Q & A WITH JOHN ADAMS ON THE FOURTH (the one and only William Daniels)

As I always post something about the musical 1776 on the Fourth of July, I thought that since so much of that play's history has already been noted by myself and many others that I would share some of the unique time I spent with John Adams himself. By that I mean the actor William Daniels, who so brilliantly played the role for two years and two months on Broadway, and later in the 1972 film version. His career has been a noteworthy one and we covered a good deal of ground when on November 29, 2012, I sat across from him in a booth at a deli in Studio City, California to speak with him.

As the first person I interviewed for Up in the Cheap Seats, it was significant in more ways than I can enumerate that he inaugurated the process, which eventually totaled one hundred artists of all stripes who were part of the era my book covers, Broadway in the late 1960s and early 70s. Not only was he the star of the 7th show I ever saw as a twelve-year-old in 1969, but from that day on he became one of my favorite actors. And here he was on a rainy afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, at eighty-five years old, being kind enough to submit to a series of questions. We spoke for over two hours and the recording has resided happily in iCloud these past nine years. Here are some excerpts:

RON FASSLER: Regarding the history of 1776, you opened to not-very-good reviews in New Haven, correct? 

WILLIAM DANIELS: Yes, and we opened there in a blizzard and it wasn’t until Washington that we knew we had a hit because everyone came out. All the Senators, the Congressmen… everybody. 

RF: Well, how did you feel about things when you got to New York? Were you worried you were just a Washington hit? You only did a few previews on Broadway before you opened. Did you get a sense that the audiences were getting it? 

WD: I was ambivalent about the whole thing because we were in Vietnam. When they sent me the script… first of all, I saw the script in an early version and it wasn’t very good. And then Peter Stone got a hold of it — and then it was good! I said to Bonnie [his wife of sixty-eight years, the actress Bonnie Bartlett], “This is ridiculous. It’s flag waving and we’re in Viet Nam” and she said, “Bill, you can do this part. You’ve got to go this part.” She and Gerry Freedman said, “Bill, c’mon. I mean, they had to talk me into doing The Zoo Story

RF: Seriously?  

WD: Seriously. I mean, it was a guy sitting on a bench and the other guy does all the talking, for God’s sake! It doesn’t make any sense to me. 

RF: And you won an Obie award. 

George Maharis (standing) and William Daniels in "The Zoo Story" (1960).

WD: Well, you just don’t know. When George Maharis comes by and says, “I went to the zoo.” The first time we were in front of an audience… we had a lot of rehearsing… the producers got so nervous they fired the director. Then Maharis said he would leave unless they brought him back, so they brought him back. And we finally got it on its feet. I mean there wasn’t much to do stage wise. But there we are with our first audience at the Provincetown Playhouse and I’m sitting there with the book, reading the book, and he walks by and says, “I’ve been to the zoo.” And all I did was turn my head… and the whole audience fell apart. And we were shocked. I mean, this was a serious play, you know? So, I looked down again and they continued to laugh so I thought, “What’ll I do?” And I thought maybe he’s talking to somebody else. So I turned my head this way… and we get another laugh. So, what I found out soon enough, and found out throughout South America where we played it – everywhere we played it – the guy sitting on the bench the audience identifies with. They identify with some stranger coming by and saying something strange to him (in New York) and the threat of that… they just picked it up right away. And we had no idea. The author, the producers, the director came rushing down saying, “Bill, this is a serious play what are you doing?” And I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “You’re playing it for laughs.” I said, “I’m not playing it for laughs. They said you’re playing to the audience. I said, “You have me sitting on a bench facing the audience. I live over there on Fifth Avenue. Do you want me to play it from here to here? There’s no way.” They didn’t understand how important those laughs were. Because they were legitimate laughs. They weren’t jokey laughs; they were just plain old legitimate laughs. That people in Buenos Aires who came with a translation came and laughed at it. Everybody read it. But not the author… no one, I certainly didn’t… knew that those laughs were there. Or how important that part was. And with 1776, as soon as I got into rehearsals with all these guys and I did the opening speech in the rehearsal hall and suddenly — and they all had voice — when they came in with “Sit down, John!” I said, “Jesus. Wow. That sounds good.” I thought to myself, “Hey, this may be good.” 

I did it for two years and two months. When my first year was up, the only reason I went for the second year was because they gave me a big bump in the salary.  

RF: Well, it was your first hit. 

