Megan & Maggie: Mad Men & Dark Shadows
“Mad Men,” the hit drama set in New York City in the ’60s, just finished its sixth season, and this year brought major changes to Megan Draper’s character as she pursued acting full time. Kathryn noticed some similarities between the fictitious character and her own experiences during the same time period and setting, and reflects upon them below.
Megan Draper, in an episode fatefully titled “Dark Shadows,” pokes fun at another actress who is auditioning for a role on a soap featuring vampire Barnabas Collins — the show I happened to be in from its first episode in June, 1966. Megan’s trajectory as a young actress launching a career in New York seemed to mirror mine — that is, until we bumped up against Episode 9 in Season Five of “Mad Men” in which she described “Dark Shadows” as a “piece of crap.” I am admittedly prejudiced, and more than a little defensive, about the cult Gothic series that “every kid ran home from school to watch” — but 47 years later, I am also still collecting residuals on the 1,225 episodes!
I realize Megan’s character has been constructed with a larger dramatic purpose in mind, over which she has no control, so I can hardly blame her for a path not pursued. But Megan subsequently takes a role on another soap, in which she plays two characters, and seemingly worries constantly about being fired.
“Dark Shadows” was also my very first job on television and I ended up playing four characters during the four-year run of the show. Unlike Megan, I was not terribly concerned about being dropped from the series because no matter what role I played, I was always the main squeeze of Barnabas Collins, arguably the template for all modern-day vampires. Our love scenes involved fangs, bats, bites and a good deal of fake blood, all of it presaging Twilight, “True Blood” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Dark Shadows” actors were never concerned about being killed off because we inevitably came back as another character in another time period.
For whatever reason, show creator Matthew Weiner chose to place Megan on a troubled soap that she feels will stymie her career. But “Dark Shadows” was the launching pad for many of us who were regulars on the series, including Kate Jackson; appearing in guest roles were Susan Sullivan, Donna McKechnie and Marsha Mason. If Megan had got a role on our show, she may also have had a crack at starring in an MGM feature film based on the series. In 1970, I starred with Jonathan Frid, Joan Bennett and Grayson Hall in House of Dark Shadows, which was a critical and box office success that helped save the studio from bankruptcy that year.
Megan would also have had a chance to develop her acting chops doing period drama on stories drawn from classic literature: Jane Eyre, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Turn of the Screw, among others. While other soaps were largely domestic dramas where characters gossiped over coffee, Dark Shadows actors were doing stories involving the paranormal and time travel in what was virtually a classic anthology series.
We had our own repertory company of actors, all of us playing multiple roles, working with wonderful, innovative directors — including, Lela Swift, an award-winning woman director in the pioneering days of “live” television. What other soaps featured original orchestral music? Bob Cobert composed the evocative theme music for “Dark Shadows,” with a number of his compositions appearing on the Billboard charts. For its time, the period-accurate sets designed by Sy Tomashoff far outshone anything one could see on the other soaps of the day, all of it crammed into tiny ABC Studio 16 on West 53rd Street. What a great opportunity for young actors to hone their skills, working with wonderful veteran actors in a show that afforded so many challenges playing completely different characters with different accents in different centuries. Aside from that, the show was great fun!
Dan Curtis created a classic with “Dark Shadows” and secured his legacy with “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Thanks to Dan, “Dark Shadows” lives on, attracting new generations of viewers to the series on DVD. It’s still fun — and Megan Draper could have joined us for the ride!