Dan Curtis' working life was devoted to the pursuit of monsters--and monstrous acts.
The director-producer, who tracked make-believe bogeymen in the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, the original Night Stalker telepics, and the classic fright-fest Trilogy of Terror, and delved into the horrors of World War II in the epic miniseries, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, died Monday at his Brentwood, California, home of brain cancer. Various sources put his age at 78 or 77.
Curtis' death came four months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and three weeks after he lost his wife of 54 years to heart disease, the Associated Press reported.
Curtis' television career began in sales and sports, and ended in socially relevant TV movies. In between, it specialized in chills.
In the 1960s and 1970s, few producers, directors or writers provided more good scares than Curtis, who held all three job titles. His reputation as a master of the macabre was established in 1966 with the ABC premiere of Dark Shadows, the only daytime soap opera of the era to favor vampire hunts over coffee klatches.
Curtis created the series, populating creepy Collinsport, Maine, with mortals, immortals and a pre-Charlie's Angels Kate Jackson. (She appeared on the series from 1970-71.) In its heyday, the series made an unlikely teen idol out of Jonathan Frid, the middle-aged actor who played centuries-old bloodsucker Barnabis Collins, and spawned two big-screen movies, 1970's House of Dark Shadows and 1971's Night of Dark Shadows, both of which Curtis directed.
Dark Shadows, the network soap, died in 1971. Dark Shadows, the franchise, lived on. NBC briefly revived the show as a prime-time series in 1991.
Curtis immediately followed Dark Shadows with The Night Stalker. Curtis produced; Darren McGavin starred; people watched.
"I remember the night we screened this picture," Curtis once recalled of The Night Stalker's industry premiere, "[Then-ABC executive] Barry Diller and I were standing in the back of the theater watching it. And the audience...went insane."
"The place went absolutely bonkers--I'm not exaggerating. You've never heard a reaction like this. And Diller and I looked at each other and we both said at the same time, 'We should have made a feature out of it.' "
As a made-for-TV movie, 1972's The Night Stalker did more than all right. The tale of a rumpled Las Vegas newspaper reporter on the trail of a vampire scored record ratings. Additionally, it made an icon of McGavin's Carl Kolchak, inspired the 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler, which Curtis directed, and led to the TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which Curtis decidedly did not direct (or produce).
"I told them a series wouldn't work and I wanted nothing to do with it," Curtis once said.
In a way, Curtis was right. The series didn't work--Kolchak only lasted 20 episodes in 1974-75. But in another way, the series did work, inspiring a legion of loyal fans, including future X-Files creator Chris Carter.
Curtis' big-screen dreams for Kolchak came close to fruition in the 1990s, but the project, which he would have directed and cowritten, ultimately stalled.
Post-Night Stalker, Curtis continued to dominate TV horror, with 1973 versions of Dracula, starring Jack Palance, and Frankenstein, starring Bo Svenson as the monster. In 1975, he produced and directed Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black was put through the ringer by, among other evildoers, a doll.
In 1976, Curtis terrorized Black again in the big-screen haunted house tale, Burnt Offerings.
Moving into the 1980s, Curtis moved onto the challenge presented by author Herman Wouk's The Winds of War.
The saga of the run-up to World War II and Pearl Harbor as told through the eyes of one military family, 1983's The Winds of War was a miniseries in category name only--there was nothing "mini" about the production. It boasted a movie star cast, including Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw. It ran 18 hours. It cost some $40 million, at the time a TV record. And it consumed four years of Curtis' life, who produced and directed from Wouk's 962-page script.
"When I first met Herman Wouk, he told me that if I did The Winds of War, it would be the greatest adventure of my life," Curtis told the New York Times in 1983. "Despite all the headaches, I can see that he was right."
Curtis achieved greater critical acclaim, as well as a DGA Award and an Emmy, for the 1988 sequel, War and Remembrance, which depicted the Nazi concentration camps.
Curtis' recent works included a pair of 2005 made-for-TV movies, which he directed: Saving Milly, the real-life love story of columnist Morton Kondracke and his Parkinson's-stricken wife; and Our Fathers, about the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal.