“I don’t want to sleep! The dreams! The dreams are awful!”
It all started with Nicholas Blair, that scheming mastermind who wanted to steal Maggie away. Nicholas arranged for his pet vampire to keep Maggie’s fiancee occupied, and then Joe Haskell just stood there and watched, as his whole life slipped out of his grasp.
He lost his job, he lost Maggie, and somewhere along the way, he lost his soul. It’s hard to say exactly where, but the night that he helped Angelique kill his cousin probably had a lot to do with it.
Joe tried to commit suicide, and then he tried to kill Barnabas, and then he tried to shoot a werewolf that used to be his cousin. Not the dead cousin, another one. It’s been a bad year for cousins.
And now, look at him. He’s wearing a turtleneck.
Oh, Joe. What have they done to you?
But I don’t want to remember him this way, all hollow-eyed and defeated. If he has to die, let him die like a man, with his shirt cut open and killing a dude. Joe was Dark Shadows’ first hot guy, and he deserves some respect.
Now, if you ask pretty much anyone else about Joe Haskell, they’ll tell you about how sweet he was.
Joe was the ultimate dream boyfriend — always handsome, patient and supportive, often has cake. Maggie and Joe were one of the few happy couples on the show, who stayed together all the way through a whole storyline without dying. In fact, the only other one that comes close involves 19th-century gypsies.
He was an honest, friendly and lovely man on a show that is otherwise populated by monsters and refugees from the nuthouse. He was always there in a crisis, trying to protect Maggie, or help Sam.
And here at the end, when he’s locked up and unravelling, he still insists that he can save the people that he loves. “I tried to get Amy away from there,” he says. “I had her in my arms. Somebody stopped me. They wouldn’t let me.”
He’ll find Amy again, and take her away — Maggie, too, he’ll save them both. Joe Haskell is a hero to the end.
But for me, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the guy who had a stomach wound that could only be treated by cutting his turtleneck in half with a pair of kitchen scissors, symbolically liberating the men of Dark Shadows from the stranglehold of the mandatory ties-or-turtlenecks dress code.
He could have been stabbed in the neck with those scissors — it’s Dark Shadows, accidents happen — but he stood firm. There are all kinds of heroes in this world.
So what happened? Why did Joel Crothers leave Dark Shadows?
Well, when an actor leaves a soap opera and nobody wants to say why, the classic excuse is that it’s “story-related”, or some similar brand of horseradish. It’s supposed to imply that the only way that a particular storyline could progress is if that character dies, or goes to jail, or moves away.
Obviously, this is nonsense — there are lots of ways that a storyline can go, and if the actor is popular and important, then you figure out a plot twist that keeps him on the show. He escapes from jail, or he has an identical twin, or he comes back from the dead.
That’s especially true on Dark Shadows, where it’s starting to dawn on them that they can kill a character and then have him come back and play somebody else. They’ve just discovered the magic of the identical twin, and obviously, coming back from the dead is part of the job description.
Besides, here at the start of 1969, Joe is in a perfect position, storywise. The hot new characters are the werewolf Chris Jennings and his sister, the wide-eyed and spooky Amy. Joe is their cousin, and he’s Chris’ only friend. Plus, Maggie just became the governess at Collinwood, and I bet she could use a guy to talk to over the age of twelve. There’s plenty of room on the canvas for Joe.
So it was actually Joel Crothers’ decision to leave. That’s why they’re sending him off to Windcliff, so they can have him back later if he wants to return. That’s what they did with Willie in 1967, and they’ll do it again when Maggie leaves in 1970. Windcliff has a revolving door; sending someone there is basically just putting a character in storage.
But Joel wasn’t happy, and he wanted to go. In 1970, he told After Noon TV:
“On Shadows, that isn’t really acting. There are no real characterizations. The stress is on the technical effects. The directors just don’t have time to work with the actors on their parts. On TV when I see those old horror movies with the bad acting… Well, now I have a better understanding of why the acting couldn’t be any other way.”
He had good reason to resent the characterization on Dark Shadows. We’re almost at the end of the period that I’ve been calling The Great 1968 Wrap-Up, when Dan Curtis and the writers realized that the convoluted storylines that dominated 1968 just weren’t working anymore. The show is dropping eight characters in two months, some of them very abruptly.
In late October, Joe Haskell was in the middle of the most active storyline he’d ever had — mad and wounded, desperately in love with his vampire mistress and horrified by the monster he’d become. They invested a good deal of time in Joe’s gradual disintegration; it was the best material he’s ever had on Dark Shadows.
Then he suddenly dropped off screen for a little while, left in a hospital bed with a murder charge hanging over him.
