Looking back on his 75-plus-year career in showbiz, William Daniels dryly credits his longevity to “not eating lunch.”
Still acting at age 90, Daniels is probably best-known to Maine Edge readers as Mr. Feeny in ABC’s “Boy Meets World” or Dr. Mark Craig on NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.” He was also the voice of KITT, the robotic automobile in “Knight Rider.”
From the Broadway stage to the big and small screens, Daniels has chronicled his life and career in the new memoir “There I Go Again” (Potomac Books; $26.95) but admits that he’s not entirely certain what prompted him to write it. He is certain, however, that the best move he ever made was asking actress Bonnie Bartlett for a date; 66 years later, the two remain inseparable.
I was scheduled to interview Daniels about his book and was happily surprised when Bartlett joined in.
Daniels: It’s very interesting. I don’t know what made me sit down and start writing this [book]. I didn’t do any advance planning or research. I just wondered if I could recall the journey I had been through up to that point. I got a yellow pad with lines and started writing in pencil so I could erase if it didn’t sound right. Out came this memoir, and frankly I’m quite surprised because I have never written anything like a book before.
Bartlett: He was encouraged by people who had commented on how his career has spanned so many eras. He started tap-dancing at the end of the vaudeville era and has continued through to today. He’s been through all of it.
TME: Bonnie, did William run things by you after he wrote them to get your reaction?
Bartlett: No. I read it after he was finished. I said “Bill, this is pretty good. You could publish this.” He said “Nobody would want to read this.” I had to convince him that it would be interesting for people to read. If I ever suggested anything, he would say “No. This is my book. I’m going to write what I want to write.” I said “Fine.” There are things that he could have written about that I probably would have included.
TME: What would you have included that he left out?
Bartlett: When Bill goes to work, he works. He’s a hired hand. He doesn’t get involved with producers or other people or gossip or anything like that. He’s a very untypical actor. I’m the typical actor. I go in. I’m very friendly. I like to know what’s going on. I’m a gossip - like all women (Bill laughs). Bill doesn’t know what’s going on except his work.
TME: Bill, while looking over the many roles you’ve played, there’s one name that kept popping up: John Adams. How is it that you kept getting asked to portray the second President of the United States?
Daniels: I honestly can’t tell you the answer. The material looked interesting to me. I had to be talked into going on this one particular reading by my wife because I have a tendency to just back into everything. I’m glad I took the role, but I hadn’t done any research. People started sending me books about Adams. I hadn’t had any history lessons when I was a child. It was all very interesting and rewarding and revelatory. The entire period of the Founding Fathers is so fascinating.
Bartlett: You became so immersed in it.
Daniels: Yes. There were a lot of outstanding men who seemed to come together to bring this country into existence.
Bartlett: Back to your question. A couple of years later, PBS or WNET was doing “The Adams Chronicles,” and they asked Bill to do John Quincy Adams.
Daniels: That’s right, his son, and the sixth President.
Bartlett: He’s fascinating.
Daniels: Yes, a very interesting man and a very available man. His father was stern and hard to approach but nevertheless, he had this great sense of where this country should go and his son followed in his footsteps.
TME: I love that the two of you complete each other’s sentences. When you were husband and wife on “St. Elsewhere,” was that planned in advance?
Bartlett: No, I had read for the head nurse, the part that Christina Pickles played so very well (the role of Nurse Helen Rosenthal). They told me at the time of the reading that it was really already cast. A month or two later, (producer) Bill Paltrow sent Bill five scripts. His wife was Blythe Danner and they all knew each other. Bill went in to take it (shoot the scenes) and there was a tiny part in the fifth script with his character’s wife smoking a cigarette. They said “Maybe Bonnie will do it” so I did it and Bill taught me to smoke. It was a funny little part and it just went from there. We obviously looked good together and were funny. We could do it all.
TME: If you don’t mind my asking, what is the secret to a long-lasting marriage?
Daniels: Oh. I don’t know if I want to give that out (Bonnie laughs). You’ve got to realize who the boss is. And it’s usually the wife.
Bartlett: Oh! Oh, he is so full of it! (Bill laughs).
Daniels: Really, the secret is respect. I respect her as a woman but I particularly respect her as an actress. That’s the reason I found her. I heard her acting and I asked her out for coffee and we went on from there.