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A Walk Down 1776 Memory Lane, With William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett

Daniels, the original John Adams, and his wife, tell us about the legendary original production of the Tony-winning musical.

"Is anybody there?" I wondered as the phone rang and rang. "Sorry," said Emmy winner Bonnie Bartlett with a laugh. "We're the busiest 93- and 95-year-olds you can think of." The "We" is rounded out by Bartlett's husband, William Daniels — Mr. Feeny to some, KITT to others, Dr. Craig to millions more, and John Adams in 1776 to us theater geeks in between.

The subject of the call was 1776. There's a recent ultra high-def Blu-ray release of the film, in which Daniels and the Broadway cast all starred. And it is almost July 4, after all. But more selfishly, I just wanted to pepper Daniels and Bartlett (who famously became one of the few couples in history to win Emmys the same year, for St. Elsewhere in 1986) with questions about that original production. Here's what they had to say.

William Daniels as John Adams in the original Broadway production of 1776
(© Martha Swope/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

This conversation is condensed and edited for clarity.

Why was playing John Adams in 1776 so rewarding for you as an actor?

William Daniels: Well, it was the most challenging. He's on stage for the entire show, and he has, I think, six or seven —

Bonnie Bartlett: More like nine.

William: Ok, nine songs. I was anxious to do it. I enjoyed the challenge of doing what we were doing every night, eight times a week. It's a tough job and you have to be energetic to do it. And I was, at that point. I played it for over two years, so that meant I was content.

Bonnie: He had never played such a big part before. I read the script before Bill did, and I said, "You know, honey, this part was written for you." I didn't think he could sing all those songs, but he wanted the part, and had been a singer as a little boy, so he just made himself study it and work on it. He worked with voice people until he could do it.

What made you decide to turn down the Tony nomination you received for the role?

William: The group that was doing the Tony Awards put me in the supporting category, and I turned it down, and the wanted to know why. So I said, "Who am I supporting?" And that's the way it went.

Bonnie: Bill said "I'm not going to go in and take an award from the supporting actor who deserves it, because that's not fair to them." They said, "Does that mean you're not gonna come?" And he said "No." It broke my heart.

William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett
(© image provided by Momentum Media)

What was it like to do the show at the White House for the Nixon family?

William: Well, first of all, I didn't want to do it. I couldn't bear Mr. Nixon as our President. But I was told by my producer, which turned out to be a lie, that if I went and did it, the whole cast would get a whole week's salary for that one performance. He was lying, but I didn't know it at the time.

Bonnie: Most of the cast was Left. I think there were just two or three Republicans in the whole place. And Nixon knew that, but it didn't bother him. He came out and he was very gracious, and he got a laugh, which made him very happy.

How did it happen that they cast the entire Broadway company in the movie version?

William: The producer of the film, Jack Warner, made the offer that he'd take the entire Broadway cast, including the director. He was really intent on bringing us all out and getting us to do that film for him at Warner Brothers.

Bonnie: He had felt he made a big mistake not using Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and putting Audrey Hepburn in it instead. He didn't want to make that mistake again.

William: I was glad to do it. I was glad that Jack Warner decided to use the Broadway cast and me, even though there were stars in Hollywood who were anxious to do it. I won't name names. But he wanted the Broadway production and that's what he got.

Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, William Daniels as John Adams, Henry LeClair as Robert Livingston, David Vosburgh as Roger Sherman, and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin performing "But Mr. Adams" in 1776 on Broadway
(© Martha Swope/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

What was your favorite part of the show to perform night after night?

William: "Is Anybody There?" It ends the play, as I recall, and I was alone on the stage. I don't know, it was very meaningful to me to sing that particular number.

Bonnie: I think it was the connection. Bill loves the connection between the audience and him. It gives him a real sense of power.

William: That's why I enjoyed the opening of the play, too. I was downstage left, and they're wrestling with their programs in the audience, and then a little spotlight comes on. I enjoyed getting their attention, and when I did, you could hear a pin drop. That's when I knew I had them. And then I went on with the show.