This final day of March offers many distinctive birthdates of men and women of the theatre. Among them the two-time Tony winning actor Richard Kiley — Broadway’s original Don Quixote de la Mancha; Israel Horowitz, whose many works include the one-act play The Indian Wants the Bronx, which opened Off-Broadway in 1968 and won Obie Awards for himself and its two breakout stars, Al Pacino and John Cazale; Nikolas Gogol, the Russian dramatist, born just after the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century and whose play The Inspector General is one of the most renowned international comedies in all of world theatre; Shirley Jones, who will always have a special place in my heart due to her Marian the Librarian in the film version of The Music Man opposite Robert Preston. Today is also the birthdate of another Ronnie (like myself), Ronnie Walken, who changed his name to Christopher many years ago, and is turning seventy-four today.But the person I’d like to commemorate is that of the actor William Daniels, who celebrates his 90th birthday today; an important touchstone to me from the earliest days I first dreamed of becoming an actor.
William Daniels (somewhere on a Red Carpet).
With a career spanning nearly all of his ninety years, Daniels has been at it a very long time, having made his debut alongside his sisters, Jackie and Carol, on the radio in the early 1930s. As he recounts in his just published autobiography There I Go Again, it was Irene who in no uncertain terms Daniels has compared to Rose in Gypsy — the stage mother to end all stage mothers, began to push her son into the business from the age of three-years-old. “Once I made the mistake of shuffling my feet with a few hops here and there, but on the beat, to some music that was on the radio … that was all it took to have my mother drag me off to the Sonny Hoey Dance Studio.”
“He can’t even count yet,” Sonny said.
“I’ll teach him to count,” replied my mother.
This was hardly a situation of a star being born. Daniels disliked the recruitment aspect of being forced into show business to help the family earn money during the Great Depression, but what choice did he have? And when, at his mother’s urging, he went to meet with the great impressario Oscar Serlin, producer of Broadway’s longest running hit, Life with Father, he wound up with a part in the show, as he told me when we spoke in 2012.
“I was a child actor, primarily performing on the radio with my sisters. They were looking for new kids to go into year six of Life With Father, or something like that. Somehow I got the job without even reading. He liked me. And that’s how I was hired to be in a play before I had ever seen one.”
After the play closed, acting work was scarce, so when the next thing on his docket was a mandatory a stint in the Army overseas, Daniels did his duty. Upon being discharged, and without a clue what to do, he began flirting with the idea of acting again having heard that the program at Northwestern University was pretty good. Well, it was better than good — it was great (and for the full story of how he wound up there, the tale Daniels tells in his book is priceless).
So with a free education to be had under the G.I. Bill, it was on to Evanston, Illinois, where he finally found the passion for the profession that had previously eluded him. It was also there he found his future partner and wife, Bonnie Bartlett, to whom he has been married for the past sixty-six years.
There were ups and downs professionally, and like every marriage between two actors, times when his wife was up and he was down and vice-versa. It really wasn’t until 1969, thirty years after he first started in show business, that Daniels became an in-demand star. His performance in 1776, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s brilliant musical about the Founding Fathers and how America came to be told in story and song, was a revelation. As I write in Up in the Cheap Seats: “His performance was as if his whole being was infused with that of the character; drawing you in so that you believed this was John Adams coming back to tell his version of these events. Barely offstage, his energy and drive propelled the show.”
Daniels as John Adams with Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin in 1776 (1969)
He got to repeat Adams in the film version, which though a disappointment at the box office in 1972, has over the years become a classic and appointment television every July 4th (as well it should be). In the forty-five years since its release, two generations have “discovered” William Daniels as well as those who came to know him as a surgeon with the worst beside manner of all time on the six seasons of NBC’s St. Elsewhere, for which he won two consecutive Emmys as Best Actor. And to this day, the two Emmys that Bonnie Bartlett won for playing his wife, Ellen Craig, make them the only husband and wife team to win Emmys in the same year (and they did it twice).
Matching Emmys for Best Actor and Actress in a Drama
(William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett for St. Elsewhere).
While working on St. Elsewhere a casual job he had no interest in turned into a bonanza, when he was invited to portray K.I.T.T. (otherwise known as “Kitt”) the voice of the car on NBC’s Knight Rider, which turned into a very profitable gig (although he never asked for or received credit for his voice work). But it is to a generation of fans that grew up on ABC’s “TGIF” slate of sitcoms in the 1980s that Daniels will be forever known. His Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World, turned into an eight-year run that gave the actor not only a way to keep himself busy when many others of his age drift into retirement, but getting to work with terrific people in the process as well. He writes of being most grateful for the chance to play that part and even influence kids of a certain age by way of the wisdom and guidance his character was called upon to deliver on just about every episode.
As I mentioned, my connection William Daniels has been a long one and, I’m happy to say, its still ongoing. I was fortunate to befriend him when I did a guest shot on St. Elsewhere in 1987 and our paths crossed in interesting ways over the years. But never more interestingly (or prophetically) than two weeks ago when I was in Los Angeles for the launch of my book. It was only three hours before it was to happen and I was feeling hungry. So while driving down Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, I thought it was a nice full-circle thing to do to head for Art’s Deli (“Where Every Sandwich is a Work of Art”). It was very appropriate since Daniels had been my very first interview for the book and this eatery was where we conducted it.
I walked in, asked to be seated, and was brought to the table right next to … yes, you guessed it: Bill and Bonnie. I even had my book in my hand and when they saw it they both said, “We just got our copy in the mail!” I said, “I know! I sent it to you!”
It was at that moment I knew that things were truly right with the world, and that I had no doubts my book event would go swimmingly and that even it’s being scheduled on the same day as the L.A. Marathon was not going to affect attendance and I would sell a lot of books.
To Bill and Bonnie, thank you for sharing with the world the gifts of your work, commitment, and the joy you both bring to the art of acting. And go out and buy There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others. It’s a great read.
And Happy Birthday, Bill.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: