Sunday, July 21, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 2 - Personnel Profile: Bill and Bonnie Daniels... "The Story of How Captain Nice Met Alice Actress"


From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, July 1997, volume 1, number 2.

George and Gracie, Roy and Dale, Ozzie and Harriet. If there were a Hall of Fame for Television's Great Married Teams, they would be in it. But so would Bill Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett Daniels, whose body of work and critical acclaim is unparalleled. Bill Daniels was born in Brooklyn on March 31, 1927. His father Charles was a bricklayer and his mother Irene a telephone operator. It was Irene who pushed Bill and his sister to perform on stage as the Daniels Family Song and Dance Troupe. Later, Bill made his way to Broadway, appearing in "Life With Father", starting at age 14. His stage father was Howard Lindsay, a man who played an important role in Daniels' career.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Bill's family all have thick Brooklyn accents. His father says terlet instead of toilet, and things like that. Bill tried very hard not to talk that way.

"Mr. Lindsay worked with Bill. He had a theatrical accent as actors did in those days, so Bill copied that."

Today, that accent (much like Norman Lloyd's) is Bill's stock in trade, and is second nature to him "except", says BARTLETT, "when he gets very angry...the Brooklyn accent will come out."

But while Daniels learned elocution from his stage father, it was his real life Dad who inspired Bill's most important trait...a serious work ethic.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"He's been in the business since he as four years old, and acting is something Bill does to make money."

SAGAN LEWIS
"Bill is one of those no-nonsense guys who expected people if they were being paid to do a job, to do it well."

***********

Bonnie Bartlett was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Soon her family moved to Molene, Illinois where Bonnie and her older brother grew up while her father sold insurance. But underwriting wasn't the elder Bartlett's first love.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"My father went around quoting Shakespeare. He knew all the plays by heart, he could do Lear... that was the way he communicated his emotions. If someone died, he would say, 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'... he was a member of the Masons and was the star of their stage productions."

For a time, Bonnie's dad had been a successful actor in New York, but her mother, a stern woman of Norwegian descent, "hated the theater - so she persuaded him to go back to Wisconsin." Both taking cues from their father, Bonnie's brother went into the insurance business and Bonnie caught the acting bug. After honing her talent in high school plays, Bonnie left to study drama at Northwestern. So did Bill Daniels, but not as a wide-eyed youngster. By the time he enrolled, Bill was a veteran of the Stage and the Army.

BILL DANIELS
"I was 20-21. I don't think I would have gotten into Northwestern if i hadn't already been on Broadway because I wasn't much of a student. Also I was on the GI Bill... I never would have gotten to Northwestern without it, after I spent two years in the Army."

College was a turning point for Daniels, but not because of drama... instead, Northwestern provided the setting where he would meet the love of his life.

BILL DANIELS
"She was 18 and a freshman... I met her at a reading of a play called 'Bury the Dead', and everybody was sitting around reading for it. I was a cocky youth and I thought they were all terrible until I heard this girl read. I turned around and there was Bonnie, and I said to myself, 'now there's an actress!' So I waited at the door after the reading and I asked her out for a cup of coffee."

BONNIE BARTLETT
"He had been on Broadway so he was pretty impressive, and I was just a kid from a small town. I knew he had been in New York because he wore a leather jacket (laughs). I admired him."

Admiration or not, their first date almost didn't happen.

BILL DANIELS
"She said, 'You're too short.' I think she had dated a couple of basketball players in Illinois."

BONNIE BARTLETT
"I thought he was too short for me and I promptly told him so. And Bill said, 'Oh for God's sake!' So we went out for coffee and we were pretty much together from that time on."

According to Bonnie, Bill could be intimidating, but he had a softer side too, especially when it came to romance.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"He was very sweet - he sang songs to me. About a month later, I realized that I had never felt this way before."

***********

Bill and Bonnie were married in 1951 and continued to share professional interests including roles as Lord and Lady Macbeth in summer stock, and a stint at the East Hampton Theater where Bill, who "looked younger than his years," was, as Bonnie described, the "resident juvenile." Later, the Daniels signed up for private acting classes with Lee Strasberg, where they learned to use their real life experiences when acting.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"He was almost half teacher and half analyst, and could, through the work, help you work out some of your problems."

But Bill's motivation for attending the prestigious Actors Studio was somewhat different than Bonnie's.

BILL DANIELS
"I only worked with Strasberg just to keep an eye on her. I just don't like this business of her doing scenes with some guy and - you know (laughs). I just went in there very skeptical, but as usual, I was wrong and I learned a great deal."

So did Bonnie. And together they would go on to compile a body of quality work on stage, in films, and in television.

