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William Daniels Biography


Home > Actors > D > Daniels, William > Biography


Birth Name: William Daniels
Born: 03/31/1927
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA


Born William David Daniels on March 31, 1927 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the son of builder David Daniels and his wife, Irene. Daniels and his two sisters were steeped in the entertainment industry from a very early age; at four and a half, he was performing on stage, and by the time he was eight, he was a showbiz veteran, performing in a song-and-dance team with his five-year-old sister, Jacqueline, on early television variety shows like "The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour" (WCAU/WNBT, 1948-1958). The siblings were later joined by their sister, Carol, for their own radio show, "The Daniels Family."

At 15, he served as understudy for the two juvenile male actors in the touring production of "Life with Father" before taking on their roles in the Broadway production, which ran for two and a half years. He served in the military as a staff sergeant with Armed Forces Radio, but returned to civilian life without a clear picture of his future goals. At the encouragement of "Father" playwright Howard Lindsay, he enrolled in the drama department at Northwestern University. There, he met fellow drama student Bonnie Bartlett, whom he married after graduation in 1951. Daniels pursued his acting dreams for several years without much success until Tennessee Williams selected him to play Brick in the national touring company production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" from 1957 to 1958. His theater career quickly blossomed, with an Obie win for Edward Albee's "Zoo Story" in 1960 and leads in "A Thousand Clowns" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" among his numerous stage credits.

Daniels made his adult television debut in a 1952 episode of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" (CBS, 1951- ); ironically, it was as John Quincy Adams, a surname with whom he would associated with for much of his career. More TV work followed before his feature debut in Frank Perry's harrowing "Ladybug Ladybug" (1963), about the tragic effect a false civil defense alarm has on a group of schoolchildren. Daniels repeated his stage role in the film version of "A Thousand Clowns" (1965) before gaining wider recognition as Dustin Hoffman's father in "The Graduate" (1967). At the time, Daniels was only 10 years older than Hoffman.

That same year, Daniels gained his first series lead in the quirky "Captain Nice" (NBC, 1967). Created by "Graduate" screenwriter Buck Henry, the comedy lampooned superhero tropes in its story of mild-mannered chemist Carter Nash (Daniels), who discovers a formula that transforms him into the caped Captain Nice. Unfortunately, the Captain was just as much a nebbish as his alter ego, which made crime fighting something of a challenge. "Captain Nice" never found an audience, so Daniels returned to Broadway, where he scored a triumph with "1776," Sherman Edwards' Tony-winning musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His turn as John Adams, whose stubbornness helps to set the creation of the document in motion, was widely praised by critics; unfortunately, because his name was not billed above the play's title, he was ineligible for a Tony as Best Actor. Daniels refused the compromise of a Best Featured Actor nomination.

In 1972, Daniels and much of the original Broadway and replacement cast were featured in the film version of "1776." At the time, he was offered two choice roles in films made from musicals in which he had appeared: Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and "1776," produced by former Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner. He chose the latter, perhaps wisely, as his performance ingrained him in the minds of producers and moviegoers as the obstinate, forthright Adams. He would later play the second President of the United States, as well as his son John Quincy Adams and cousin Samuel Adams, in projects ranging from the miniseries "The Adams Chronicles" (PBS, 1976) to the sudsy John Jakes adaptations "The Bastard" (1978) and "The Rebels" (1979).

Daniels worked steadily throughout the 1970s in numerous television and film projects. His Adams-esque screen persona assured him work as curt, fastidious, often cold-blooded professionals of all stripes, like John Denver's boss in "Oh, God!" (1977), G. Gordon Liddy in "Blind Ambition" (CBS, 1979) or U.S. Socialist Party secretary Julius Gerber in Warren Beatty's "Reds" (1981). On occasion, he was allowed to show a sympathetic side, as in "A Case of Rape" (NBC, 1974), where he played assault victim Elizabeth Montgomery's kindly lawyer, or as Nancy Walker's Navy officer husband on the Norman Lear-produced "Nancy Walker Show" (ABC, 1976). Daniels' dry comic talents also received an occasional showcase, most notably as German private eye Henrich Himmell on an episode of the groundbreaking comedy series, "Soap" (ABC, 1977-1981).

In 1982, Daniels scored two major hits on network television at the same time. He was the irascible heart surgeon Dr. Mark Craig on "St. Elsewhere," while at the same time, lending his immediately identifiable, if uncredited voice to that of KITT, a super-charged car on "Knight Rider." Both were immediately successes, though to Daniels' amusement, "Knight Rider" commanded a broader and more rabid following, especially among children. But his turn as Dr. Craig commanded the respect and admiration of his peers and critics alike. Though Craig could be venomous in his opinions, he was not without his vulnerable side, as evidenced in a moving episode where he observed the autopsy of his estranged son, who has died of drug abuse. For his efforts, Daniels received two Emmys and two Q Awards. In 1986, he and wife Bonnie Bartlett became the second married couple to win acting awards on the same night, with Bartlett picking up her trophy for playing Dr. Craig's wife on "St. Elsewhere."

Both of Daniels' series came to an end within two years of each other, but his career showed no signs of slowing. A 1991 presentation of Arthur Miller's "Clara" for "The General Motors Playwrights Theater" (A&E, 1991-93) earned him an Emmy nomination, and he endeared himself to a new generation of young viewers as George Feeney, principal at John Adams High School and mentor to Ben Savage and the cast of "Boy Meets World." Though seemingly cut from the same tart-tongued cloth as Dr. Craig, Feeney showed more concern for his young charges, and his relationship with Savage's character was more father-son than teacher-student.

From 1999 until 2001, Daniels served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The decision to run was reportedly an impulsive one, spurred largely by hearing stories by other Guild members about their disappointment in the two-time presidency of actor Richard Masur. Daniels defeated the incumbent in a major upset, and immediately established himself as a hardliner with a six-month strike over payment discrepancies for actors in commercials that aired on cable and broadcast television. Most members felt that the struggle was not worth the outcome, since the loss of income during the strike period had been so significant. Daniels decided to not run for a second term in 2001, and served as a temporary board replacement until Melissa Gilbert could assume the presidency. In 2004, he and Bartlett won three-year seats on the Guild's Board of directors.

In the years following his Guild presidency, Daniels kept busy on television series, which frequently called on him to reprise his famous roles. There were turns as KITT on "The Simpsons (Fox, 1990- ) and in the film "The Benchwarmers" (2006), and joined "St. Elsewhere" alums Ed Begley, Jr., Stephen Furst and Eric Lanueville as a quartet of hospitalized doctors on "Scrubs" (NBC, 2001-2010).