Next up on Oprah: How about “Descendants of Famous Movie Monsters?”
Dwight Frye Jr. hasn’t received that level of exposure yet, but he’s ready for the call.
The 65-year-old New Yorker, who is visiting his Spokane relatives, is enjoying new-found fame as son of the late actor who set a standard for movie lunacy.
If the name Dwight Frye doesn’t ring your belfry, the man’s demented characterizations should.
He played the giggling, spider-eating Renfield, opposite Bela Lugosi, in the original 1931 “Dracula.”
Film critics and video guides still consider that Renfield the truly twisted benchmark upon which the legion of Dracula remakes are compared. Actor Peter MacNicol grave-robs heavily from Frye’s Renfield in the new Mel Brooks farce, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”
Was there ever such a banner time for fright as 1931?
Frye teamed that same year with Boris Karloff to shamble about the castle as Fritz, the mad, brain-switching, humpbacked dwarf in “Frankenstein.”
Because of those classics, a string of Frankenstein sequels and other creepfests, Frye’s dad is an icon to a growing cult following of horror buffs.
Which is why junior has suddenly found himself in big demand at monster conventions, signing autographs with Karloff’s daughter, Lugosi’s son and the grandson of Lon “Phantom of the Opera” Chaney.
He is also collaborating on a book about his father. Frye Jr. saw his dad drop dead of a heart attack in 1943.
It was a fitting location for an actor’s final curtain. The Fryes had just been to the movies and were boarding a bus at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
“He would be both amused and astounded,” he says. “He’s more famous now than he was when alive.”
Frye’s Spokane roots run deep. His father married a local actress, Laura Bullivant, in the Roaring ‘20s. The woman, who died in 1979, became an actress after graduating from North Central High School.
Frye says his parents met performing in a Spokane winter stock company. A veteran of the New York stage, Frye Sr. moved his bride to Hollywood.
The ultimate irony is how thoroughly frustrated he was at being typecast as a weirdo. Actors today will gladly sell their agents’ eyes for the juicy, over-the-top parts Frye played.
But junior says his dad was depressed. “He couldn’t get any work except as a crazed lunatic, a gangster or a Nazi.”
Frye Sr. would never have dreamed that those bizarre roles would put his only child in the limelight a half-century later.
“He has an amazing number of fans I never knew about,” says the son, who was 12 when his father died. “Many of them know more about him than I do.”
Until three years ago, Frye Jr. thought the world had forgotten his dad. Then the publisher of a magazine devoted to the horror genre tracked him down. He hired Frye to appear at a Memorial Day convention in Washington, D.C.
“I was totally flabbergasted,” says Frye Jr. “I signed 2,000 autographs. The fans came up with still photos, magazines and God knows what. They went away as if we were the biggest stars in the universe.”
More conventions and appearances followed.
Although he quickly gave up ideas of acting, Frye didn’t stray too far from the stage. He has spent the last 30 years assisting Albert Marre, the Tony-winning New York director of “Man of La Mancha.”
Frye’s childhood memories are mostly happy. One that stands out happened when he was 6. The elder Frye took his only child to see his work in “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.”
“He was quite disappointed I wasn’t scared to death,” says Frye, chuckling at the memory. “But even as a small child, I knew the difference between what was real and what was make-believe.”