Dark Shadows Role: Mr. Wells
Appeared in: 4 episodes
First episode: # 1, June 27, 1966
Last episode: # 632, November 26, 1968
Born: February 4, 1923; Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
One of the first people to greet Victoria Winters as she arrives in Collinsport in the first episode of Dark Shadows is innkeeper Mr. Wells, played by Conrad Bain.
Bain later became well-known in two classic sitcoms: Maude and Diff'rent Strokes, and he played a number of other colorful character parts in TV series and movies and on stage.
The actor returned to Collinsport for three more Dark Shadows episodes over the years; in his final appearance, in 1968, Mr. Wells fell victim to a werewolf.
"It's amazing that they refer to me as being on the show at all," he told me in 2002. "I did three episodes, then when they wanted me again, I was not available, and then that sort of petered out. Then one day, a year or two later, I got a phone call, and a young woman’s voice said, 'Mr. Bain, this is Dark Shadows.' I said, 'Yes?' She said, 'Were you ever eaten by the werewolf?' I said, 'No, I don't think so. I would remember that.' She said, 'Oh, we've got to get you back then.' So I had to go back to get eaten by the werewolf. And that terminated that."
Prior to his stints on DS, Conrad worked on the New York stage; his debut was off-Broadway as Larry in The Iceman Cometh in 1956 along with fellow then-unknowns Jason Robards Jr. and Peter Falk.
Later that year, he played several roles in the musical Candide, alongside his future DS costar Louis Edmonds. In fact, they shared a dressing room. I interviewed Conrad for the memorial edition of my book Big Lou (Louis' biography) and he recalled their backstage friendship:
"Our dressing room was a little, cramped space," Bain told me. "They always were. There was a double bunk bed, and I remember Louie spent most of his time laying on the top of the bunk, when we were in the dressing room. And it occurred to me sometimes, 'Is he really that tired, or does he just like to recline?' It was also space -- I was sitting at the makeup table. There was space for two of us at the makeup table, but the tin chairs that were there weren't very comfortable. So he was very relaxed and easy to talk to, and quite a pleasant roommate to have."
In Candide, Conrad played three roles, none of which interacted with Louis' character, so he got a chance to watch his roommate in action from the wings. "He had a strong stage presence. He had a statuesque kind of figure, which was impressive. He caught your eye, and he occupied space on the stage. He just came that way. And the technique that he developed as an actor supported that."
Besides working on stage, Conrad was also blazing a trail in the relatively new medium of television -- but at first he thought of it as a passing fancy. "I was among the really naïve," Conrad said years later. "I never thought it would last. I thought it was a novel thing that CBS and some other people were throwing some money into just to see if it would stick to the wall."
Often these early broadcasts were live, which added to the excitement of performing.
"It was fun to do, because a lot of the writing was pretty good caliber," he continued. "But it was a challenge, because you're out there on the end of a stick and there's no way to save yourself. You're flying by the seat of your pants all the time. You have a minimum amount of rehearsal, constant line changes right up to the end, and then you go on and do it without any possible way of redoing it or correcting it."
Like Louis, Conrad appeared in a number of anthology-style TV series.
"I remember clearly that they used to play that dramatic-sounding theme song for Studio One in the studio full blast while you were standing behind a piece of scenery waiting for your first entrance," Bain said. "It was not a good way to gather up your brains for a performance. And that made it exciting in its own way."
Then in 1966, the friends' careers overlapped again, when they both appeared on the first episode of Dark Shadows. The former Candide co-stars didn't share any screen time, but they did chat off-camera, and Conrad again watched Louis at work, playing dapper Roger Collins.
"He was playing, again, what he always played, as far as I ever saw, which was a sophisticated, regal character," Conrad said. "In that way, Roger was somewhat like his character from Candide."
Conrad said he didn't mind that his time in Collinsport was limited: "I did a number of soap operas over those years," he said. "I was always grateful that nobody offered me a contract, because I was afraid I'd keep doing it, and I didn't think it was a great thing to be doing on a continuing basis. Dark Shadows was in a different category though. It was more interesting material than you usually get. There's a certain style to the way soaps are done, and what's expected of the actor. It's not as challenging as we would like to think it is. It requires a kind of a behavior that is not truly an explanation of what character is about. It's more about behavior than what an actor's job is about, which is constructing a character. But at least Dark Shadows, with its craziness and bringing people back from the dead and all that...at least it was interesting."
But it was television that led to Bain's greatest success. In the 1970s and '80s, prolific TV producer Norman Lear kept the actor busy in two of his classic series. From 1972 to '78, Bain was a regular on Bea Arthur's break-out hit, Maude, playing the socially outspoken woman's neighbor, Dr. Arthur Harmon.
When Maude went off the air, Lear signed him up for another sitcom: Diff'rent Strokes, starring the diminutive 11-year-old Gary Coleman. The former Collinsport innkeeper played Phillip Drummond, a wealthy white New York businessman who adopts Arnold and Willis, two sassy, young black children (Coleman and Todd Bridges), creating a blended family with his equally smart-mouthed daughter, Kimberly.
