William Daniels as John Adams in 1776 (1969).
As I always post something about the musical 1776 on the Fourth of July, I thought that since so much of that play’s history has already been noted by myself and many others that I would share some of the unique time I spent with John Adams himself. By that I mean the actor William Daniels, who so brilliantly played the role for two years and two months on Broadway, and later in the 1972 film version. His career has been a noteworthy one and we covered a good deal of ground when on November 29, 2012, I sat across from him in a booth at a deli in Studio City, California to speak with him.
As the first person I interviewed for Up in the Cheap Seats, it was significant in more ways than I can enumerate that he inaugurated the process, which eventually totaled one hundred artists of all stripes who were part of the era my book covers, Broadway in the late 1960s and early 70s. Not only was he the star of the 7th show I ever saw as a twelve-year-old in 1969, but from that day on he became one of my favorite actors. And here he was on a rainy afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, at eighty-five years old, being kind enough to submit to a series of questions. We spoke for over two hours and the recording has resided happily in iCloud these past nine years. Here are some excerpts:
RON FASSLER: Regarding the history of 1776, you opened to not-very-good reviews in New Haven, correct?
WILLIAM DANIELS: Yes, and we opened there in a blizzard and it wasn’t until Washington that we knew we had a hit because everyone came out. All the Senators, the Congressmen… everybody.
RF: Well, how did you feel about things when you got to New York? Were you worried you were just a Washington hit? You only did a few previews on Broadway before you opened. Did you get a sense that the audiences were getting it?
WD: I was ambivalent about the whole thing because we were in Vietnam. When they sent me the script… first of all, I saw the script in an early version and it wasn’t very good. And then Peter Stone got a hold of it — and then it was good! I said to Bonnie [his wife of sixty-eight years, the actress Bonnie Bartlett], “This is ridiculous. It’s flag waving and we’re in Viet Nam” and she said, “Bill, you can do this part. You’ve got to go this part.” She and Gerry Freedman said, “Bill, c’mon. I mean, they had to talk me into doing The Zoo Story.
WD: Seriously. I mean, it was a guy sitting on a bench and the other guy does all the talking, for God’s sake! It doesn’t make any sense to me.
RF: And you won an Obie award.
George Maharis (standing) and William Daniels in The Zoo Story (1960).
WD: Well, you just don’t know. When George Maharis comes by and says, “I went to the zoo.” The first time we were in front of an audience… we had a lot of rehearsing… the producers got so nervous they fired the director. Then Maharis said he would leave unless they brought him back, so they brought him back. And we finally got it on its feet. I mean there wasn’t much to do stage wise. But there we are with our first audience at the Provincetown Playhouse and I’m sitting there with the book, reading the book, and he walks by and says, “I’ve been to the zoo.” And all I did was turn my head… and the whole audience fell apart. And we were shocked. I mean, this was a serious play, you know? So, I looked down again and they continued to laugh so I thought, “What’ll I do?” And I thought maybe he’s talking to somebody else. So I turned my head this way… and we get another laugh. So, what I found out soon enough, and found out throughout Sout