Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ALONG CAME BILL

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; 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, and 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-seven today.

But the person I’d like to commemorate is that of the actor William Daniels, who celebrates his 93rd birthday today and who has been (and will forever remain) an important touchstone and inspiration to me from the earliest days I first dreamed of becoming an actor.

William Daniels, born this date in 1927.

With a career spanning the length of his lifetime, Daniels made his debut alongside his sisters, Jackie and Carol, on the radio in the early 1930s. As he recounts in his recent 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 impresario 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, the next thing on his docket was a mandatory stint in the Army overseas, where 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-nine 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.”

Howard DaSilva as Ben Franklin and William Daniels as John Adams in 1776 (1969).

He got to repeat Adams in the film version which, though a disappointment at the box office in 1972, over the years has become a classic and appo