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William Daniels on 1776, Knight Rider, The Graduate, and Boy Meets World

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: William Daniels has been acting for well over half a century, which would be a significant accomplishment for any thespian, but what’s more fascinating is how so many different generations know him for so many different roles. In the ’60s, Daniels was a comedic caped crusader on Captain Nice and Dustin Hoffman’s dad in The Graduate; in the ’80s, he was doing rounds at St. Elsewhere while voicing a talking car on Knight Rider; in the ’90s, he was teaching on Boy Meets World, and only a few years ago he had a brief residency on Grey’s Anatomy. For those who prefer their entertainment with more of a historical bent, however, Daniels may be best known for portraying John Adams in the musical 1776, a role that he played on Broadway and reprised for the film adaptation. A new 4K director’s cut of the film will be presented at this year’s TCM Festival, and Daniels—along with co-star Ken Howard and director Peter H. Hunt—will be in attendance.

Daniels was joined on the interview by his wife of 64 years, actress Bonnie Bartlett, who did double spousal duty between 1982 and 1988, when she played Dr. Mark Craig’s long-suffering wife, Ellen, on St. Elsewhere.

1776 (1972)—“John Adams”

William Daniels: Somebody sent me a script, and it was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I thought, “This is ridiculous, doing a play about our country and waving a flag when we’ve invaded a place where we shouldn’t have gone and lost all those lives.” But Bonnie [Barlett, Daniels’ wife] said, “But Bill, you can play this part,” and I suppose, without admitting it, that I probably subconsciously knew I could. So reluctantly I went in, because they wanted to hear me sing, and I went to the 46th Street Theatre… and the door was locked. So I thought, “Oh, well, that’s that!” And I went to get on the M104 [bus], but I thought, “Bill, listen: You really ought to call your agent.” So I called my agent, and she says, “Where are you? They’re waiting for you!” She was up in arms. It turned out they were at the Ziegfeld Theater. So she said, “Take a taxi, I’ll pay for it!”

So I get there, and they just laughed it off and said they wanted to hear my voice. I think they knew they were going to be using me anyway, but they wanted some reassurances for the composer and so forth. I had done a musical called On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and there’s a song in there called “Wait ’Til We’re 65,” so I sang about four bars of it. And then I said, “You know, I can’t remember the rest of it!” [Laughs.] But they said, “It doesn’t matter, Bill.” So, indeed, I was cast, and on the first day of rehearsal—of course I’m still thinking this is a bad idea—I get there, and here were all these gentleman who were [playing] the members of Congress. I’m reading through the script, and I read, “By God, I have had this Congress,” which is the little monologue Adams does in front of the curtain before it goes up. And suddenly, after I finished it, this huge sound of male voices—in harmony—sings “Sit Down, John.” And I thought, “Jesus, guys, this sounds good. This may be something.”

We went to Boston, and the critic had reservations about the show. Then we went to New Haven, and there was a huge snowstorm, so we never did see any reviews. It wasn’t until Washington, D.C., when I guess the entire Congress came out that we had something on our hands here, because we played to packed houses. Ted Kennedy came backstage with his kids, and it was a big thing in Washington, naturally, because of the flag-waving. So we went to Broadway and I actually didn’t realize what good reviews we had until just recently. So that was the beginning of it, and I stayed with it, perhaps too long. Over two years. Maybe a couple of months over two years. And it was the best role I’ve ever had. And the most satisfying, because of the way it was appreciated by the audience.

AVC: When 1776 went on to win all of its Tonys, did you sense that a film version was inevitable?

WD: No, I didn’t think anything like that. But the Tonys... [Hesitates.] Bonnie, was that when they nominated me for the supporting role?

Bonnie Bartlett: Yes, they nominated you for Supporting Actor.

WD: Alexander Cohen!

BB: Yeah, that’s who it was.

WD: The producers’ group—all of the Broadway producers—make these nominations for the Tonys, so it came up that I was nominated in a supporting role, and I said, “No, thank you, because who am I supporting?” I mean, John Adams is on the stage all the time. It was obviously a starring role. So Alexander Cohen called me and said, “Bill, you’re turning it down?” I said, “Yes! Who am I supporting?” He said, “Well, you came in late, we did it in the spring, and all those spots were filled for the starring role.” I said, “So? Fine! Go ahead and remove it.” He said, “You mean you’re not even going to come?” I said, “No, I’m not going to come. Take my name off it. I’m not supporting anybody!” So that was that. That was the closest I came to a Tony. [Laughs.] How ridiculous. But I don’t think much of awards anyway. We just went on, and we were very successful.