WD: Yeah. 

RF:  At least on Broadway. I mean, Zoo Story was a hit, but what were they paying you then? 

WD: Zoo Story was $75 a week and after we opened, they all went off to Bermuda and when they came back and gave me a raise to $100. 

RF: Which was the most money you’d ever earned as an actor at that point, I would imagine. 

WD: Probably, yeah. Of course I’d been an actor for many years… 

RF: About that… I have to ask you… you went into Life With Father late in its run… 

WD: Uh huh. 

RF: It ran eight years, which of course, will never happen again. No straight play will ever run for eight years ever again. 

WD: That’s true.  

RF: Do you recall who played your mom and dad at that point in the run?  

WD: Sure. First of all… well, I’m writing a memoir. This is in it… you see, I had a stage mother like Madame Rose in Gypsy. She sent me over because she heard they were looking for boys. (a beat) I had never been in a play, I had never seen a play. Not anywhere. We were a song and dance team, my sisters and I, on radio and later on television. 

RF: How many, two? 

WD: Yes, two. We were a trio. I went over there and the secretary asked, “Did your agent send you?” I said, “No.” She said, “You don’t have an appointment?” I said, “No.” She said, “You’re here for the tour?” I had no idea what that meant. I said, “Uh huh.” So she said, “Wait a minute.” And she goes in to Oscar Serlin, the producer, and said something like there’s this kid out that and he looks like he can understudy the two older boys in the road company. So he said, “Bring him in.” So he’s the one that said, “Have you done anything on Broadway?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Toured in anything?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Have you done anything in school?  High school?” I said, “No, sir. I’m a song and dance man.” So he looked at me and started to laugh and said, “You remind me of me when I came to New York.” 

RF: And how old were you? 
WD: Fifteen. So he said, “Go to the theatre tonight with your folks and we’ll have tickets waiting for you so you can see the play.” So I was hired to be in a play (or to work as an assistant stage manage and understudy) before I’d ever seen a play. 

RF: That is remarkable. 

The original cast of "Life with Father" (1939) with Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay as Mother and Father.

WD: And the you know the old Empire Theatre was a gorgeous theatre. 

RF: It’s on my list of questions to ask you about that theatre.

WD: Oh, God!  They put us in a box seat and the curtain goes up and it’s like a jewel, the whole glow of it, was like a jewel. And Father peered out from his paper and said “Good God!” I mean the audience was falling apart and I went “Wow.” 

And then I found out I had an appointment at Anthony and Joseph. I asked, “For what?” and they said, “To dye your hair.” 

RF: They didn’t want to pay for a wig. 

WD: Right. The only ones that had wigs were Father and Mother. The kids all had to dye their hair. The first stop (and I wasn’t playing it, I was understudying it and calling “Places, please!”) I walked down the Commons and it was the war and a couple of sailors sitting on benches whistled at me because of the hair. So I got one of those winter caps that I pulled down and wore everywhere.  

RF: So that must have been around 1941? Did you wind up closing the show on Broadway? 

WD: No, I was on the road with them. I went to Boston, Providence… my mother called me in Rhode Island and said, “Bill, you need to come and do this radio show with your sisters because you’ll make more money than you’re making now. Turn in your notice.” So I turned in my notice. And a couple of days later, I’m calling places “Fifteen minutes, please” and Oscar Serlin walks in and says, “You turned in your notice? You’ve never been in anything!” (He laughs) “Well,” I said, “My sister and I have this radio show…” I didn’t mention about the money and he said, “Come see me in New York.” And he put me into the New York one. And what happened in those days was that Clarence, the eldest son, would hit eighteen and get drafted. And then they’d replace him with the kid playing John, the second eldest, and the understudy would play John… and that’s what happened to me. So I went in for John and played it for a year, then Clarence for a year and then I got drafted.” 

RF: So you were older than the freshman class when you entered Northwestern.  

WD: Yes, I was two years older because I served for two years. I served a year and a half over in Italy. I had some months of basic training in Little Rock, Arkansas… I became a squad leader… I don’t know why. I barely passed the rifle test. These guys went into trenches and stuff like that. The train stopped in some town and said, “Is there a Daniels here?” And I said, “Yo!” And he said, “Come with me. And bring your bag.” He doesn’t say anything. We get into a jeep and we arrive at a two-story brick building and he deposits me there and it was Armed Forces Service Radio. They pulled me out because I was down as an “Entertainment Specialist” in my M.O. And all the guys there were there during the war (and this was right after the war as this was the army of occupation) and they were all leaving. And pretty soon I was running the station. And the Captain, who should have been running the station, was up in his apartment with his Italian mistress. He never came down! So I just ran the whole thing. So I was eighteen and pretty soon I was a staff sergeant and I was there for a year and a half. 

