“Angelique has no blood brother. But a brother spirit, a brother devil…”
Here’s where we are: Cassandra, the lunatic sorceress from Martinique posing as Roger’s new wife, has been cast into darkness by the spirit of Reverend Trask, an 18th-century witch hunter raised from the dead — or from the Old House cellar, which is more or less the same thing. She hasn’t been seen for a couple days, and Barnabas and Julia have just discovered that her magic portrait has turned white and faded. Ding dong, presumably, the witch is dead.
But things are never that simple, especially on this show. There’s a knock at the door, and a dapper man in a hat introduces himself as Nicholas Blair — Cassandra’s brother.
So the question for today is: Who the Hell is this guy?
This is Humbert Allen Astredo, a new cast member who’ll be with the show on and off for the rest of the run. He’s another in the long line of eccentric actors unleashed on the show in the last year, brought in to stir up trouble on a series that’s already pretty heavily stirred.
Executive producer Dan Curtis had a particular genius for casting, and recasting. The guy who played Matthew Morgan was replaced after three episodes by the marvelous Thayer David; the guy who played Willie Loomis was ditched after four episodes and replaced by John Karlen; and the original choice to play Dr. Julia Hoffman was let go before she was even on the air, and Grayson Hall was her last-minute replacement.
Basically, Dan’s approach was to keep throwing people at the show until you find the most interesting actor available, and then you hang on to them. Humbert Allen Astredo is one of the interesting ones.
Nicholas invites himself in, and runs his eyes over the decor with a proprietary air, as if he plans to inherit it someday.
“I am glad to see Collinwood!” he smiles. “Cassandra has written me so much about it.”
Barnabas and Julia share a puzzled look. Cassandra is an alias for Angelique, a centuries-old evil spirit. Something wicked this way is.
Nicholas walks into the drawing room and comes to a stop in a corner — keeping himself at an awkward distance from the others, so they’re forced to turn and focus on him.
“I hope you don’t mind my late arrival,” he says.
Roger is quick to say, “Oh, of course not.”
“I thought you wouldn’t,” Nicholas purrs. “And it seemed a perfect time to surprise Cassandra. She isn’t asleep, is she?”
This is a well-known trick — invoking and taking advantage of social conventions, to coerce the rubes into letting you do whatever you want. It’s basically step #1 for fictional con men and mythopoetic trickster figures.
Here comes step #2.
Roger: Could I get you a drink?
Nicholas: Oh, no. No, thank you.
Roger: Are you sure?
Nicholas: I don’t have little vices, Mr. Collins.
And then he smiles, up to but not including his eyes.
This is a mischievous little Dracula tease borrowed from the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, when Count Dracula assures his guest, “I never drink… wine.” This is the signal — as if we needed one — that this man is not what he seems. Actually, I take that back; he’s exactly what he seems. He just isn’t the thing that he’s pretending that he wants Roger to think that he is.
Nicholas settles into a chair, calmly maintaining his grip on the scene.
This is Humbert Allen Astredo’s first role on television, by the way. Here’s what I know about him, from the excellent book Barnabas & Company: The Cast of the TV Classic Dark Shadows.
Astredo originally thought that he’d be a lawyer, but he was so terrified of the public speaking class that he dropped out of law school. To bolster his confidence, he took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he studied the classics — Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Oedipus Rex.
He was drafted in the early 1950s, and served in the Korean War as a member of the USO, putting on live shows to entertain the American troops. He had a lively sense of humor, and he became the troupe’s comedian and MC. After the war, he came back to California and managed a theater in Los Angeles for a while. He moved to New York in 1963, where he appeared in Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, and worked with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
So, yeah, it’s his first appearance on television. But nothing scares this man anymore.
Let the cat-and-mouse games begin.
Barnabas asks, “Where are you from, Mr. Blair?”
Nicholas says, “I’ve just come from Martinique, Mr. Collins,” and he shoots Barnabas a look. “Have you been there?”
That’s another bit of “never drink wine” code, for faithful Dark Shadows viewers. Barnabas met Josette in Martinique, and had a shameful fling with her maid that has haunted him ever since.
Nicholas is absolutely still, watching Barnabas intently.
Barnabas: Not… recently.
Roger: Really, Barnabas — I never knew you’d been there. You’ve never mentioned it.
Barnabas: I remember it very well.
Nicholas: Yes. It is a hard island to forget.
Oh, he’s so cool. He’s been on the show for less than three minutes, and I like him already.
Next, we get to watch him make Roger sweat.
Nicholas: Oh, Mr. Collins — when you go to get Cassandra, don’t tell her that I’m here; I do want to see the expression on her face when she sees me.
