William Daniels: An Actor’s Actor

By Paige Levinson   |   September 6, 2018

Bob and I had met Bonnie (Bartlett) and William (Bill) Daniels through our great friend Louise Latham. She was a wonderful actress, and a dear friend who always had lovely parties filled with interesting people. Luckily for us, Bill and Bonnie divide their time between L.A. and Montecito, so we met them at one of her parties. I had always admired Bonnie and Bill separately as actors, so I was happy to meet them in person. Bill had told us bits and pieces of his childhood, but it wasn’t until I read his very truthful book, There I go Again, that I realized what an interesting childhood Bill had. 

 Little Billy Daniel’s mother had Billy working when he was eight years old as a song and dance act on radio. Irene (his mother) heard him shuffle his feet to some music and started his dance classes at three years old at the Sonny Hoey Dance Academy. He had an act with his younger sisters called The Daniels Family, and they went to every audition and every available show that presented youngsters singing and dancing. He and his younger sisters would sometimes work until midnight, and their mother would bring them home at 1 am to catch a few hours of sleep before they woke up for school.

Bill’s mother would have given Rose, the stage mother in Gypsy, a run for her money. She didn’t miss an audition, nor a show. She knew every line to every song, and one time when Billy forgot the words in the middle of a performance, she came down the aisle, got up on stage, sang it with him until he got back on track, and then went back and took her seat.

She laid his path for him and he took right to it.

He is probably best-known for his roles as Dr. Craig, Mr. Feeny, John Adams, or the voice of Kitt, the car, but we’ll get to all that later.

First, let’s see how he got there. 

The Children’s Hours

Little brown-haired, blue-eyed Billy Daniels and his sister Jackie circa 1936

Billy was a pleaser and to please his mom, he learned all the tap steps, and all the songs and never let out a peep of a complaint. This discipline would serve him well when he got to Broadway later on in life. Billy and his sister Jackie danced for an audition for Nick Kenny’s Children’s Hour, and he said, “No, this is radio, they need to sing,” so Irene took them home, taught them to sing in harmony, brought them back, and they got the gig. They weren’t paid for any of this, but Irene felt it was good experience.

Because of that, in later years, Bill made sure he was paid properly for all his performances. Pretty soon, their sister Carol would join them. She was not quite three years old. They started singing for Alice Clement’s Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, and the three of them were chosen to be part of the show’s permanent company of performers. They did this show for years. He continued doing it even when he was acting in Life With Father (1945-47). They performed at NBC, where he eventually acted in Philco Playhouse’s Somerset Maugham Presents and The Robert Montgomery Show.

Daniels was in St. Clement’s Catholic School when one of the nuns noticed he could harmonize and she put him in the choir. She then led him to the High School of Music and Art, where he stayed for two years. He heard about a part and went to the Empire Theatre at the age of 15, auditioned for Life With Father – and not only did he get the job immediately, he went on tour with them. Life with Father had an unprecedented run of seven years. He started off as the assistant stage manager-understudy and ended up playing all the brothers until he went into the army. At this point of his life, he thought of himself as an actor, not just a song-and-dance man.

Off to College

On advice from a mentor who suggested he go to a real university, he applied to Northwestern and got in. First he served his time in the service and then received word that he had gained admission in the drama department, which is where he met Bonnie Bartlett. He asked her out for coffee and that turned into an almost 70-year love affair. Bonnie, a marvelous actress in her own right, became his wife, mother to his two children, Michael and Robert, and grandmother to his four grandchildren. He credits Bonnie for getting him through college, and taking up the slack when his acting jobs were slow to come. After college, Bonnie and Bill went to New York to find work.

He began his rounds of auditions and odd jobs in 1953, and was thrilled to be hired by a summer stock company that had a nine-week season.

The Long Career

Bill Daniels says he’d still respond to a budding actor’s request for advice by saying, “Don’t do it,” though he only half means it (photo by Alan Light)

Bonnie was first to get the big break. She was asked to appear in the TV soap opera Love of Life. She played Vanessa, the star, for three years. The most exciting thing that happened to Bill in that period was being cast by Tennessee Williams to play Brick  in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

He was on his way!

From there, he played Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger, and thought he had reached Nirvana. He didn’t know his big break was yet to come. 

He was cast in Edward Albee’s one-acter called The Zoo Story, and won an Obie for his outstanding performance. Great reviews and important parts followed. He hasn’t stopped since. He acted, directed, and took the job of a voice in a car called Kitt in Knight Rider, which was a huge success (and still is). He was in Two for the Road, a classic with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finny.

Next came A Thousand Clowns on Broadway and then On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, followed by a complete switch to a half-hour program on TV called Captain Nice. He then played Dustin Hoffman’s father in The Graduate, John Adams in the Broadway play and movie, “1776,” and was nominated for a Tony, won two Emmys (one along with Bonnie) for playing Dr. Craig in St. Elsewhere. He played Mr. Feeny for seven years in Boy Meets World, and two other variations of that program.

When he walks down the street, people are often excited and yell, “Hey, Mr. Feeny, I miss you!” I can’t even begin to record all his nominations, honors, and parts in movies, on stage, and on television.

During all this activity, he still found time to be president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years. One of his favorite jobs between gigs was to cook for his grandchildren, until his son Robert turned vegan. Bill says, “I don’t cook vegan.” He is only one of the very few actors who is still working steadily and happily at the age of 91. 

 Over the years, he was frequently asked if he had advice for young actors, and this is what he always said: ”Don’t do it.”

He says he would still say that, but only to get a laugh.


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