Two weeks later, Angelique went to Hell to tattle on Nicholas, and she never came back. The next time we saw Joe, it was mid-December, and he was totally fine — wiped clean, and smiling again. He never got to resolve any loose ends with Angelique, and he only had half a scene with Maggie. They acknowledged what happened, they decided not to reconcile, and then Maggie took a phone call.
This must have been incredibly disappointing — months of character progress, just forgotten.
Plus, he never even got the chance to be a monster. Here’s another quote from After Noon TV:
“The show is high camp, but I enjoyed playing Lt. Forbes more than Joe Haskell. He was a rascal. He got killed at least six times. I always wanted to play a vampire, but they’d never let me. I guess they leave that to Don Briscoe.”
Don actually got to be two monsters — a vampire and a werewolf — which had to be discouraging for Joel.
In fact, when Joel says that “the stress is on the technical effects,” he’s kind of talking about the werewolf transformation scene from last week. There’s Joel, desperate and shaky with his gun, just acting away, while everybody else is actually paying attention to the werewolf effect.
The only reason they’re focusing on Joel at all is to give them time to get Don and Alex Stevens in place, so they can do the transformation — which is basically just a big close-up on Don’s face.
Joel was Dark Shadows’ first hunk, and he clearly enjoyed having the chance to be a heartthrob. In that cut-open turtleneck episode, he spends a lot of the day angling his torso toward the camera, to make sure everybody gets a good look at him.
But last week, Don was the one who got the big exciting shirtless scene, while Joel was stuck with bandages all over his chest.
There’s another big factor that played into Joel’s decision to leave Dark Shadows — the growing audience of teenage girls, and the teen magazines encouraging their readers to “get to know the real Joel Crothers”.
As we get into 1969, the features in 16 and Flip are getting more intense, printing intimate pictures of the male actors at home, and practically inviting their over-eager readers to stalk their favorite stars.
As the original Dark Shadows pretty boy, Joel gets his share of attention from the young ladies.
In 1970, he told TV By Day, “I had teenage girls calling me up at three in the morning and saying dirty things. I had no idea little girls talked like that. Of oourse, I had the number changed. But it was nothing like what Jonathan Frid went through.”
The comparison to Jonathan makes a lot of sense, because Joel and Jonathan both had a big secret that they didn’t want anybody to know.
Here’s another quote from After Noon TV:
“It’s the invasion of your private life that I don’t like. Take a look at Hollywood people who have made it. Elizabeth Taylor can’t even go to a restaurant without a million people gawking at her and shouting at her. She said many times how afraid she is just to go out!
“I had a taste of that when I was on Dark Shadows. Kids would bother me constantly. You know, there’s a myth that soap stars earn a lot of money. Well, I still can’t afford to take taxis every time I want to go to my house or to somewhere else in the city.
“But while I was on the show, I couldn’t even dream of using the subways. It would have caused a disturbance. It’s much, much different now that I’m on The Secret Storm. Occasionally someone will say, ‘Oh, there’s Ken Stevens!’ but I’m never really bothered.”
Joel and Jonathan were both gay, in a time when there was exactly zero space in the world where that was a safe thing to be. In 1968, being gay wouldn’t just get you fired and evicted from your apartment; you could actually be arrested for it. The police raided gay bars all the time; that’s what the June ’69 Stonewall Riots are about.
So when Joel says he would cause a disturbance every time he goes “somewhere else in the city,” there are some “somewhere elses” that are more disturbing than others.
It’s true that Jonathan Frid got a lot more attention than anyone else in the cast — but when interviewers got too close to Frid’s life, he’d just look dreamy and say something about Shakespeare. Joel is putting himself on display as a sex object, and he has nowhere to hide.
Here’s another heartbreaking 1970 quote:
“I’m not good at long-lasting romantic relationships. Frankly, I don’t know if I want to be married to someone — ever. I’m happy now the way I am. You know, marriage to me is just a financial thing. It’s a sort of money agreement between two people. Children are part of that agreement. And I’m not interested in ever getting myself into a financial agreement. The basis of it all should be love, not legality. Above all, that’s what I would want.”
And here’s another, from a 1971 TV Dawn to Dusk interview:
“He’s not involved with any special young lady at the moment, but something just ended, and he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“‘I guess I’m just not ready to settle down. I’m financially ready for marriage — but not emotionally. Besides, I’d rather not talk about my private life because I don’t want to read about it in a magazine. Even an actor is entitled to a little privacy.'”
So Joel did what gay guys did back then, which was try to be straight. In the late 70s, he had an on-and-off relationship with Veleka Gray, a female costar on Somerset.