Though Strokes was a very popular series -- even attracting First Lady and retired actress Nancy Regan for a guest-spot -- these days the show is best remembered as the training ground for a group of troubled young actors. All three of Bain's on-screen kids found themselves in legal hot water after leaving the show -- most seriously, Dana Plato, who played Kimberly, dabbled in soft-core porn and died at 34 of a drug overdose.
Diff'rent Strokes went off the air in 1986, and Conrad moved on to the short-lived sitcom Mr. President (1987-88, starring George C. Scott in the title role). He has continued to act, guest-starring in series and movies including the film Postcards From the Edge (1990), in which he played the father of Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a senile senior who spends much of the movie in a confused state.
In 1991, he returned to Broadway in the long-running hit On Borrowed Time, costarring Nathan Lane, George C. Scott, and Theresa Wright -- as well as George DiCenzio, former DS crew member who'd moved into acting.
In recent years, Bain has taken part in several tributes to Dark Shadows; he attended a DS Festival, where he was once again briefly reunited with his old Broadway costar Louis Edmonds (see photo, below), and he is featured in MPI Video's 30th anniversary tribute documentary, released in 1996.
Conrad has been married to Monica Sloan since 1945; they live in California and have three children.
• Edge of Night (Dr. Charles Weldon, 1970)
• Dark Shadows (Collinsport Innkeeper, Mr. Wells, 1966 and 1968 (4 episodes)
• Maude (Arthur Harmon, 1972-78)
• Diff'rent Strokes (Phillip Drummond, 1978-86)
• Under the Umbrella Tree (1986, voice of Simon)
• Mr. President (Charlie Ross, 1987)
• The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Mr. Drummond). Episode: "I, Done: Part 1," May 1996
• The Love Boat. Episode: "A Day in Port," September 1985
• The Love Boat. Episode: "Instinct/Unmade for Each Other/BOS," January 1985
• CHiPs (Himself). Episode: "The Great 5K Star Race and Boulder Wrap Party: Part 2," December 1980
• The Facts of Life (Phillip Drummond). Episode: "Rough Housing" August 1979
• The Love Boat (Les). Episode: "Till Death Do Us Part, Maybe/Chubs/Locked Away," November 1978
• Tony Orlando and Dawn (Himself). December 1975
• N.Y.P.D. (Manager). Episode: "Shakedown" (first episode), September 1967
• The Trials of O'Brien (District Attorney). Episode: "Dead End on Flugel Street," December 1965
•The Defenders. Episode: "Gideon's Follies," December 1961
• Child Bride of Short Creek (Frank King, 1981); with Diana Lane, Christopher Atkins, Helen Hunt
• Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story (1971)
• The Borgia Stick (Lawyer, 1967)
• First Annual TV Land Awards: A Celebration of Classic TV (2003)
• Intimate Portrait: Bea Arthur (2003)
• Dana Plato: The E! True Hollywood Story (2000)
• Diff'rent Strokes: The E! True Hollywood Story (1998)
• Dark Shadows 30th Anniversary Tribute (1996) (video release)
• Postcards from the Edge (Grandpa, 1990); with Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Mary Wickes
• C.H.O.M.P.S. (Ralph Norton, 1979); with Valerie Bertinelli, Jim Backus, Wesley Eure
• A Pleasure Doing Business (Herb, 1979); with Phyliss Diller
• Up the Sandbox (Dr. Gordon,1972); with Barbra Streisand, David Selby
• A Fan's Notes, A (Poppy, 1972)
• Jump (Lester, 1971)
• Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name? (Val, 1971) ....
• The Anderson Tapes (Dr. Rubicoff, 1971)
• Bananas (Semple, 1971) ....
• I Never Sang for My Father (Reverend Sam Pell , 1970)
• Lovers and Other Strangers (Priest in Confessional, 1970)
• Coogan's Bluff (Madison Avenue man, 1968)
• Star! (Salesman at Cartier's, 1968), with Julie Andrews
• A Lovely Way to Die (James Lawrence, 1968)
• Madigan (Hotel clerk, 1968)
• On Golden Pond (Norman Thayer, 1988, L.A.)
• On Borrowed Time (Dr. Evans), Oct 9, 1991 - Jan 5, 1992; with Nathan Lane, George C. Scott, Teresa Wright
• Uncle Vanya (Ilya), Jun 4, 1973 - Jul 28, 1973; with Julie Christie, Lillian Gish, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson
• Twigs (Swede), Nov 14, 1971 - Jul 23, 1972; with Sada Thompson
• An Enemy of the People (Aslaksen), Mar 11, 1971 - Apr 25, 1971; with David Birney, Barbara Cason, Philip Bosco
• The Cuban Thing, Sep 24, 1968 - Sep 24, 1968; with Jenny Egan, Raul Julia
• Hot Spot, Apr 19, 1963 - May 25, 1963; with Judy Holliday
• Advise and Consent (Winthrop, Senator from Massachusetts), Nov 17, 1960 - Jun 20, 1961; with Kevin McCarthy, Barnard Hughes
• Candide (King of Hesse; Very, Very Old Inquisitor; Captain), Dec 1, 1956 - Feb 2, 1957; with Barbara Cook, Louis Edmonds, Max Adrian
• Sixth Finger in a Five Finger Glove (Dr. Peter Hoenig), Oct 8, 1956 - Oct 9, 1956; with Frank Campanella