Bonnie Bartlett Daniels had stars in her eyes from a very young age. “My brother and I used to go to see movies on the weekend. I could see four movies in a day,” she tells Closer. “Then I would come home and imitate Mae West or Jean Harlow.” While Bonnie didn’t grow up to be a blond bombshell, she has enjoyed a very robust career. In addition to prominent roles on the daytime drama Love of Life and on Little House on the Prairie, Bonnie took home two Emmys for her work on the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere.
Along the way, there have been tears as well as triumphs. In her new memoir, Middle of the Rainbow, Bonnie confides about the challenges of her long marriage to actor William Daniels, the loss of their first baby during childbirth, and a sexual assault by one of her soap opera co-stars. “I felt like this was a relevant time to write [the book] because of what women have accomplished and also because of the long way we have to go,” Bonnie explains. “I am not an activist, but I have been through a lot in my 93 years.”
So, you always wanted to act?
“Yes, but I didn’t want to be a movie actress. I wanted to be a stage actress. I wanted to be Helen Hayes and do very serious theater.”
You studied acting in New York with Lee Strasberg at the same time as Marilyn Monroe. What was she like?
“She was already a big star. She was a brilliant comedian, but she came to Lee Strasberg because she wanted to be a serious actress, too. And she was a good student, very attentive. She knew that she had a brain, but she had no upbringing and no real education, so she wanted to be around brilliant people. I liked her very much.”
Your father had been an actor. Did he influence your decision to go into acting?
“I was always involved in acting because my dad had been an actor. He was a wonderful father in some ways, and then he turned into a very abusive one. [As a child] I did a lot of acting, and that was wonderful because when you’re playing other people, you’re getting away from yourself. I had to do a lot of getting away from myself.”
Years later, you were also assaulted by one of your ‘Love of Life’ co-stars.
“That was terrible. I would say both of those experiences were just so destructive. [They occurred because] I was a woman of a certain time and place. In writing this book, I wanted to show that you can overcome these things.”
You also write extensively about your long marriage to William. It sounds like it wasn’t always easy.
“When I met Bill, I was lucky. I guess people would call it soulmates. No matter the difficulties, we have always been very close. But Bill was an angry young man because at Northwestern University, he had been a superstar, and when we came to New York, he couldn’t get a job. And I got a very big job [on Love of Life] and made a lot of money. It was tough on him, and he could be verbally abusive.”
Did you ever consider leaving?
“At one point, yes, I did think I should be married to somebody else. But then he changed, and his anger wasn’t directed at me anymore.”
Was there a period where you had an open marriage?
“We never thought of it as an open marriage at all. But there was a time in New York when there was a lot of sex. People were free and loose and you didn’t judge. It was fun, but it was also very difficult to negotiate. Moving to Hollywood was really the saving grace for our marriage because once we got there and had a family, it was a totally different story.”
In June, you will be celebrating 72 years of marriage. To what do you attribute your union’s longevity?
“First of all, you’ve really got to like each other. I’ve heard other people say, ‘I’m just happier when I’m not with her’ — well then get a divorce! I think it also helps when you’re on the same intellectual level. And you have to believe in being committed. Bill and I were so young, we hadn’t explored all those avenues yet. In the end, we were able to grow and change together.”
What have been some of your favorite acting roles?
“The most successful ones, of course. I loved the part on St. Elsewhere. I was also very lucky to have been on Little House on the Prairie. I had so much fun with [actor] Victor French. I called that one a western fairy tale, because it wasn’t very realistic but people got a lot out of it. I am also very proud of my little part on Better Call Saul.”
You’ve done a lot of guest-star roles. Do you remember what it was like to be on ‘The Golden Girls’?
“Oh, that was fun. I knew Bea [Arthur] from New York. She had adopted two boys, and we had adopted two boys. Her husband and my husband were good friends. She kind of guided me around the set. I also knew Rue McClanahan very well. Betty had been on St. Elsewhere, so I had met her. The only one I hadn’t met was [Estelle Getty]. She was funny and very fun to be with. A lovely actor.”
You’ve worked with your husband a lot, too. What is that like?
“It’s just great. It’s like falling out of bed and doing the scene. We have so much background together that the chemistry just works. We work off each other, and he loves to criticize me, and I take it very well. We make fun of it.”
Is there any advice you would have liked to give your younger self?
“Take advantage of every opportunity, no matter what it is, to learn your craft. Explore everything in life! Explore nature, explore the country, explore the world, if you can. It’s like a piano player: You’ve got to practice but you’ve also got to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Be political — I never was when I was young. I was too busy acting to pay attention. But we have to pay attention, and we have to participate. It has to become a participatory thing you just do all of your life.”