William Daniels: An Exclusive Interview01/02/2019

William Daniels: An Exclusive Interview

Actor William Daniels has been performing in one way or another for most of his 91 years. He is unique among actors in that he is instantly recognizable to most people, but the generation of the viewer is often the decisive factor in how they recognize him. Older generations may remember him as Dustin Hoffman’s father in the iconic 1960s film The Graduate and to younger folks, he is and will forever be that wise teacher Mr. Feeny from the 90s teen show Boy Meets World.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on March 31, 1927, Daniels and his sister Jacqueline began performing at an early age at their mother’s urging. Daniels was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945 and was stationed in Italy, where he served as a disc jockey at an Army radio station. Later, Daniels enrolled at Northwestern University where he met his wife of 67 years, Bonnie Bartlett.

Daniels is well-known for multiple iconic roles including Dr. Mark Craig in the NBC drama St. Elsewhere, for which he won two Emmy Awards, and Mr. Feeny in the ABC sitcom Boy Meets World.

Daniels played the father of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate (1967), Howard in Two for the Road, John Adams in the 1972 musical film 1776, Carter Nash in Captain Nice and is the voice of KITT in Knight Rider. In 2014, he returned to his role as Mr. Feeny in Girl Meets World, the sequel to Boy Meets World.

Coming of Age had the distinct pleasure of speaking with William Daniels—and his wife, actress Bonnie Bartlett—about his life, his career and their long, happy marriage.

COA: Mr. Daniels, thank you for speaking with me. Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Brooklyn in 1927. What an amazing span of time—you must have some incredible memories of the shaping of that city.

WD: Well, it’s totally different today, but when I was a young person in Brooklyn it was more of a blue collar area. My father was a blue collar worker—he was a bricklayer. It was a middle class area. Hull Street was where I was born and played. I went back a few years ago and I was shocked to find that Hull Street was only two blocks long. It seemed much bigger to me as a child.

COA: What was your childhood like?

WD: We were performers very early. My mother put my sister Jackie and I into dance classes and then pretty soon into performing. It was the 30s, so it was during the Depression. There were a lot of child performers out there because they were cheap, and sometimes they were just free. Anyway, that’s when we started performing for The Nick Kenny Children’s Show on the radio. We would go and do all of this for nothing. We weren’t getting paid, although we found out later that he was. For my mother, it was important that we were gaining experience. It was a lot of experience over the years. I was something like 13 or 14. I really didn't get away from the family until I was drafted, which was a great help to me because we were all much too close.

COA: That must have been quite the challenge—going from this tight knit family in Brooklyn to being on your own?

WD: Yes, it was, but it also kind of freed me from the family. We were so close, it was ridiculous. I wound up in Livorno, Italy and I worked as a disc jockey at an Army radio station. I was in there for two years. When I got out, I immediately went into Northwestern University where I met my wife, who’s on the phone with me.

COA: Hello, Bonnie. Thanks for joining us. How exactly did you meet?

WD: Well, we were actually in a classroom auditioning for a play and the director was in the classroom and the people who were auditioning sat in these class desks in front. I heard these people read and I thought, “Oh yeah, well that’s no actor. I don’t know if I want to be in this turkey.” That’s when I heard a voice in the back. The director called out Bonnie and he had her read and I heard an actress.

COA: So you heard her voice before you even saw her?

WD: Yes, exactly. It was the voice of an actor and I heard it immediately. Mind you, I had already been in New York and on Broadway. I was a cocky kid at that time. Having had Broadway experience, I was rather critical of all of these people. So I waited at the door for her to come by. I said, “How about a cup of coffee?” She said, “You are too short.” I said, “Come on, have a cup of coffee” and she said, “All right.” We have been together ever since.

COA: How did you propose?

WD: I really don’t recall having ever proposed. We went together for so long it was just assumed that we would get married.

BB: We finally had to get married just to be alone.

COA: How long have you been married?

BB: We have been together for 70 years and married for 67.

COA: What is your secret to a long and happy marriage?

WD: Mutual respect. Respect for each other as human beings and respect for each other’s talent. We worked in the same field but if one of us got a job we would be happy for each other. I think respect is probably the most important thing in marriage and love, of course.

BB: It is sort of like being able to be flexible enough because you each are going to do something that is annoying to the other person. So, I would say to be tolerant of each other. Getting through those things and talking about them. When I was younger, it took a long time for me to learn to say, “You know, you can’t do that to me. You can’t.” That is part of what you have to say to each other—“I don’t like it when you do that. Let’s talk it out.” You must not be silent. I know when we were first married it was during the time when women did everything around the house. You didn’t see a man with a baby carriage. Women did all of the work. A lot of it was just, maybe, if you asked the man to do something, then maybe he would do it, but you had to ask. You can’t just silently suffer.

COA: William, in your memoir, you talk about the difficulties of dealing with an over enthusiastic stage mother and how you came to terms with that by going to therapy. Tell me how you dealt with that and what advice you would give to young actors who might be dealing with the same things as you.

