You might not know the name William Daniels, but you probably know his face — and if not his face, certainly his voice. The actor made a name for himself in the 1960 Off Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story.” He hit the big screen in “The Graduate” and “Two for the Road” and spent the 1980s in iconic TV shows, “St. Elsewhere” and “Knight Rider” (in which he memorably voiced the car). A seven-season run in “Boy Meets World” kept him on TV throughout the 1990s. Now 89, he has written a memoir, “There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others.”
Daniels began performing as a child, appearing with his sister as a song-and-dance act in the 1930s. His first mention in Variety was for “Seagulls Over Sorrento,” a play that ran in Westport, Conn., before flopping on Broadway. The Westport production was reviewed on Aug. 19, 1952.
What do you remember about “Seagulls Over Sorrento?”
It played as a big hit in England, because the story involves some seamen on an island off the British Isles, and they were waving the flag. But over here it didn’t mean anything to anybody. Opening night on Broadway, we were asked to join a little party up at the Theater Guild, which had produced the show, and which was co-run by a woman named Amina Marshall. We stood there with warm champagne in our hands, and the press representative was on the phone listening to the reviews, and then suddenly he whispered in Miss Marshall’s ear, and she came and took the champagne glasses right out of our hands.
Did you have a big part in the show?
I had maybe two lines in the whole damn play. I had one where I would come in and say, “This is it, men.” And in The New Yorker, [Wolcott] Gibbs wrote in his review something like, “When he came in and said, ‘This is it, men,’ I agreed with him, and I left.” The next night they took the line away from me. And the next night was our closing night!
What are your memories of your early days in theater?
I spent most of the time unemployed. When I did get a part, it wasn’t in a very big production. “The Zoo Story” changed that for me. We opened with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” and critics came because they knew Beckett, but “Zoo Story” took all the attention.
You started as a child performer. Did you ever formally study acting?
My wife, Bonnie Bartlett, became a secretary for Lee Strasberg, who at this point was teaching classes that were very popular. People like Marilyn Monroe were coming to them. Bonnie collected the money for each class. At the time, I was an idiot. I mouthed that expression, “You can only learn to act on the boards!” I came to the acting class just to keep an eye on Bonnie — I didn’t feel like I could learn anything there. It was the beginning of my becoming at least a decent actor. Lee Strasberg just destroyed me at first. Then I stopped all the nonsense that I called acting. I became a different actor.
Did you learn anything surprising about yourself as you wrote your book?
I guess I discovered that I really wanted to be an actor. It occurred to me that I was pretty good at this. I started performing so young that it seemed like I just fell into it. We were a song-and-dance team, and there was very little acting involved. It’s true that I’ve always been a little angry that my mother made me do this. But I dedicated the book to her.