From 1776 to Boy Meets World, William Daniels Looks Back on His Career in New Memoir
It's hard to believe that on March 31, William Daniels, the legendary character actor of stage and screen who originated a plethora of iconic roles, will turn 90.
Depending on which generation you belong to, you have a particular picture of him in your head. If you were part of the avant-garde theater scene, he's Peter, the disheartened protagonist of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. For Broadway-goers, Daniels will forever be associated with John Adams in the musical 1776, a character he played at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) for two years and later immortalized on film. If you grew up in the 1980s, he was simultaneously the voice of the talking car KITT on Knight Rider and the brusque Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere. And for millennials, he will be forever remembered as the gruff but kindly educator Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World.
Daniels has had an illustrious career, one that he explores in his forthcoming memoir, There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, and Many Others. Before its March 1 release, Daniels recalls the highlights of his life and career, both of which kicked off at relatively the same time.
1. Daniels started out as a child performer. "When I was four or five, I was up there at the Brooklyn Lyceum dancing away in my little jockey uniform," he tells TheaterMania. His "ambitious mother" was the person who pushed him onto the stage, and "that led to her looking everything up that was going on in show business. Pretty soon, I was going over to NBC for the Horn & Hardart Children's Hour. My sister and I did that for quite a few years."
2. He made his Broadway debut more than 70 years ago in the long-running play Life With Father. It was there that he met one of his earliest mentors, Howard Lindsay, the play's coauthor and leading man. Lindsay also provided Daniels with several valuable pieces of advice:
"During rehearsal, we came to this line, and he said, 'Now, Bill, there's a laugh here that's big and we don't want really want them to wear themselves out. A laugh goes up and it peaks and it goes horizontal, and then it starts to fall. Right when it starts to fall, that's when I want you to come in with your line. We don't want them to laugh so much they're exhausted. We want them to go home not feeling like they had laughed enough.'
"More important than that was his demeanor around the stage and his behavior. You got a sense of the respect that he had for his chosen profession. I tried to remember that."
3. Northwestern University was Daniels' college of choice, specifically because Lindsay advised him to "find a regular college that has a good theater department. That way you get a college education plus you'll learn all about the theater." Up until then, "I didn't have much of an education. We were performers. We worked every weekend at NBC and I just didn't pay much attention to school."
But luckily he did at Northwestern. "I fortunately ran into this blonde who was at an audition for a play called Bury the Dead. I was a pretty cocky kid. I had been on Broadway and none of these people had been. I thought, 'I don't know if I want to be in this turkey,' and then I suddenly heard an actress, this blonde [who was] very nice-looking. I waited at the door for her and said, 'How 'bout a cup of coffee?' She said, 'You're too short.'" The actress was Bonnie Bartlett, and Daniels' persistence paid off. "That started the relationship that led to marriage, and we've been married for a long time now." (They celebrate their 66th anniversary this June.)
4. While most viewers are under the assumption that the role of John Adams in 1776 launched Daniels into theatrical fame, it really was Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, in which he originated the role of Peter. He even calls it the "most important" production of his career. "That was Edward's first play. It put him on the map and it put me on the map." It also netted Daniels the 1960 Obie and Clarence Derwent Awards.
5. The grind of 1776 eventually proved too much. "Playing John Adams, you never left the stage. Everybody else would go off, have a cup of tea, and then come back on. Eight shows a week was quite a struggle to get through, and I did it for two years. But I was trying to make a living and they gave me a big boost on the salary scale." The best piece of advice he can give to actors playing John Adams in future productions of 1776 is "Get a lot of rest."
6. Daniels is still honored by all of the fans that are inspired by his role as the encouraging teacher Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. "It's always gratifying to hear how they feel that I somehow had an influence on their education."
7. One of those fans is Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musical Hamilton, about the American Founding Fathers, runs at the same venue where 1776 started out. Daniels was "surprised to hear" that Miranda even knew who he was, and the pair met when Daniels and Bartlett went to see the show. "It was nice to go back and talk to him," Daniels says. "I really liked the play a lot."
The Adams Administration. #Feeeeeeeny pic.twitter.com/aAF2ydqtl8
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) March 26, 2016
8. Of all of Daniels' iconic roles, which also includes KITT on Knight Rider, his favorite is Dr. Craig from St. Elsewhere, which netted him a pair of Emmy Awards. "I did it for six seasons, and Tom Fontana and all of them wrote it very well for me. It delved into my particular personality, so I was very comfortable with it. Not to mention the finances."