AVC: So were you excited about the idea of doing a film version?

WD: It was interesting, because I was surprised that I got the role. [Laughs.] But Jack Warner, who produced it, brought the entire New York cast to Hollywood to film it. And I just learned recently—via my wife, who seems to have her ear to the ground—that Jack brought in the whole cast because when he did My Fair Lady, he didn’t use Julie Andrews. He used Audrey Hepburn, and he realized that he made a mistake. So in this one, he was bringing the whole cast in. He stuck with the Broadway cast. Otherwise I would never have gotten the role. If it had been cast in the usual Hollywood manner, they would have put a star in the role.

AVC: You’re going to be appearing at the TCM Festival for a screening of 1776, and it’s been said that there’ll be some previously unseen footage this time around.

WD: There may be. I don’t know. I only saw the film once. [Laughs.]

BB: You didn’t see it the other day, Bill, when you were doing the commentary with Peter Hunt and Ken Howard?

WD: Well, yes, but... not really.

BB: Well, you did the commentary with them, but Peter did most of it. But I did see the film, and it does look different, but I don’t know why, because I’m not that familiar with it either. I know the beginning is different. The credits are different. It’s for the new Blu-ray version. I guess you weren’t really able to see it, the way you were doing it, but you were commenting on it anyway.

WD: Leave it up to me to comment on something I haven’t seen!

BB: [Laughs.] Well, they were playing it, and Peter and you and Ken were sitting in the room, and you commented as it went along.

WD: I didn’t get a chance to comment. Peter Hunt never stopped talking! God almighty...

BB: Well, it’s his baby. He lives for this picture. But yes, it is different. For the most part they’re minor differences. Oh, but I know what was different: They did a whole different choreography of...

WD: “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”

BB: Yes! They extended that into a big number. [Matter-of-factly.] I don’t like it. I thought it was very Hollywood and too choreographed.

WD: Well, there’s a story with that. There was no dancing, really, in 1776. But this choreographer, I don’t even know who it was, but she had us staged up on top of cables and things. But in rehearsal she was fired, and Onna White came in. And Onna White understood the play, understood that it required very little in terms of choreography, and she kept it to a minimum. And that was perfect. So “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” was done in a very simple but very effective way, because basically the dialogue in 1776 is much more important than even the music.

BB: Much more. But the music makes it fun for the kids when they watch it. Do you know that it’s shown all over the country in schools? And he gets all sorts of mail from professors and people like that who got started in history because of this film. Bill never felt it was a great film. He thought it was a great play, but... Well, anyway, that whole dance thing for “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” they’ve made that much bigger. I’m not sure that it’s a good idea or a bad idea, but I thought it was a little too much. But, yes, I believe all of that is new. I think maybe Jack Warner might’ve taken it out. But it’s back!

[Jack Warner was, in fact, responsible for taking out the ”Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number, due to pressure from Richard Nixon, who apparently liked the number even less than Bartlett, if for completely different reasons. You can read the story here. —ed.]

The Adams Chronicles (1976)—“John Quincy Adams”
The Bastard (1978)—“Samuel Adams”

AVC: Funnily enough, IMDB actually shows your first on-camera role as being John Quincy Adams in something called A Woman For The Ages.

WD: No, I... [Hesitates.] I never played in that, no.

BB: I don’t even know what A Woman For The Ages is. What is it?

AVC: It appears to have been a teleplay.

BB: No, I don’t know anything about that. I did do John Quincy Adams for The Adams Chronicles, which was on PBS, and George Grizzard played John Adams. I even did Samuel Adams once [in The Bastard]. But I don’t know that other one.

Ladybug Ladybug (1963)—“Mr. Calkins”

WD: Oh, good lord. I don’t actually remember anything about that, except that I hear that it was a bomb.

BB: It was pretty bad.

WD: [Laughs.] I really don’t remember anything about it. The director [Frank Perry] was a fairly prominent director, and I did it because he asked me to, and it didn’t take very long to do. But I honestly don’t remember a thing about it.