***********

In 1967 Bill's career took a dramatic (make that comedic) turn when he landed the role of a bumbling super hero and first caught the eye of a young Mark Tinker.

MARK TINKER
"We were all big fans of the movies he had done, and he did a silly series for my Dad called "Captain Nice". So that was the first time I had heard of him."

ED BEGLEY, JR.
"I was a huge fan of Bill Daniels. I had seen him in Two for the Road. I had seen him in The Graduate, and in Parallax View. He was an actor I just thought the world of. He played these 'Type A' personalities quite effectively, but (in real life) he is the sweetest guy in the world."

During the 1960s Bonnie had left acting to take on a more important role...that of mother to sons Michael and Robert.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"I had stopped acting for ten years when we adopted the boys. I had forgotten myself as an actress. I was thinking of going to Law School in New York City... I wanted to be a judge in Childrens' Court. I didn't want to move to California, but Bill insisted on coming out here because he was tired of working in the theater and wanted to spend more time with the boys. He said, 'Come on, you'll go back to work... you're Alice Actress'."

Bill continued to get work in films including the musical 1776 co-starring Blythe Danner (or as Tom Fontana calls her, "The Goddess of St. Elsewhere"). His pairing with Danner would be instrumental in teaming him and Bonnie in their most famous roles. But before that would happen, "Alice Actress" was back in demand, just as Bill had predicted.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"One day Bill sent me to his agent and I was then sent to Michael Landon. Mike put me on Little House on the Prairie just like that. So here I was, a lady in her 40s back in the business. I was very lucky to get back in like that."

And the luck continued. Bill's friendship with Blythe Danner gave him and Bonnie an opportunity to work for Blythe's husband Bruce who was casting for St. Elsewhere.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Bruce called and said 'Bonnie, I'm sending over 4 or 5 scripts and if Billy wants to play this Dr. Craig, he's got the part'. Bill won't audition for anything - so he read the scripts and liked the material, and he took the part."

Unknowingly, Bonnie was on her way to St. Eligius as well, but not, as it turns out, for the role she wanted.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Originally I had read for the part of the head nurse. My agent said 'They liked you very much, but Bruce had somebody else in mind for that part, and it's pretty definite'."

Thus Christina Pickles became Helen Rosenthal. But not long after Bill signed on, the telephone rang again.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"My agent called and said 'You know, Bonnie, in one of the scripts, Mark has a wife'. I said 'Yes, I saw that, but she didn't have anything to do'. It was practically a non-descript part, so I (turned it down). Meanwhile, the original casting lady didn't like the idea of my playing Bill's wife, so they didn't pursue it. Then, they had a change in casting personnel and the new lady, Eileen, asked me to do it. I said 'It's so small' and she said 'Are you so busy?' Bill said, 'You should do it, it's very funny... (because) I play a heart surgeon and Ellen smokes and Mark doesn't know about it.' And I said to Bill 'But I don't smoke.' So Bill took me out to the garage and taught me to smoke."

ON CALL
So he was still pretty much the resident juvenile even then?

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Yes (laughs) very definitely!"

Bill's encouragement and on-going coaching paid off.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Pretty soon they liked what was happening between Bill and me, they liked the squabbling, they liked my character, so they wrote for me."

TOM FONTANA
"Bonnie came on the show and she was extraordinary, and obviously part of that was because they (she and Bill) had a shorthand in their working relationship... It also inspired us to write more because the scenes were so fully charged every time they were together Bonnie is a consummate professional - she also gave the show elegance."

MARK TINKER agrees.
"Bonnie brought sort of an artsy sensibility to her character. Bonnie was also very easy going. She had a lot of ideas about what she wanted her character to do, and was willing to try anything, which I always found refreshing because you could say something to her and she would get excited about it. Bonnie was great."

And so Ellen Craig became a fixture on St. Elsewhere, and cast members couldn't have been happier.

NORMAN LLOYD
"She's a very capable actress and never stops working, never stops. An actress like that is what makes a show go - you need people like Bonnie to give it the proper support and texture. She was very professional."

Sagan Lewis
SAGAN LEWIS
"I love Bonnie, she is a fine actress and always does an amazing job. I think she's a total pro. She would come on the set and was always prepared - that's how we all should be."

ED BEGLEY, JR.
"A brilliant actress, she was the anchor of the female cast of the show. She was wonderful - she got so much great stuff to do because she would really run with the ball."

STEPHEN FURST
"She is a great friend... she is a great listener, she would share her innermost thoughts with you."

***********

And despite his sometimes stern exterior, Bill Daniels was also well liked and respected.

JENNIFER SAVIDGE
"Bill had this edge to him, but he never really showed it with me. He was always very supportive and nice."