I tell you what, when I was in Life With Father, I was lucky enough when I was going in for John, that Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney were coming back into the play because business was down. But they hadn’t been in it for a long time and they needed a brush up rehearsal. So I got to be with them in their brush up rehearsal while I was going into John. And then Lindsay became for me, he would have never known it, but for me he became a mentor. 

RF: I was going to ask if you had any? 

WD: He had such discipline and behavior on stage, back stage… 

RF: Was he primarily an actor or a writer or both? 

WD: He was both. I remember in the rehearsals one thing that he taught me about comedy. He stopped at one point and said, “Bill, it’s not because Russell and I wrote this play,” he said “but we get a lot of laughs. And we don’t want to wear the audience out. So when I say that line to you there’s going to be a big laugh. And then the laugh goes off… and then it stops up here… and when it’s just about to come down that’s when I want you to speak. Just look in my eyes and I’ll tell you when to speak.” And I was fifteen, maybe sixteen… and every night I would just look at him and he would release me with his eyes. And I’d cut into that laugh. And they’ll go home feeling like they didn’t get to laugh enough. He kind of took me under his wing that way. And he was going to pull a stunt on Miss Stickney one night and he and I had a big part in that. 

RF: I’m trying to remember… was she married to him? 

WD: Yeah, in real life, absolutely.  

RF: Well how about that? You got to see that long before you lived it. 

WD: So here I am by this time with a very sketchy education, a song and dance man and going out on all these radio shows… and so I went to him one day and he was making up and I knocked on his dressing room door and he said, “Come in!” and he had this very soft-spoken voice… but on stage… he would develop it while putting his make-up on. He would just get it up into the nasal passages. By that time when he shouted “Come in!” I knew it was his stage voice. I said, “Mr. Lindsay, I want to ask you some advice.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “I’m going to be drafted and I’m wondering if when I get out of the army should I?... (by then I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t want to be a song and dance man anymore)… I said, “Should I go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts?” And he paused, and he said (while looking in the mirror at me) “Close the door.” So I closed the door and he said, “I’m on the Board of the American Academy. Don’t go there. After the army you’re going to have the G.I. Bill and you can find a university that has a good theatre department that will teach you all about everything in the theatre as well as acting. And you can do that with the G.I. Bill.” So that’s what I did. When I was over in Italy I wrote the government and they sent me back five universities that were good: Yale, Catholic University (because the Kerrs were there), UCLA, Northwestern… so when I got out of the army my younger sister, Carroll, was in a play called Apple of His Eye with Walter Huston. 

RF: One of my idols. 

WD: (surprised) Really? 

RF: Yes, along with my son. 

WD: He was a great man. 

RF: Did you get to know him through your sister? 

WD: Well, what happened was I got out, my father met me and said, “They’re out in Chicago, do you want to go see them [your mom and your sisters]?” My sister Jackie, the oldest one, was understudying the ingénue, and my sister Carol, who was about six or seven, was playing a big part, and it was Huston. So I went out there, and he kind of took me under his wing. 

RF: Really?  

WD: Really!   

RF: Your book has to have these stories in it, by the way.  There are people who want to know these things. 

WD: First of all, he loved my mother, because when I went into the theatre with my father, there she is at intermission selling programs, and she looked at me and said, “Now Billy, I’m only doing this so I can hear what the audience has to say about Carol.”  He loved her for that.  He was that kind of guy.  So anyway, when he found out I had been in Life With Father, he said, “My greatest mistake.” 

RF: They offered it to him! 

WD: He said, “They offered me the part, I turned it down.  They asked me to back it with some money—and how long did it run, Bill?”  And then he tells me this story… 

RF: I wonder if he was offered the movie too.   

WD: He would’ve knocked the hell out of it. 