The Bob Newhart Show (1975)—“Edgar T. Vickers Jr.”

WD: That was kind of fun, because I had a couple of lines that Bob kept breaking up on. He couldn’t get through it when I said these lines about me and my dogs. He just fell apart. He kept doing it when we were filming, so they’d have to stop and do it over again. But that was a pleasant experience. Bob was a great guy to work with, and we got along very well.

Reds (1981)—“Julius Gerber”

WD: Reds I did almost like a favor for Warren [Beatty], because we had done The Parallax View together, and he asked me. And he said, “Bring Bonnie to London!” Actually, it was to Manchester. So I went over there, and we did it in a day or two. I’ll tell you this: I complained about my living accommodations, the hotel, the room. And Warren was coming down the hall when I was yelling at the floor manager, and he heard that, and he had his secretary... He didn’t say anything to me, but he had his secretary put us up in a first-class hotel.

BB: Warren did his very first job with me, actually, on a soap opera: Love Of Life. But he’s been a good friend and wonderful for Bill when Bill needed help in the union [during Daniels’ tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild]. He’s been a very, very good friend.

The Parallax View (1974)—“Austin Tucker”

AVC: How did you enjoy doing The Parallax View?

WD: Well, let me think. Alan Pakula directed that. We did it in Seattle, and one of the scenes was up in the Needle. It went pretty well. It was kind of funny. I got a couple of laughs. One was, “You don’t play with that gun, son. That’s my car gun.”

BB: No, that’s a different one.

WD: Oh, is that a different one?

BB: The car gun is from that movie The President’s Analyst.

WD: [Laughs.] Well, it’s been awhile. I get them confused.

BB: Well, you went through a period where there was a lot of violence, dogs, and guns.

WD: I’m sorry about that. But you asked about The Parallax View, and I was up there in Seattle for a while doing that. I remember I had a scene with Warren, and we did the scene, and it went well. But then Pakula asked us to do it again. And we did it again, we remembered all our lines, and he said, “Let’s do it again.” And at that point, Warren went over, and they started talking quietly. And we went back, and he asked us to do it again, which had never happened to me. We did about 12 takes! Nobody dropped any lines or anything like that. And afterwards I remember having lunch with Pakula and asking, “What the hell was going on there?” He said, “We were fighting.” What he wanted was a more emotional response from Warren, but Warren has a firm grip on his film image, and he wasn’t about to show some kind of emotion. [Laughs.]

BB: In that scene. We don’t know who was right.

WD: [Slightly prickly.] No, I don’t know. I’m just telling you: He was not going to get emotional, and that was that. But the film itself was very well received.

The President’s Analyst (1967)—“Wynn Quantrill”
The Graduate (1967)—“Mr. Braddock”

AVC: Since you brought it up, how did you enjoy doing The President’s Analyst?

BB: That’s the one with the car gun.

WD: Yes, I know! [Laughs.] At that time, I was working on another picture, with Mike Nichols. I was working on The Graduate.

BB: They all came together, because Theodore Flicker was doing The President’s Analyst, and you were playing all of these same kind of guys. You did it in The Graduate.

WD: And I got pretty tired of playing it, too.

BB: The character in The Bob Newhart Show, too. They were all kind of the same character.

WD: Anyway, I had a meeting with Mike Nichols and the producer, and the producer said, “I have reservations, because you’re not old enough to play Dustin Hoffman’s father.” And Mike said, “That doesn’t matter.” He said that to the producer. He actually wanted all Broadway people, all New York actors, in The Graduate. So I left that meeting thinking I wasn’t going to get the part, so I took the other job and went to do The President’s Analyst, and when I came back, I get this call from Mike Nichols, saying, “What did you do? I want you for this part, and you went and did another job!” I said, “Well, yeah! I didn’t think I was gonna get the part!” He said, “Of course you’re gonna get the part!” [Laughs.] And he yelled at me, but I had finished the other one by then, anyway. It just made him nervous when he heard I was in Seattle.

BB: You weren’t in Seattle. You were somewhere else.

WD: All right, well, wherever it was. San Diego.

BB: Washington. I think.

WD: Okay, Washington! [Laughs.]

