He’s been one of the most beloved actors on stage, television, and the silver screen for nearly six decades. But Brooklyn-born William Daniels has been entertaining people a lot longer than that. He and his sister, Jackie, were child performers who appeared as a song-and-dance act on a WMCA Radio show. At the age of eight, he graduated to the Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour on television. By the time he was 15, he was on Broadway in Life with Father.
Of course, he’s better known for his performances in 1776, Knight Rider, St. Elsewhere, and Boy Meets World, among others. In There I Go Again: How I Came To Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT and Many Others, his eagerly anticipated memoir that came out last Wednesday, the soon-to-turn 90-year-old Daniels offers up a treasure trove of memories about his life and career.
Brooklyn Magazine recently spoke with Daniels about growing up in Brooklyn, two of his more well-known roles, and the lifelong dream he still hopes to fulfill.
What was it like to grow up in Brooklyn during the Depression?
I grew up in East New York. It was a poor section of Brooklyn. When we lived there it was very blue-collar. Our neighbors were all working class. Part of my childhood that I remember very well was going to my maternal grandmother’s house in Bay Ridge for Sunday dinner. Her name was Kate, but we called her “Big Gram.” When her husband died, she remarried a real charismatic character who became my grandfather, a bookie named Anthony Jaccarino. But he was known in betting circles as Jack Tan, and I adored him. He’d take me to the markets and always let me help him smell and pick out the sauces and cheeses, the prosciutto for these Sunday meals. I always looked forward to those Sunday meals, we’d sit down and 2 p.m. and still be at the table at 7 o’clock that night. We didn’t eat that well all week!
Given the character you played on Boy Meets World, that of a history teacher, I have to admit I was a bit surprised to learn that you didn’t really have much of a formal education. Isn’t that a bit ironic?
My education was pretty hit and miss. I attended the High School for Music and Art for two years and then was schooled in an apartment on West 57th Street, where all the other child actors and teenage performers who were doing shows were being tutored. But I’d been reading history for a long time. And this isn’t in the book, but I recall a Spanish teacher who was tutoring us asking me, ‘Why are you so good at this subject and so bad at Spanish?’
Do you think Boy Meets World helped influence a generation?
It worked out very well. It really scored. The important thing is, I didn’t want to do the show if the teacher I was playing was going to be made fun of. I have way too much respect for teachers, they’re so important and so underpaid, to ever agree to do that. But our producer, Michael Jacobs, modeled the part of Feeny after one of his own teachers who he really respected. And I’m so happy that so many people liked the character. It still tickles me that so many people relate to him, that even an accomplished person like Lin-Manuel Miranda can get on the phone and yell into the receiver, “Mr. Feeny!”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) March 26, 2016