Roger: Well, um… actually, Cassandra is not here.
Nicholas: Oh, dear. My timing is bad, isn’t it. When will she be back?
Roger is forced to admit that Cassandra has disappeared. Nicholas takes this in stride, because obviously he knows that something has happened to her. That’s why he’s here.
He gets up and paces around the room, like a detective in an Agatha Christie mystery, casually questioning the suspects.
Nicholas: Someone in this house didn’t like her, did they?
He turns, and focuses on Julia.
Nicholas: Was it you?
Julia: I beg your pardon?
Nicholas: Did you like my sister?
Julia: Oh, I… barely knew her.
Nicholas: In other words, you did not. (He smiles.) Understandable. Cassandra is not well liked by many women.
He moves to Barnabas, gliding to a stop just a little too close, and stares directly into his eyes. He speaks in a measured purr.
Nicholas: And you, sir. You seem to be a man who knows his feelings.
Barnabas: You think so?
Nicholas: I know so, by the way you have been watching me. Did you “barely know” my sister, too?
It’s almost unfair. Nicholas has everything today — the intriguing mystery man with a wry sense of humor. Louis Edmonds and Grayson Hall usually get all the jokes, but not today.
Obviously, Roger has to invite the man to stay, and he brings Nicholas upstairs to find a bedroom. As they go, we hear Nicholas saying, “Such an interesting house, very European. I seem to sense all the secrets it must be hiding…” He talks like that pretty much nonstop.
Barnabas and Julia are left behind in the drawing room, trying to figure out what just happened. “Angelique has no blood brother,” Barnabas says. “But a brother spirit, a brother devil…”
Upstairs, Roger babbles apologetically about Cassandra going AWOL, saying that he hopes Nicholas hasn’t gotten the impression that his sister was mistreated by the family. Nicholas has stopped listening.
He’s discovered Angelique’s portrait, which is magically connected to the witch herself. It’s faded badly, so that you can hardly see the figure.
Nicholas says that he’d like to try to fix it. He’s done restorations before.
Left alone with the portrait, Nicholas stares into Angelique’s eyes, reaching out through the spirit world.
“You’ve gotten yourself into a mess this time, my lovely Angelique,” he says. “Where are you? Whisper to me, if you can, where you are… Give me a sign that you still exist!”
We hear a snatch of theremin music, Angelique’s sorcery music cue — and he can hear it, too. His eyes dart around the room.
“How shall I find you? Here, in this house?”
The music cuts off, abruptly.
“Where Barnabas lives?”
And the music cue starts up again, indicating a yes.
So here’s a new character who can apparently communicate directly with the soundtrack. This is actually terribly avant-garde; it’s dialogue as musique concrète. Technically, everyone in the audience should be wearing a beret at this point.
Nicholas strolls over to the Old House and just walks right in, with his dapper suit and gloves and umbrella, fully the aristocrat.
Willie’s in the cellar, and Nicholas spots him through the grill in the basement door. Nicholas uses his command voice.
Nicholas: You there!
Nicholas: Yes, didn’t you hear me knock?
Nicholas: Come out here!
And so, as Nicholas slips in and takes hypnotic control of both Willie and the audience, let’s dip into his Barnabas & Company biography one more time:
“Humbert’s agent lined up the audition with Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis. ‘I went in and read for a part — I don’t recall which one. And evidently Dan was impressed,’ he said.
“‘I was later told by one of the writers that Dan said, “Write a part for this guy.” They put me on a “right of first refusal” contract, and six months later they wrote Nicholas Blair for me.'”
The book doesn’t say which part Astredo tried out for, but six months ago, they were casting Reverend Trask — a part that you can easily imagine him playing.
Instead of casting a new actor in that role, they decided to go in-house and use Jerry Lacy, who had recently joined the show and didn’t have a part yet in the 18th-century time travel story. Lacy was absolutely perfect as Trask — another great moment of casting inspiration — but Dan was smart enough to keep Astredo on call.
So here he is, six months later, confronting the role he didn’t get. He sizes up the Reverend’s decayed skeleton, daring it to start something, and another piece of strange magic is loosed upon the world.
Tomorrow: The Devil You Know.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Willie is in the cellar preparing to fix the brick wall around Trask’s skeleton, a stagehand takes a step backward, and into the shot. He realizes his mistake, and quickly steps out of the frame again.
Behind the Scenes:
All the biographical info in today’s entry was taken from Barnabas & Company, which I really can’t recommend highly enough. It’s currently selling for four bucks on Kindle, and you will absolutely love it.
Tomorrow: The Devil You Know.
— Danny Horn