WD: Well, my mother put Jackie and me into show business and she was our mentor. She read in the paper that Nick Kenny, who had a daily column in the New York Daily Mirror, was auditioning kids. She took us to go audition for Nick Kenny’s younger brother Charlie. We did a little tap dance and when we did, they said, “No, no, no. This is radio. Tap dancing is no good. Now, if you sang, maybe.” So, she took us home and taught us how to sing. We went back and they said, “No, no, no. Not in unison. In harmony” So, she took us back home taught us to sing harmony and took us back for a third time. That time, they said, “Yes, that’s it,” and they let us onto the show.

BB: Irene was the persistent one. The kids just did what they were told. Bill loved his mother very much and he did what he was told. But, he sometimes displayed a great deal of anger and would say, “Why couldn’t I just say that I didn’t want to do it?” So I think if children want to perform, that’s great, but if it comes from the parent, then it is no good. The kid has to want to do it.

WD: It took a long time to get over that resentment of being put into it. It actually came when I started acting. I was in a Broadway show called Life with Father. Then I realized, wait a minute, I am pretty good at this—not the song and dance, but acting. I decided that I would like to become an actor. That was the moment when I kind of walked away from the family and our song and dance team and I went into acting.

BB: The irony is that all of that experience as a singer and dancer actually did come in handy when he wanted to do a couple musicals. He wanted to do 1776, and the only reason he could do that was because he had been a singer and had an incredible musical background and talent.

COA: Speaking of 1776, you famously refused the Tony nomination for supporting actor. Tell me about that.

WD: Yes. Our show opened on Broadway after we had been out of town in Boston. But it opened in the spring. The producers had already met and nominated shows that they had already seen and they had not seen our show. Obviously, I was the lead in 1776, but they offered me a supporting actor nomination and I turned it down. They said, “Why?” I said, “Who am I supporting?” And they didn’t have an answer for that. They said, “Well, we already have leading men,” and I said, “Well, then leave me out.”

COA: Was there any backlash from your decision and did you ever regret it?

WD: No, I haven’t regretted it at all. I think I was right in insisting that I am the leading role because, obviously, in 1776 John Adams is the leading role. I turned down this supporting role nomination and I never regretted it and I forgot about it. I think this show business offers out too many awards as it is. I wasn’t about to feel anything other than that I was right because I wasn’t a supporting actor. I was the lead in the show.

COA: We’ve talked about 1776 a lot. What are your thoughts on Hamilton?

WD: We loved it. It was a pleasure going to see it and meeting Lin-Manuel Miranda. He wanted me to come back to show me my old dressing room because I had performed in the same theater—the 46th Street Theater. I went back and it was a wonderful experience. He’s a great guy.

BB: By the way, the whole conversation with Lin-Manuel is in the back of Bill’s book. It’s a wonderful dialogue between Bill and Lin-Manuel. We can’t wait to see what he does next.

COA: William, I heard that you were only 10 years older than Dustin Hoffman when they asked you to play his father in The Graduate. Is that true?

WD: Yes, that’s true—9 years, but that didn’t make any difference to the director, Mike Nichols. He does amazing work. He had seen my work and he offered me a small part and I turned it down. He asked why I turned it down and I said, “Well, it’s a small part.” He said, “But, it has two laughs.” He said, “Well, how about the father?” That was whole different story. It was a substantial part and I guess he just wanted to work with me, so I did it. It was a wonderful experience. Mike was a wonderful director and he knew enough to cast people that he didn't have to give acting lessons to. Some directors just love to give you an acting lesson, even though you are probably a better actor than they are. He didn’t do that. He knew the people he cast and he left them alone to do their work. He would just set up scenes and he would go from there.

COA: Did you become friendly with Dustin Hoffman?

WD: Yes, I did. We did that, but after a show is over you all go your own ways. I know if I saw Dustin on the street we would say hello, but we never became close friends or anything like that.

COA: That movie is such a cultural touchstone. Did you have any idea what it would become?

WD: I misunderstood from the beginning. When I heard the cast, Anne Bancroft was going to play the mother and she had a name on Broadway, so I assumed this movie was about her. I went in and we had the first read through. Then I realized and I said, “Oh, wait a minute.” And Mike Nichols said, “I’m going to play you some music that I’m thinking of playing during the show.” He played “Sounds of Silence” and I realized that’s a young person song. Our young person was this young man that I had never heard of, Dustin Hoffman, who was the lead in the show. Indeed, it was his show and he became a huge star. My whole idea about the show changed starting with that music.

COA: Let’s talk about Boy Meets World and the role of Mr. Feeny. You were a surrogate father figure for so many people who grew up watching that show. How does that make you feel? Did you realize this at the time?

WD: Actually, I turned that role down because to me the name Mr. Feeny was a very funny name and I didn’t want to make fun of teachers. They are underpaid and they're terribly important to all of us. So I turned it down and Michael Jacobs asked me to come in and meet with him. I did and he said, “Why did you turned it down?” I said, “The name is funny and I don't want to make fun of teachers.” He said. “Wait a minute. I based this Mr. Feeny on a teacher of mine in high school who became a mentor of mine and who was a very important person in my life. I expect to treat Mr. Feeny with that kind of respect.” I said, “Well, in that case I will do it.”

