Emmy Award-winning actors William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Boy Meets World and more.
While I grew up watching William Daniels on Boy Meets World, he had a very lengthy career in the years before including The Graduate, 1776, St. Elsewhere, and Knight Rider. He got his start on stage in New York. After serving during World War II, Daniels would go onto enroll at Northwestern, where he met Bonnie Bartlett. Together, the two of them will be celebrating 70 years of marriage this summer!
Bonnie Bartlett grew up in Moline, one of the Quad Cities. Her first major role came in 1950s daytime drama Love of Life. However, she’s best known for her role as Ellen Craig on St. Elsewhere. When Daniels and Bartlett won Emmy Awards on the same night in 1986, they became the first married couple to do so since 1965.
It was a pleasure to be able to chat with both of them for nearly a half hour yesterday about a variety of subjects. If you haven’t read his memoir, I highly recommend checking out There I Go Again.
Boy Meets World was one of my favorite shows growing up and I appreciated that you shared your memories of working on the series in There I Go Again. With the series available on Disney+, how does it feel to know that there’s a new generation getting advice from Mr. Feeny?
William Daniels: I have often been asked that. And my answer is: if you find the answer, would you please let me know. Dead silence, Bonnie.
Bonnie Bartlett: Yes, I know. No, it’s amazing. All these Cameos that he does. Our granddaughter has some kind of a TikTok thing or something. She put Bill on about something and she got 3 million viewers. Three million! We find it extraordinary—really extraordinary. But we go with it. It’s good for Bill. It keeps him keeps him thinking, it keeps him active. The Cameos, he does with our son, who comes over. He writes them out for Bill and then Bill does them. Bill could not write them and could not do it. I mean, he couldn’t do it. At this point, he couldn’t do a part that had a lot of words and stuff like that. You know what I mean?
William Daniels: Danielle, where are you?
I am in Chicago.
William Daniels: In Chicago. We went to Northwestern.
William Daniels: That was a great time for us. It’s where I met my wife.
What’s one thing that you miss about the city?
William Daniels: Mostly, I seldom got down to Chicago. Life was filled with plenty at Northwestern for us, where I met Bonnie and started dating her. But also, we were in the theater department, which takes up just about all of your time. You will live over there at the theater. You do plays, you build scenery, you learn all about the art of the theater. We spent most of our time there but I have great fond memories of Northwestern.
Bonnie Bartlett: I always think of the North Shore. I always think of Lake Michigan because I was in Chicago many times before that. But it was Lake Michigan. It was so cold—that lake was so cold! We could never get in that much. And then when I would visit in Wisconsin and Milwaukee, there was Lake Michigan. There was always Lake Michigan. It was a big, big thing and the thing that I loved and that whole North Shore. We had a honeymoon, Bill, at The Drake hotel on the North Shore of Chicago, remember?
William Daniels: Yeah.
Bonnie Bartlett: Uncle Frank. I mean, that was beautiful there. Beautiful. I loved that drive along that North Shore. But I’ll tell you what was hard. In the winter, at Northwestern, if you had to go to a class that was you had to walk along the windy, windy, Lake Michigan to get to your class. Your nose would be frozen—everything would be frozen. You didn’t even think about it. I was raised in Illinois. I didn’t even think about the cold then. You just did it. That’s all. You just did what you had to do. You never thought about it. And it was cold!
Both of you have had a long marriage together. What’s your secret?
Bonnie Bartlett: What do you think, Bill?
William Daniels: Lack of imagination?
Bonnie Bartlett: (Laughs) No, I think it’s the ability to change. I think that this is—
William Daniels: No, I think it’s—
William Daniels: Well, that might be. Change but mutual respect.
Bonnie Bartlett: Well, sure, that’s for starters. But the whole world we are facing now—such a world and you have got to be able to change with it. You’ve got to be able to move with it. It’s a moving thing and a marriage is a moving thing and you have to be able to change with what are the different things that go on. G-d knows we have to be able to change in the world today. I’ve written a book, Danielle, too. I’m going to get it published any day now if I can get a hold of Bill’s agent. But the thing is that that’s basically what my book is about, which is 90 years of change and how men have treated women, etc. You wrote a wonderful thing on Bill’s book.
Bonnie Bartlett: That was really good. Yeah, that was very nice. Very nice.
William Daniels: Yes, thank you.
One of the things I found interesting was how you almost always said no when being offered a part. I even got a chuckle when I read Bonnie’s comment about whether you’d consider running for the Screen Actors Guild presidency.
Bonnie Bartlett: And I said, “Not in a million years.” Right?
I thought it was like “Double hell no.”
Bonnie Bartlett: Oh, double hell no! Yeah. Oh, they asked me if I would do it and I said, “Hell no!” And then, yes, I said, “Double hell no!” I never in a million years thought he would accept that challenge. It was weird. It was not Bill. I don’t know what happened.
William Daniels: Well, it was interesting two years as president of the Screen Actors Guild. I made some good friends and I seemed to inherit enemies even before I got started. It was interesting and we accomplished a certain amount. Lots of trips back and forth from New York and it was an interesting experience.
Looking back on the Screen Actors Guild presidency, would you have done anything differently if you knew that New Media and digital was going to have such a strong presence in our lives over the decades to come?
William Daniels: I had a group of associates who advised me and we, together, acted jointly. There isn’t much that I would have changed, no.
