On March 31 the dapper and amiable William Daniels will turn 90, and 86 of those years will have been spent onstage. So there’s a lot to look back on in his memoir, There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others.
That title shamelessly trucks to the television trade, where Daniels is best known from St. Elsewhere, Knight Rider, and Boy Meets World (and its recent revival, Girl Meets World), and not as the father of The Graduate or as John Adams in 1776, but he doesn’t undercut his theatrical roots. With his stage heritage, you might suspect he had been raised by Mama Rose and Clarence Day, Sr., and, in that, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
When Daniels first heard Ethel Merman yell “Sing out, Louise!” from the back of the house, it chilled his heart and brought to mind a comparably pushy—but much less monstrous—stage mother who shoved him and his sister into showbiz. Going solo, he made his Broadway bow among the redheaded quartet of Day sons in Life with Father and found “life with a kind of father” in Howard Lindsay, the title player.
Daniels skates engagingly through his life story in 240 pages. Sometimes, a man of principle emerges, as when he becomes the first person ever to turn down a Tony nomination—for his John Adams. He never left the stage, and they put him in a supporting category. “Whom am I supporting?” he wondered.
There was no bolt of lightning igniting this autobiography, the actor confessed in a phone interview from Los Angeles recently. Au contraire, just the opposite: “Frankly, I was just one day not doing anything, and I picked up the pen and started to write. I hadn’t prepared. I just wrote. And I was surprised that anyone was interested in reading it.”
The laidback, intelligent wit that seeps through his characters is much in evidence on these pages. He has a real knack of aligning himself with his reader when relaying encounters with the illustrious likes of Jerome Robbins, Audrey Hepburn, and Merman.
His real father was a non-verbal Brooklyn bricklayer, so father-figure Lindsay had his work cut out for him, teaching the lad timing, craft, deportment, and how to speak.
Entering the long-running Life With Father at 15—first as assistant stage manager, then into the succession of sons—turned Daniels’ Brooklynese into a Boston accent, and the cultured, cerebral persona he always projects is pure Lindsay concentrate.
He went the way of all Clarence, Jrs., in that show—off to war. Two weeks before his physical, he was to leave the show to dye his hair back to black, but his replacement—he still remembers the name: Harvey Collins—got sunburned, forcing him to stay in the show and turn up at the physical “two-toned,” a special spectacle for the draft sergeant. The sergeant marched him naked through the barracks to his office, where he turned and said, “Let me guess: Life With Father?”