SAGAN LEWIS
"Any of Bill's silences I just saw as professionalism. When he's playing a role he concentrates, he wants to be in the moment. I think that he is intimidating, but not in a negative way, but in a way where you want to work up to his standards... because his standards are very high. I'm one of those actresses who takes the work very seriously. I respect the actors and writers enough to memorize the lines perfectly and Bill did too, and watching him had an effect on my professionalism. When I would work in other places, they would always talk about how professional I was and I think that was a result of working so many years side by side with Bill Daniels. I love Bill, I respect him very, very much."

TOM FONTANA
"The only time Billy really got testy with us was when we would give him a double entendre - where he foudn the humor smutty at times - and he would fight us on it. You know, the famous 'tulips on the organ' - he hated that line, but God love him, the trooper he is, he said it."

NORMAN LLOYD
"Bill is a very fine actor, he has always been outstanding. With Billy you knew the scenes were being done as best as they could be done, and that's to be admired. I always found Billy a most pleasant colleague, I really enjoyed being with him and working with him. He's a pro. I found that whenever you were working with him, that you were working at the best level."

ED BEGLEY, JR.
"He is an actor I just thought the world of. I had no delusions about how my character came to be. I rode on the coattails of Bill Daniels... the kind of Mutt and Jeff routine of Dr. Craig looking up and berating a 6 foot 4 doctor Victor Ehrlich. So I owe all my success on the show to Bill Daniels.

TOM FONTANA
"I love Bill. He sings beautifully, he can dance, he can probably juggle for all I know" (laughs).

MARK TINKER
"It depended on what was going on that day - he really could be both, and that's not to say he was schizophrenic it was just that he was very particular about certain things. He was open to other ideas, but if something wasn't working for him, you knew it. He was a pleasure to work with."

Not surprisingly, Bill and Bonnie were also appreciated outside their immediate circle of friends. Critics and industry peers acclaimed their work, evidenced by their total of four Emmys, two of which they won on the same night, a feat that has never before or since been duplicated.

BILL DANIELS
"One year I won one and I almost didn't show up because the limo they sent broke down. Don Johnson probably got the good one! I said 'I'm going back home!' I was already undressed and ready to watch John McEnroe play on television and Bonnie said 'Dammit Bill, I'm all dressed up, had my hair done, we'll get another limo.' We did, and I got there about 10 minutes before I received the award for Best Actor. The second time, we both won, and I was very proud of her. Then the third time, she won one by herself and all of a sudden I'm Mr. Bartlett" (laughs).

BONNIE BARTLETT
"Never in a million years old did it ever occur to me that I would be up there accepting any kind of award, but I had told Bruce if I ever get nominated I'll win because I have the best material."

But aside from their individual acclaim and accomplishments, Bill and Bonnie were (and are) first and foremost, a team, and so too were Mark and Ellen. So much so that when ON CALL TOLD Tom Fontana and John Tinker they were "hated for" divorcing the Craigs, TINKER made a startling confession.

JOHN TINKER
"In retrospect I hate me too and I think that's because (a) I think it was a mistake and (b) I just want them to be together - I think they loved each other and they understood each other. They as a couple were so great together."

The Daniels clan
Today, Bonnie and Bill are still great together, and still donning the greasepaint. At the time of this writing, Bonnie had just been cast by Mike Nichols for the feature film Primary Colors, and she continues to appear as Tim Allen's mother on Home Improvement. Bill, meanwhile, is still starring in Boy Meets World as next door neighbor, George Feeney. In fact, Bill is finding a new legion of fans.

BONNIE BARTLETT
"We saw Denzel Washington the other night in a restaurant and he was with his wife and four kids. It was so cute because one of the boys wanted to come up and shake hands with Bill. Bill obliged and Denzel said 'You know it has nothing to do with St. Elsewhere... it's because you are Mr. Feeney!' (laughs).

But despite the Emmys, fame, and adoration, Captain Nice and Alice Actress still have their priorities straight, and at the top of that list is spending time with their family... especially granddaughter Shaina. Meanwhile, their lives together (both on and off screen) are buoyed by mutual respect.

BILL DANIELS
"Bonnie working with me on St. Elsewhere was one of the happiest times of our lives... and since it was husband and wife we could bring all of our training from Strasberg to the relationship, and make it very real, and it was very easy to do."

BONNIE BARTLETT
"He is absolutely marvelous to work with, and I loved it. Sometimes people wouldn't know we were married and they would say 'Why is he talking to you that way, actors aren't supposed to tell other actors how to do anything, that's forbidden.' And I said, 'Well, most of the time he's right!'"

Oh, for Pete's sake Ellen !!!

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

1 comment:

  1. That is a beautiful photo of Sagan Lewis!

    ReplyDelete