ALONG CAME BILL
March 31, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
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.
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.”
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 appointment television every July 4th (as well it should be). In the forty-eight years since its release, many have had the chance to “discover” William Daniels anew: first as Dr. Mark Craig, 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 the two Emmys that Bonnie Bartlett won for playing his wife, Ellen Craig, make them the only husband and wife team to ever win Emmys in the same year for the same series (and they did it twice).
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 to William Daniels has been a long one. 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 three years ago when I was in Los Angeles for a book signing launch of Up in the Cheap Seats. Three hours before it was to happen I was feeling hungry, so while driving down Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, I thought it would make for a nice full-circle to head for Art’s Deli (“Where Every Sandwich is a Work of Art”) since that was where I conducted my very first interview for the book — with who else but William Daniels.
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!”
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 if you haven’t read There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others, now’s a perfect time to give it a read.
And Happy Birthday, Bill.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.