RF: How did you get the role in 1776

WD: A guy named Norman Twain owned the rights to 1776 for a while when it was called The Mayor of Bucks County or something, and I don’t know why but I went to a reading where they played the score. I didn’t think much of the music and the play was boring and awkward.  So that was the end of that. The next time I hear about it was at least a year later, could’ve been longer.  Stuart Ostrow has it now and Peter Stone’s name is on it, and he puts in all the literateness and humor. It’s all there.  Sherman Edwards wrote the first version and he wasn’t a playwright.  That’s when I said to Bonnie, “It’s a flag-waving show, and Vietnam…” and she said, “You can do it.” But I was very reluctant about it, and I said, “OK.”

So, I go over to the 46th street theatre, go up to the stage door—it’s locked.  I’m gonna get on the N train and go home. I think it’s like Thanksgiving or something. And I think, “I’d really better call Harriet Caplan, my agent, because maybe there’s a screw-up or something.” So I call and she goes, “Where are you? They’re waiting for you?” I say, “There’s nobody there!” “Where?” “The 46th St. Theatre!” She says, “The Ziegfeld Theatre! Take a cab, I’ll pay for it!” I get in a cab, get to the theatre, there’s nobody there except them—Peter Stone, Stuart Ostrow, Sherman Edwards, Peter Hunt and a very tired pianist. They’d been sitting there waiting. So I get up on the stage and I sing “Wait Till We’re 65” [from the musical On a Clear Day and a song Daniels introduced] and blow the lyric. I get halfway through it and I can’t remember! This is the whole ambiguity of everything I’ve had being in theatre so long and my mother… So I go, “I can’t remember” and they go, “That’s OK.”  You see, they really wanted me.   

RF: Well, you were perfect for it. 

WD: Stuart Ostrow, as it turned out, knew me because he was a kid on one of the old radio shows I'd done, but I never knew him. He just… I was the guy. I was not Peter Hunt’s choice. I know that because about two weeks into rehearsal he invited me out for a drink and said, “You have my permission to kick my ass around the block.” And I think he did it to cover his ass. He didn’t want anybody else to find out he’d been pushing for some tall actor, I can’t remember his name [in a later interview conducted with Peter Hunt he told me he had no recollection of who this tall actor might be or of wanting anyone other than Daniels from day one]. 

RF: Did you ever read your reviews for it, or are you not the type who does that? 

WD: I think I must’ve read the reviews.  I only remember bad reviews. 

RF: Of course. 

WD: I don’t remember good ones. 

RF: Do you know what Barnes said about you?  He said you had an “ironic self-awareness,” and that’s a very perceptive comment in terms of how you played Adams. 

Daniels with Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee and Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin (1969).

RF: In looking over your Broadway credits I see shows that came and went very quickly. Do you have any memories of Seagulls Over Sorento?   

WD: Oh yes.   

RF: If you look up William Daniels, you only get partial credits, because you were Billy Daniels for so long.  Seagulls is a Billy Daniels credit.  You were in Richard II with Maurice Evans.   

WD: I’ve been all over!  That production was a redo their 1939 version, so they had to remember what they did.  I came on and had to kneel before Evans presenting a crown or something like that, and he was spitting all over me so much I needed an umbrella! 

RF: The Legend of Lizzie—it closed mid-week! 

WD: It was terrible. 

RF: It got a Tony nomination for the set, so it must have had a nice one. 

WD: I don’t even remember!  Ann Meacham, I think, was the lead in that.   

RF: You worked with some great actors on these shows, I’ll tell you that.  Look at the cast of Seagulls…Rod Steiger, Leslie Nielsen, Mark Rydell, J. Pat O’Malley…it’s an amazing career.  And you were just wonderful on the recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy you did. I hope they treated you well. 

WD: They were so, so nice and I’m just a fool of a person sometimes.  They had this lovely young girl following me around everywhere…I went home to Bonnie and said, “There’s this girl, I think she has a crush on me!”  Bonnie just fell apart, she went, “She’s being paid to do that!”   

RF: My grandmother used to say to my mother, “Why don’t you like me?  Everybody likes me?  The hairdresser, the nail lady…” My mother said, “YOU PAY THEM!”   

WD: At the end of the five shows, they came out with a big cake.   

RF: Well, they had to give you a send-off. They killed you. 

WD: I couldn’t believe they did that. But they were wonderful. They really were terrific, and thinking they’re in the ninth season! I don’t know how you do that!     

RF: Well, thank you for your time. This has been a pleasure. 

WD: For me, too. Good luck with your book. 

William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett the night they both won Emmys for playing husband and wife on "St. Elsewhere" in the 1980s.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."