Here’s a quote from Veleka’s post-breakup interview in 1979:
“We did become very close for a while last fall, and really talked and really got to know each other, and the end result was that we discovered a lot of reasons why we should remain friends and not be together. I’m happy about that, because now we both know for sure that it was a dream and that an actual life together wouldn’t have worked.
“I still love him and support him as much as ever, but I’m not in love with him now and am dating other men.”
Yeah, dating other men does sound like a better option, for a lot of the people involved.
After Dark Shadows, Joel never had trouble getting work. He walked out of DS and into The Secret Storm, and he had meaty roles in Somerset, The Edge of NIght and Santa Barbara. By the early ’80s, he was one of the most popular men on soaps, and he appeared on a lot of soap magazine covers.
To change his boyish image, he grew a mustache. “I wanted to play a villain for a change,” he said. “I was tired of playing nice guys. Then, when I finally got to be kind of a villain on Somerset, they suddenly turned me into a nice guy with a villainous mustache.”
In 1982, while he was on Edge of NIght, Joel appeared in the original off-Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein’s eye-opening show about gay love and heartbreak. Joel played Ed, Fierstein’s bisexual lover, who manages to score with just about everyone in the play, including Matthew Broderick’s character, Alan.
This must have led some people to wonder about his sexual orientation, but the soap magazines played defense. According to Barnabas and Company, “Soap Opera Digest even ran a full-page story about Joel’s appearance in the play in March 1982. However, the gay storyline of the play was not mentioned — nor was the fact that Joel played a bisexual character, and the only photo from the play showed him in the embrace of an actress.”
The Dark Shadows fan gatherings were few and far between in the early ’80s, but Joel did attend one in 1983 — the first Manhattan Shadows convention, along with Jonathan Frid and Addison Powell.
In August 1985, Joel joined Santa Barbara, where he played attorney J. Stanfield Lee, who was abducted and replaced by his sinister lookalike cousin, Les Cooper. But the storyline suddenly sped to a conclusion in September, and Joel disappeared from the show for a while.
When he came back, he was a lot thinner. Joel had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an opportunstic disease that was a common cause of death for people with AIDS. He died on November 9, 1985.
So we lost him, at 44 years old.
He should have been here with us all these years.
He should be goofing around with Kathryn and Lara at the Dark Shadows Festivals, shaking his head in amazement at the crazy, stubborn people still watching the silly spook show that he thought he’d left behind.
After a while, he’d probably be appearing a couple times a month on Days of Our Lives or As the World Turns — his sexy rascal character finally domesticated, giving advice to the 22-year-olds who are suddenly playing his grandchildren.
But at the Dark Shadows Festivals, everyone still thinks of him as the beautiful 27-year-old who lost his mind and went off to Windcliff. For one weekend every summer, Joel Crothers is young again.
Every year at the Festival, someone always asks the big question: Did Joe ever come back to Collinsport and reunite with Maggie? Joel meets Kathryn’s eye, and they both grin, astonished every time. These paper-thin characters that they played are still alive, on VHS and public TV.
He should have been here. He should have felt that.
I don’t know if Joel had a lover when he died, but I know he was loved. He was gorgeous and sweet, a successful actor in a popular genre, and a lovely guy. He must have left a trail of broken hearts, everywhere he went. And here they are, all these years later, still broken.
Tomorrow: Gone Girl.
Many of the quotes from today’s post are from the excellent Barnabas & Company: The Cast of the TV Classic Dark Shadows, which should already be on your bookshelf by now, if you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes story of DS.
There are also some quotes and information from a couple of Dark Shadows fanzines: The World of Dark Shadows and Transcending Time.
And if you’re puzzled by some of the references in today’s post, you should check out the following:
- Episode 607: In a World of Turtlenecks
- Episode 616: The Great 1968 Wrap-Up
- Episode 638: Win a Date with Jonathan Frid (the uneasy relationship with soap and teen magazines)
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, when Chris is on the phone, a shadow passes behind him. It happens when Julia says, “You may be the only one who can quiet him down.”
This isn’t a blooper, just something fun to watch for. The jail cell only has bars on one side, because they don’t want to have to shoot all the jail scenes through bars. So they have to get a little creative in the way that they frame shots, to make sure that they don’t show that there’s a big open space where Joe could just walk out of the cell.
They didn’t bother with constructing very much of Chris’ room, either. When Chris talks to Julia on the phone in the teaser, it’s shot in a very tight closeup, because they didn’t bother to put most of the set together. There’s just a mirror and a bit of wall, with the suggestion of a bedframe behind him.
Tomorrow: Gone Girl.
— Danny Horn