William Daniels has played an egotistical heart surgeon in "St. Elsewhere," a beloved teacher on "Boy Meets World," Founding Father John Adams in the Broadway and film versions of the musical "1776" and the voice of the talking car KITT on "Knight Rider." But did you know that the Emmy Award-winning actor once played a superhero?
Daniels, 88, starred in "Captain Nice," a short-lived 1967 NBC comedy created by Buck Henry. Daniels played a mild-mannered police department chemist who discovers a formula that allows him to fly and gives him superhuman strength. The formula doesn't change his shy personality, though, and he is unsteady in flight because he's afraid of heights.
The series, which lasted only 15 episodes, didn't derail Daniels' career. In that year alone, he played Dustin Hoffman's character's father in "The Graduate" and shared a car ride with Audrey Hepburn's and Albert Finney's characters in the romantic drama "Two for the Road." On Monday, Daniels reprises his "Boy Meets World" role of Mr. Feeny in the Disney Channel's sequel "Girl Meets World."
At home in Studio City, Daniel's gregarious wife of almost 64 years, actress Bonnie Bartlett, 85, joined the conversation, recalling Hepburn as "such a lady." Daniels and Bartlett met as freshmen studying drama at Northwestern University. They later earned Emmys in 1986 for their work on "St. Elsewhere." Daniels was a regular as the brilliant but brusque Dr. Mark Craig, and Bartlett played his wife, Ellen. They were the first married couple to win Emmys on the same night since Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in 1965.
"She wasn't originally in their plans for the show," said Daniels, who has just written his autobiography.
"It was a fluke when I did the show almost as a favor," added Bartlett, who ended up in 77 episodes from 1982 to '88. "They liked us so much together."
Winning the Emmys, she noted, "was just icing on the cake. It was very exciting. Bill doesn't take to fame the way I do. I love it all. He is basically shy."
Daniels began on radio and early TV as a youngster, a song-and-dance team with his younger sisters. "My mother would teach us a new song every week from 'Lonesome Road' to "I Dug a Ditch in Wichita.'"
Bartlett had a more succinct way of describing the early years of her husband, son of a Brooklyn bricklayer: "Poor, poor, poor."
Daniels was mentored by "Life With Father" co-writer and star Howard Lindsay when he joined the cast of the long-running Broadway comedy in 1945.
"He taught me a lot about life," said Daniels, who still refers to his mentor as Mr. Lindsay. It was Lindsay who persuaded Daniels not to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but rather to use the G.I. Bill to find a university with a good drama department. "'You'll learn all about the theater, and you'll get a college education,'" Daniels recalled Lindsay saying. "That's what I did."
Daniels still receives mail from fans of "Knight Rider" and "Boy Meets World," in which he played the teacher and later principal of Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) from 1993 to 2000.
In the "Girl Meets World" second-season premiere, Cory, who is now a history teacher, calls the retired Mr. Feeny to see how he is doing. It's a sweet moment between the characters.
"We want to start a tradition that Billy is in the first one every season," said Michael Jacobs, the co-creator and executive producer of the original and the sequel.
"We wanted an authority figure that was absolutely implacable. I think he gave the show gravitas. I think he made the show more than it would have been if we had ever gone with somebody else. He was eminently believable in his care about the kids but doing it in the proper distance so that the kids were allowed to have their own lives."
As an homage to his role of Adams in "1776," Jacobs named the school in "Boy Meets World" John Adams High School. The new school in "Girl Meets World"? It's John Quincy Adams.
Daniels, star Ken Howard and director Peter H. Hunt reunited in March at a screening of the 1972 film version of "1776" at the TCM Classic Film Festival. The restored director's cut will be released on Blu-ray on June 2.
Hunt, who also directed the 1969 Broadway production, described Daniels as the consummate professional.
"It was my first Broadway show," he said. "I had been a lighting designer. He was very supportive — a very hard worker and a joy to work with the whole time."
Daniels didn't expect the musical to be such a big hit on Broadway "because we were in the middle of the Vietnam War," he said. "But evidentially it was the kind of patriotic show that the country ate up."