BB: Well, I don’t know. Do I know?

WD: Well, you seem to be interrupting like you do!

BB: Yes, I do. Go on. Please, go on.

WD: [Sighs.] This is a marriage that’s gone on for a very long time. [Laughs.]

Knight Rider (1982-1986) / Knight Rider 2000 (1991) / The Simpsons (1998 and 2004)—“KITT”

AVC: How did you find your way into voicing KITT?

WD: Oh, you want me to tell that story? Well, the producer of Knight Rider called me and said, “Would you do me a favor, Bill? I have some copy that I’d like you to tape for me, because I’m going to New York.” He was going to be meeting with some producers and selling this thing, and he wanted them to listen to it. I said, “Sure!” I wasn’t going to get paid or anything like that. So I go over to the studio at Universal, and he hands me the script. And then I look at him and say, “This is the voice of a car?” So I started reading it, and he said, “Could you make it like a robot?” I said [Snorts.] “No.” And I started reading a little bit more. He said, “How about...” I said, “Would you please let me read this?” So I just read it the way I read it, in my own voice. I think instinctively I knew that those other things were ridiculous. So, anyway, that was that.

About three weeks later, he calls and says, “Hey, listen, it sold. Would you do KITT?” I said, “Well, you know, I’m doing St. Elsewhere. I’m kind of busy.” He said, “We all know that. But this is NBC, and St. Elsewhere is NBC, and they’ll work around it. We’ll just wait until you’re not busy, and you can come over and do this.” So that’s the way I did it. I’d go over there every once in a while, and it’d take me no more than an hour to do my part. I never worked with David Hasselhoff at all, because we were never together. He’d just have some dialogue lady give him my lines, and then they stuck them together. But when I finally met David at a Christmas party, he said, “Well, it seems to work!” [Laughs.]

AVC: When it comes to reprising the role of KITT, do you just pick and choose when you’re of a mind to do it?

WD: Well, I usually say, “I don’t want to do it,” and Bonnie talks me into it.

BB: It’s the money, Bill. [Laughs.] Let’s face it: It’s the money.

WD: That’s true. Yes, that’s right: I’m a money player!

AVC: Well, whatever the reason, thank you for saying “yes” to The Simpsons.

WD: Well, that one was just for our son.

BB: The Simpsons is our son’s favorite show in the world.

St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)—“Dr. Mark Craig”

AVC: With St. Elsewhere, were you and Bonnie always intended to play husband and wife?

WD: Not at all. I got involved with it, and in one of the early shows, there was a discussion because I was at an awards ceremony for the Surgeon Of The Year—which Dr. Craig always assumed he was going to win, but he never did—and he was to be sitting there with his wife. In a previous scene, I’d made a big thing while I was operating about how I got my wife to quit smoking, and now here I am at this awards thing, with my wife at the table, and when I go off to the men’s room, she lights up a cigarette. That was the joke.

They were discussing who to get for my wife, because she didn’t have more than one or two lines, if even that. It was a sight gag, really. So they discussed it and discussed it, and then finally the lady over at MGM said, “Listen, his wife is an actress. Ask her if she might do us a favor.” They said, “Well, it’s so small!” So they asked her, and she did it, and they liked the look of it, and pretty soon they started writing for her, so she became a regular on the show. But it was kind of accidental. [Laughs.] She certainly didn’t read for the role!

AVC: Well, she did come into the role with a bit of experience.

WD: [Laughs.] You’re right. That’s very true.

AVC: Do you have a favorite Dr. Craig episode or plot arc?

WD: No, you know, I really don’t. We did six seasons, so it all kind of...

BB: How about the boxing? You got to box.

WD: Oh, God. I got in the ring with a guy. That was the hardest show I think I ever did. I was exhausted. I actually had to train. I had a fellow I worked out with—he actually was a boxer—and he helped me out with it.

BB: There were so many funny scenes on that show. I loved the scene where we had a party or something, and Eric Laneuville got ill and went upstairs, and when you went up there and yelled down, “Ellen, there’s a Negro in my pajamas!” [Laughs.]

AVC: It’s a shame that they’ve only ever released the first season on DVD.

WD: Well, St. Elsewhere had its cult, but it never did big numbers. But it did get six seasons, and its cult of viewers were dedicated. That’s what kept it going. That, and Brandon Tartikoff really loved the show.

Captain Nice (1967)—“Carter Nash / Captain Nice”

AVC: How do you look back on your short-lived superhero series, Captain Nice?

WD: Well, it had Buck Henry, and he would take a script, go into a room, and make it funny. He was a terribly gifted comic writer. But I can’t say as I remember too much about it except that once they flew me into the wall of the studio, and I banged my head! But I had lovely, talented people with me. Alice Ghostley played my mother, and she was a marvelous comedienne and actress. It was a very pleasant experience. What more can I say about it?

BB: That they broke your eardrum?

WD: Oh, yes. There was a scene where I supposedly knock down a door and come charging in, and I was standing next to the director, right near the door, when they were practicing it. And suddenly they blew out the door, and it makes a tremendous noise. And I had a ringing in my ears that went on for a couple of days, so I finally went to a doctor, who said, “Well, sure, you’ve got a ringing: They broke your eardrum!” I said, “Well, how do you know?” He said, “Because there’s blood in there!” [Laughs.] So he says, “You’re going to lose some of your highs.” Which I have.

Grey’s Anatomy (2012)—“Dr. Craig Thomas”

WD: I did five shows, and I mostly worked with Sandra Oh. She was a doll to work with, and we had a good time. I liked playing the part because she was the cocksure surgeon and I was a surgeon emeritus. I’d been around a long time, so I proceeded to take her down a peg, so that was fun. [Laughs.] But they were all very attentive.

As a matter of fact, before I did the show, Tony Phelan asked me out for something to eat, and I said, “Well, I’ll go over to Art’s Deli with you if you want.” But I think they just wanted to see if I had all my marbles. [Laughs.] Because then they offered me the five shows. But as I said, they were very attentive. I think they thought I was going to drop over or something. They always had a chair waiting for me, to sit down. Because some of that stuff around the surgery table, and the fall he takes—that I took—was kind of tricky. But it was very pleasant. Pretty much they leave me alone, the directors. They don’t have much to say. Just, “Go ahead and do it, Bill!”

Boy Meets World (1993-2000) / Girl Meets World (2014 & 2015)—“George Feeny”

AVC: How did you find your way into Boy Meets World?

WD: They came looking for me. I read the first script and I said, “I don’t want to do this.” So the producer said, “Would you come and have a meeting with me, please?” So I went and had a meeting, and I said, “You know, before you say anything, I don’t want to play Mr. Belvedere or make fun of teachers, because I think they’re underpaid, need more respect, and...”

And he said, “Wait, wait, wait a minute! This character is based on a teacher I had in high school who became a mentor of mine! We’re not making fun with this part!” I said, “But this first script...” He said, “Don’t worry about that. Just give me 24 hours. This is gonna be rewritten, and then tell me whether you’ll gonna do it or not.” And overnight he sent another script, and it’s totally different, totally believable, and totally doable. And so I said, “Okay.” And that was the beginning of a long run! You know, I ass-backwards into a lot of these things. [Laughs.]

AVC: Bonnie mentioned earlier that you get letters from history professors who were influenced by 1776. I can only imagine how many you get from teachers who were influenced by Mr. Feeny.

WD: That’s true. To this day, I get mail, and it’ll either be about Boy Meets World or 1776.

BB: Or KITT.

WD: Or KITT, yes. But as a matter of fact, Disney wanted Michael Jacobs to produce another series, a sequel of some sort. He said, “Well, I can’t do Boy Meets World again. This is 20 years later!” So he comes up with Girl Meets World. [Laughs.] And he asked me to come on and do a couple of scenes for the opening show, just to get me into it, because evidently Mr. Feeny had become something of an iconic figure involved with this thing. So I did two scenes for two different shows. We did it in one day, because the money is not any good anymore, so he could pay me a double salary. And I think he’s going to want me to do something else, too. Isn’t that what he said, Bonnie?

BB: He said that it would be a tradition that, for as long as the show goes on, you’d be on the first episode of each season. So, yeah, you’ve done a couple, and he wants you there when you can. And when you will.

WD: Yes, and I feel beholden to him for making me comfortable from Boy Meets World, so the money doesn’t really matter to me. Whatever he wants me to do, I’ll do.