Bonnie Bartlett: But we did get something, Bill, what was it—on cable. We did get in on something. The guys were aware of it. You’d have to kind of check with them. But yeah, we wouldn’t have gotten that except for the strike.
William Daniels: Yeah.
Bonnie Bartlett: And then you went on and made a good deal after that for theater. The strike had to do with commercials and the commercial actors. And then, you make another contract with the theatrical people, which is where we are. Bill and I are the theatrical people. Although we’ve done commercials, it’s not that but basically, that’s what we are. There are two different contracts. The Guild has, I don’t know, hundreds of contracts.
Some people are talking about starting a new guild—just dumping this one and starting a new one. For them to negotiate all those hundreds of contracts again, I don’t think they could do it. Maybe I don’t know, maybe. But the merger with SAG and AFTRA was such a mistake.
If you could go back in time and offer yourself any advice, what would it be?
Bonnie Bartlett: Have you talked about Mr. Lindsay?
William Daniels: Yeah.
Bonnie Bartlett: Well, she had asked before a question about the greatest influence on you. I think you said Mr. Lindsay because you learned just from working with him a lot of stage discipline, why don’t you take over?
William Daniels: Yes. Howard Lindsay with Russell Crouse was the author of Life With Father. I spent two years growing up and the two different roles in that show on Broadway. I went to Mr. Lindsay and I asked him, should I go to the Academy of Dramatic Arts? And he said, “No, don’t go there.” He said, “I’m on the board. Don’t go there. I tell you what you do, you’re going to be drafted and when you get out, you’ll have the GI Bill. You write the government for a university that has a good theater department.” That was the best advice that I got and I did exactly that. One of those places—well, there were several, there was Yale, there was UCLA. But there was also Northwestern. My sister, my youngest, was in a play with Walter Huston. When I got out, I went and visited them. My mother said, what I think is, that place is up north that they recommended. I went up there and was interviewed by whoever that is. I wound up going to Northwestern.
Bonnie Bartlett: Bill’s parents didn’t get beyond the eighth grade. Education was not big on their agenda. Bill was very lucky that he met up with Mr. Lindsay. He constantly says to people on the Cameos when they are teachers and things like that: education is vital to our country. That was the good advice that he got many years ago from Mr. Lindsay. You go to college, don’t you go to a Dramatic Arts place. You go to college and learn something. And then with a good drama department, you can do that, too. He got very good advice. Truly his parents were not anywhere near that trek. Eighth Grade, both of them.
As far as acting goes, what would you say is the most meaningful lesson you learned and took with you throughout your career?
Bonnie Bartlett: Again, Mr. Lindsay, right?
William Daniels: Well, I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I don’t want to go into that.
Bonnie Bartlett: It’s too complicated because Strasberg had a big affect on Bill. It’s not all luck because Bill picked up on the good things. His instincts are very, very good so he could always learn something from somebody that could help him make help him become a better actor. He evolved. It doesn’t just happen but his instincts for comedy started in Life With Father when Mr. Lindsay told him how to play a laugh.
In the book, you write that old actors don’t retire, the phone stops ringing. Has the phone been ringing lately?
Bonnie Bartlett: Honest to G-d, all the fans keep him busy. All those cameos and signing pictures. People want pictures!
William Daniels: Mr. Feeny is a very popular fellow so I have to answer a lot of mail. Really, it’s amazing—the mail I get.
Bonnie Bartlett: Bill also does the voice of KITT. He actually does voiceover jobs for KTT. So yeah, he’s still working.
I know there was a Galaxy Con appearance in late January.
Bonnie Bartlett: Yes. I think he’s done two of those.
I know that I wasn’t going to miss out on a signed photo opportunity so I took advantage of that one.
Bonnie Bartlett: Oh, good.
How has the pandemic been for you?
Bonnie Bartlett: Well, for us, it’s been okay. We’re just here. We’re very old so we’re very content stay home. The only thing is that we haven’t been able to see our kids in New York and we haven’t been able to see our grandchildren very much here. We’ve been able to see Michael a lot, our one son and that’s been good. But yeah, we’ve missed some things. I think it’s easier on us because we’re of a certain age where we don’t have that much energy to run around, anyway, so we’re fine.
We both got all the shots. We’re both vaccinated. Bill reads The New York Times every day—that keeps him abreast of what’s going on in and he watches television. I think the Times is better than the television stuff. Oh, that has been horrible. The thing that’s been most horrible for us was living through Trump. That was the most depressing four years and horror.
I agree there.
Bonnie Bartlett: A terrible man. And the country. Well, G-d help us, let that be over. I would say I admire—my brother knew that family. My brother was a Republican and he said that Lynn Cheney, Cheney’s wife, was the smartest women he ever mer. Her daughter now is so brave by standing against Trump. She is the # 3 Republican in the in Congress and she is saying no, we have to get rid of him—we cannot ever put him up again. And oh, I love that! That’s a good Republican!
William Daniels: We, on the other hand, are Democrats.
Bonnie Bartlett: Always have been, yes. But I mean, when it comes to all this insurrection—that was an insurrection that he started—he must be kept at bay.
William Daniels: Yeah.
Any Feeny-esque wisdom you’d like to impart on my readers?
William Daniels: Believe in yourself. Dream. Try. Do Good.