BB: The response over the years has been totally incredible and surprising. We didn’t realize that would happen. We were just shocked.

COA: Let’s talk about Knight Rider. I understand you read the lines for KITT just to help out a friend, but then they offered you the role?

WD: Yes. At that time I thought, “A car that talks? Give me a break.” I was ready to walk away from it. I was doing St. Elsewhere and they knew that. It was the same network and they were willing to work around it. When I had a day off, I would go over and do KITT. I didn’t meet David Hasselhoff for a long time. He was on the road shooting it. I would record KITT’s voice and they would play my recording to Hasselhoff out on the road. It seemed to work out. I finally met him at the Christmas party. Neither one of us could believe what a hit it had become.

BB: He has been so lucky. KITT was a total surprise—that it was such a big hit. It paid nicely, too.

COA: You mentioned St. Elsewhere. That show aired for six seasons and the two of you played husband and wife. How did you enjoy working together?

BB: Yes. I loved it. It was just a wonderful six years of working together and with wonderful people. I think I just read that all six seasons are going to be on Hulu! We work well together.

COA: You are one of only two couples to both win Emmys on the same night, correct?

BB: Yes. Besides Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, who were fabulous Broadway actors, we are the only other ones. It’s such an honor.

COA: You both publicly endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016. What are your thoughts on the current political climate?

WD: Well first of all, I’m pretty concerned about who is sitting in the White House. I don’t agree with the man and I don’t like the man. I stay away from that.

BB: Bill has read The New York Times every day of his life. When he was a kid in New York, he would go in and buy The New York Times and sit there and read it instead of going to school. That’s what he always has done. He has always been extremely political and extremely left. He still doesn't understand the Electoral College. He says, “What is that all about? It doesn't make sense. Hillary won. What’s going on?”

WD: I don’t understand it because it turns out that Hillary had almost a million more votes than this man who sits in the White House now. So that’s the popular vote! So, I was very annoyed with that.

BB: Billy, don’t you think this is amazing how many women have been elected?

WD: Yes, that is very encouraging for women. We’ve had enough men screwing up our government. Let’s get the ladies in there and give them a chance.

COA: What inspired you to write a memoir? Have you written anything else before that?

WD: I don’t know what it was that made me sit down and want to write. I hadn’t researched it. I hadn’t really thought about it. I just picked up my pen and started writing. I think what I was trying to do is see if I could recall where I started and the journey I have had up until now. Once you pick up the pen and start writing, it is amazing. So much of my past came back to me—things that I didn’t even think to remember anymore.

BB: Bill wrote it well. I know because I am writing now and it is hard for me. I have to go back and rewrite. Bill never had to go back. He was able to tell his stories with humor and insight. He wrote easily.

WD: I kind of enjoyed doing it, actually. It was very easy for me. I liked it.

COA: You were recently in the news for foiling an attempted burglary at your home. Tell me about that.

WD: It was scary. Afterwards, I made jokes with the press because they were all here and wanted to know about it. But if you are laying bed at night and you hear bang, bang, bang on the glass, it’s pretty scary. We have a glass paned door that opens onto our bedroom. Somebody was knocking out the glass panes on the lower section of the door. Bonnie screamed and I turned on the lights. He ran when he heard Bonnie and saw the lights, but that wasn’t enough of a story. I knew the press wanted a story, so, I told them that I grabbed him and threw him on the ground, hit him a couple times, picked him up and hit him again and then sent him on his way. But, you know what, they didn’t buy that.

COA: So you are a natural born storyteller.

BB: Yes. He is. All actors are—especially old actors.

COA: You are 91 years young. You are in good mental and physical health. How do you maintain your health as you age?

WD: I don’t know how to answer that. Thinking about it, we’ve been busy. We have been fortunate enough to work into our older age. We don't retire. If the phone rings, maybe it will be something interesting to do. Everybody, I think, knows I’m available. When you are 91, if they haven’t met you personally, they don’t know if you will come in on crutches or with a cane or what. But I am in good physical shape. I’m always a little surprised that I am as well preserved as I am.

COA: What projects do you have coming up?

BB: Bill recorded some KITT voices for a Melissa McCarthy movie. It will come out next year. I’m writing a book too. It's not quite a memoir. It's a story. It specifically has to do with the changing culture of how men treat women. I think it will be interesting and somewhat shocking.

COA: Do you have a particular time period or genre to work in?

WD: In my case, what I enjoyed most was working in front of a live audience. Doing eight a week is rather tough and I am too old for it now. When I opened a show—say for 1776—and people were whistling and waving their programs. I enjoyed using my voice to make the crowd quiet to the point that you could hear a pin drop. You knew you had them in the palm of your hand, and that feeling that you could do whatever you wanted and they will be with you. That was a strong attraction for me in working in live theater.

COA: Thank you both so much for talking with me today. It was such a pleasure.

BB: Thank you. The pleasure was ours.

WD: Thank you.

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