Malcolm Marmorstein, the screenwriter of the 1970s Disney hits Pete’s Dragon and Return From Witch Mountain and who, a decade earlier, was a key element of the Dark Shadows writing staff when ABC’s Gothic soap opera famously introduced vampire character Barnabas Collins, died Saturday Nov. 21 in Los Angeles. He was 92.
The cause of death was cancer, his stepdaughter Romy Fleming told Deadline.
A New Jersey native, Marmorstein began his career as a stagehand and stage manager on Broadway, working on such iconic productions as A Streetcar named Desire with Marlon Brando and Damn Yankees with Gwen Verden.
Before moving to Los Angeles in 1967, Marmorstein began writing for the New York-based soap The Doctors, where he was head writer before being hired away by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis in late 1966. During Marmorstein’s early tenure on what was then a failing Jane Eyre-style melodrama, Curtis and his small writing staff began adding supernatural elements, at first a ghost or two and then a strange woman who turned out to be a from-the-ashes phoenix.
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But it was the introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins in Spring of 1967 that turned the daytime drama into a national pop culture phenomenon. Played by actor Jonathan Frid, the tragic, reluctant vampire character grabbed hold of the public’s attention and turned Dark Shadows into a hit.
Though its popularity would burn itself out within a few years, the soap – which would soon be populated by witches, werewolves, warlocks, a Frankenstein, a Jekyll-Hyde and even odder characters based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos – would inspire a cultlike devotion that continues to this day. The series, which spawned two original-cast movies and a 1990s TV reboot, is available on Amazon Prime. Among its fans: Tim Burton, who directed the 2012 Dark Shadows feature film starring fellow enthusiast Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.
Exactly which Dark Shadows scribe created Barnabas has long been disputed, with writers Marmorstein, Joe Caldwell and the late Ron Sproat at one point or another taking credit. In a 2012 interview, Marmorstein said he told Curtis, “We have to pretend we’re doing a vampire for the very first time. Let’s get a young, blond guy, because our audiences are very young. They’ll fall in love with him.’” (Frid was neither blond nor particularly young, prompting Marmorstein to advise the glum-looking actor, “Don’t act. Be a nice man, as you are. This is your family in the house, and you’ve got to be charming for them.”)
Marmorstein and Curtis soon fell out, and the writer, his wife and four children moved to L.A. where he quickly found work writing for the popular 1968 nighttime soap Peyton Place. In 1974 he cowrote S*P*Y*S, starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the acting duo’s earlier M*A*S*H success. Marmorstein and Gould reteamed, again unsuccessfully, for 1975’s Whiffs.
Marmorstein was considerably more successful in his next outing, 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, a live-action/animation musical hybrid starring singer Helen Reddy. The following year saw Marmorstein back with Disney for Return From Witch Mountain, a sci-fi adventure with Bette Davis and Christopher Lee as its adult leads.
Marmorstein’s subsequent credits include a 1986 TV adaptation of Frankenstein, some installments of children’s series ABC Weekend Specials, and, in 1990, a final outing with his old friend Gould for Dead Men Don’t Die. In 1993, he revisited the reluctant vampire theme with his feature film comedy Love Bites starring Adam Ant.
Despite his longtime interest in vampires, Marmorstein was not impressed with the Burton-Depp iteration of Barnabas Collins. “I was shocked to see, at the beginning of the movie, Barnabas killing seven or eight innocent people, who weren’t even trying to harm him,” the writer told Yahoo News after seeing the film. “Barnabas would never do that. And I saw no reason whatsoever for the movie to be set in 1972. For nothing, I would have told them not to do that.”
Marmorstein was predeceased by first wife Martha, and is survived by his wife of 17 years, Barbara, sons Larry, Wayne, and Mitchell, daughter Darragh, stepdaughters Romy and Dena, as well as in-laws, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild.