Interview: David Selby
Quentin Collins

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David Selby was the actor behind Quentin Collins, a breakthrough character who led Dark Shadows to the height of its popularity during the show's later years. We talk with him about the show, its legacy, and life in the spotlight...

What made you want to become an actor?
Oh Gosh! Well, I was living in a place called West Virginia and I used to go to the movies as a kid and started dreaming about that sort of thing, I guess - though never thinking that I could actually do it, because I didn't know about how to make it happen. So I suppose that was my first thought of it. I used to watch a lot of Westerns as a kid, I remember going to see Gone with the Wind by myself when I was in high school. When I went to college, I started doing a lot of plays with the theatre department, so I suppose it was always a dream.

What was the appeal of acting? For instance, did you enjoy assuming another character?
I think that's partly it, y'know? And I think after I did my first play, in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, it was getting that applause and that instant gratification. And then I did a comedy called Mr Roberts, a great show, and afterwards a few few would holler at me across the campus saying, "Hey, I saw you!" And I think I needed that kind of reassurance.

How did the leap from college productions to professional acting happen?
Well I was still looking for my way into the acting thing. When I was younger I decided I'd hop on the train to New York. That was a disaster - I guess I was about eighteen then. A few years later I was in Illinois, took a train into New York and hit a couple of theatres. I'd run out of options, I just had to go to New York. People told me I needed to, so that's what I had to do. One thing led to another, and eventually I got an agent. I was actually looking for another agent at the time - the one I found is the agent I still have today, I still have the same agent - and after I did a scene for them, that very day they sent me down to speak for this lady who was casting Dark Shadows. She put me in a cab and took me up to meet Dan Curtis - that's how it all started!

Initially Quentin was a silent ghost. Was it always the plan that he would become a fully fledged character?
I think they had ideas about expanding it from the start. I don't think they knew exactly where they were going with the character, but they lay those stories out ahead of time, so they had some idea where they wanted it to go. Maybe because the character didn't speak there was a certain anticipation or suspense. People began wondering, "When's he going to talk?" and so they may have extended the silent stuff, to keep that going. The joke on set was, "When Selby opens his mouth, it's going to be like the silent movie days - he'll have this high pitched voice and they'll fire him!" which I thought they might do! [Laughs]

That silent start gave you a gradual introduction into television. Were you glad of that, or was it frustrating playing a limited role?
I never found it frustrating not speaking. I was delighted to have lines when they came - learning lines for film isn't a problem, but television is a little different, because we shot those shows the whole way through.

You seemed to be instantly comfortable in the television medium…
I think part of that was kind of an inherent thing. I may have been lucky with some sort of intuition, but I believe in training a great deal. Ironically a lot of my favourite actors were English - I liked Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness, Geilgud, Ralph Richardson and people like that. Even today, with people like Alan Bates… there are just so many, it was endless. Television was the first thing that came my way - I'd never thought about doing it or film, I just didn't think it was possible. The only thing I thought I could do were plays, because that was the only performance I thought I could control. I had a lot of help, though. Grayson Hall (Julia Hoffman) in particular was one of the ones that took me under their wing.

You seem very self-effacing. So, what did you make of suddenly becoming a teen idol?
[Laughs] That's a good question. It just hit like a storm. I remembered mentioning that I liked Sarah Lee banana cake at that time. Well, we just inundated with cakes from across the country! The only thing I wish I had kept were all the peace beads, because in the 1960s people made these and hung them at protests and it was a wonderful thing. I had such an unbelievable collection of these beads. There was a housing charity up at the Lincoln Centre where I would take these things. We saw these rooms that were just filled with boxes of fan mail, and I had no way of coping with that. I tried at first to answer it, but I wasn't sophisticated enough to know that you had to hire someone to answer it - all this stuff was beyond me!

One of the people that helped me there was a woman from 16 Magazine, Gloria Stavers. She really helped me by taking a lot of the first pictures of me and then through that magazine I was able to communicate. I found it frustrating not being able to do that personally - I tried. That's why I do the Dark Shadows Festivals, because for some of the people I never managed to reply to, I can thank. I did a lot of personal appearances because I was under contract to ABC. It was just such a sudden kind of thing - you'd go back to your tiny apartment afterwards and go, "Hmmmmm… what's wrong with this picture?" [Laughs]

You missed the final weeks of the show due to appendicitis. How was to take time off to recover, only to recover and find…
There was no show? We knew that the show was in trouble, because it was expensive and that they wanted to do game shows instead, because they were much cheaper. All of our clothes were handmade; we had antiques on the set. And maybe a show like that, which burns so brightly, is like a comet - it's going to burn out. But I had no idea that they were going to pull the plug so quickly. In a way, maybe it was time for that, and maybe that's a reason it's hung on. Look at some of those shows and you understand why they stay with people. You can enjoy them as much today as you can back then.

What was it like making the Night of Dark Shadows movie?
The movie wasn't really derived from Dark Shadows - they developed a whole new script for that particular one. I enjoyed the process and I enjoyed my friends that were in it with me, we had a great time. They've found these 35 minutes of lost footage, from when it was heavily edited - so much so, that it didn't really hang together in any way. Yet there are a couple of acting moments in there that… [laughs] I wish they'd cut. One especially is just a little over-the-top and didn't have anything behind it. They could have cut that and it wouldn't have bothered me at all - it just made me close my eyes and cringe. I've only seen the movie at the premiere thing they had in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. That was the first time I'd seen it since way back when. With the 35 minutes put back, I think it could have some nice flavour to it. But a great process, great people.

Do you have any theories why Dark Shadows has endured?
I think some of it had to do with the time we were living in - difficult times. We were in the midst of the Vietnam War; we were in great political upheaval in this country. One of the reasons I think Dark Shadows still runs is that it's dependent on nothing else other than a story. It's not dependent on a new look, on computers, too many special effects… we did our own effects right there. Fans, writers, actors alike were able to escape into another world, a world of sheer pretence. This was not a world requiring you to dredge up your own dark memories, unlike a lot of the more modern movies we see. This was pretend - sheer, wonderful, glorious pretend! When you succeed at creating your own world, whether it's in any realm - like Tolkien was able to do - and people are able to enter that world, it's a special thing.

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