the studio but the action was supposed to be continuous. Just like a live theatre performance, everyone simply kept going even if something went wrong.” To his knowledge, he never brained anyone with all those brandy glasses he threw.
The two of us enjoy a reminiscence about lightweight tombstones that wobbled and fell over if a character brushed against one during an entrance, copious amounts of dry ice that inexplicably wafted in through interior doorways, and actors who forgot their lines. “We used a teleprompter—which I personally hated—and if something went astray with it during one of Jonathan’s speeches, he’d just amble on saying whatever happened to be scrolling on the screen.”
When he was a teen growing up in the rural environment of Morgantown, Selby had no clue what it was he wanted to do when he grew up. He did, however, enjoy a passion for movies and liked to imagine himself playing Errol Flynn or—on some occasions—even pretend he was a musician. “College wasn’t something that was pushed on me by my parents. In fact, I became the first person on either side of my family to graduate from a university. I saw college as an opportunity to escape and to go somewhere else, although I didn’t know at the time where or what I’d be escaping to.” Nor did he have support among his peers who liked to joke, “Selby will be the first one to flunk out.” Instead he went on to earn several degrees—including a doctorate—just to prove them wrong. “It’s funny, though, that no one ever asks actors if they have a degree. The only thing they want to know is if the person can act.”
It was an instructor named Charles Neel who suggested he take a theatre class. “Theatre definitely saved my life because it gave me a chance to do for real all of the things I’d been acting out in my own imagination.” Once the acting bug bit him, he could never imagine himself doing anything else … and he hasn’t. While a lot of actors say that they got their start acting in the high school play, such wasn’t the case for him. “I tried out for a play and there was a scene where I was supposed to kiss the girl. And so I gave her a kiss and everybody laughed and I decided I’d never do it again.” Famous last words.
He didn’t really know anything about Dark Shadows in his early years in New York until a casting person named Marion Dougherty of Marion Dougherty Associates put him in a cab and told him he was going to an audition. The rest, as they say, is history. In the episodes where the werewolf character was first introduced, however, he didn’t have any lines; he was just a tall, brooding presence with distinctive muttonchops. “And I thought, ‘Oh great. Is this going to be some kind of silent movie gig where I never get to say anything? Why did I say yes to this?’”
So were those muttonchops real? “At the start, they’d glue them on every day and then pull them off after the shoot. This got to be tiring and so I decided to just grow my own.” This, however, brought a new set of problems. Specifically, if you want to run out to a grocery store on the weekend, you can’t just put on a pair of glasses like Clark Kent and no one will know who you are. “I was also doing a lot of theatre and playing characters who obviously weren’t wearing Victorian frock coats and having that much facial hair. Accordingly, I had to keep shaving them off. We later just went back to applying fake ones.”
As the show grew in popularity, it wasn’t just high school students like myself rushing home to see it. He relates with a grin that at his wife’s office in New York at the time, the staff would go into a boardroom and close the door to watch it. “And they weren’t the only ones who did that, either. All over New York, there were plenty of closed board room doors around four in the afternoon!” That he was so easily recognized by fans also created potentially dangerous mob scenes for him. “I remember being told that there was an event I couldn’t go to because of the number of uncontrollable—and unpredictable—people who would be there. And so they got me a car and put me in it and I had to drive myself home.” Golly, where are those Clark Kent glasses when you need a quick switch to anonymity?
Ten years after the end of Dark Shadows, Selby found himself playing another conflicted character—the rakishly handsome, charismatic and conniving Richard Channing on Falcon Crest. “What’s interesting about both series is that the families were headed up by extremely strong matriarchs played by Joan Bennett and Jane Wyman.” Were there to be a reality show where the House of Collins and the House of Channing were pitted against each other, he predicts that the last two left standing from the respective sides would easily be Joan and Jane.
While he continues to have a host of exciting new projects in the works—including Stephen King’s Castle Rock for Hulu—live theatre is a first love we share. “There’s nothing more energizing and personally rewarding than knowing that you’re really reaching people, that you’re giving them something they’ll long remember.”
Given his height and his physique, he’s no stranger to playing Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he originally wrote his novel, Lincoln’s Better Angel, as a stage production. In 2008 he played the role of Abe in James Still’s The Heavens Are Hung In Black at no less than Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. He proceeds to share stories about how the historic theatre was boarded up for years following Lincoln’s assassination. Not only was the structure believed to be bad luck and haunted but any future production about Lincoln himself was met with fear, disdain and even threats. Not unlike, it would seem, the superstition among theatre people about saying aloud the name of “the Scottish play.”
He remembers being onstage and looking up at the presidential box where the tragedy occurred. “I think our current times call for another Lincoln to emerge and guide us. He was certainly a forward thinker in guiding the country through its most troubled times, and a lot of what he had to say still holds true in the 21st century.” He further relates the tidbit that the 16th president had a higher voice than one might expect from someone of his stature. This, thus, required a smidge of adjustment on Selby’s part since the latter’s rich baritone voice is such a trademark of his acting persona.
Along with Lincoln’s Better Angel, he is also the author of In and Out of the Shadows, Promises of Love, My Mother’s Autumn and A Better Place—all of which are available on Amazon. A new screenplay is currently in the works.
So how does his approach to acting compare/contract to his approach to the craft of writing? That one of them requires an external director and the other is an internal director-in-his-head doesn’t phase him at all. “Just like when I was growing up and imagining myself in different play-acting roles, I tend to talk to myself a lot and do the voices of all my characters.”
I tell him that it is yet again something we have in common. As an only child, I entertained myself with a plethora of imaginary friends—all of them coincidentally named after the original Mouseketeers. I’d run around the backyard doing all of their voices, a scenario that caused the neighbors on more than one occasion to ask my parents, “How many children did you say you had?” To which they would reply, “Just the one.”
That it is something we still do as adults in our respective writing careers was a refreshing revelation and perhaps even early foreshadowing that we’d grow up to be actors and authors. With a wink and a grin, he closes our interview with the observation, “I’d say it turned out pretty well then.”