Let’s face it, the late Bill Daily — who has passed away at the age of 91 — was never a star. Which is not really as rude a statement as it sounds, because Bill had the much tougher job of being the so-called “second banana” or supporting player who would enter a scene and bring with him an extra jolt of laughter. Never was that more true than when he played NASA’s Major Roger Healey on the ’60s classic I Dream of Jeannie, or airline pilot Howard Borden in the ’70s hit The Bob Newhart Show.
He was born William Edward Daily, Jr. on August 30, 1927 in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and had his entertainment start in stand-up comedy, eventually finding himself on stage in some of the country’s bigger comedy clubs. In 1964 he made an appearance on the sitcom Bewitched, which caught the attention of writer/producer Sidney Sheldon, who, thinking he was funny, cast him as a supporting character in the pilot episode of his new show, I Dream of Jeannie.
“He had me read for Jeannie, but I couldn’t read,” Bill, who suffered from dyslexia, revealed to the Television Foundation Academy, “but thank God I had a chance to memorize it. So I went in and was, like, ‘Man in Uniform in the Back,’ and all these other guys were in front of me. But when Jeannie went to series, Sidney changed the whole thing around and made Roger a second banana. Not long ago I got to spend an evening at Sidney Sheldon’s house and I asked him, ‘Why me? Why change the whole thing around?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I just saw something there.'”
So did the audience. The premise of I Dream of Jeannie, of course, is that astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) encounters the magical Jeannie (Barbara Eden) after crashing on a deserted island. Tony inadvertently brings her home with him to Coco Beach, Florida, kicking off five years of comic misadventures. At first, Roger, who is Tony’s best friend, knows nothing about her, though eventually he’s brought into the fold.
“My approach,” he said, “was that I was doing Bob Hope. To me, Roger and Tony were like those Bob Hope and Bing Crosby pictures. But Larry wasn’t doing Bing Crosby; he was doing another show evidently. He said, ‘I wanted it to be very serious. I didn’t want to be funny, I was doing a serious show.’ And I wanted to be funny. I was doing…. actually, I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know how they kept me on that show. I think I was funny.”
He also didn’t realize, in a sense, how lucky he was in terms of the approach taken by Sidney Sheldon compared to, for instance, the writers of The Bob Newhart Show (who he had nothing but respect for).
“The writers on Bob Newhart were brilliant,” Bill noted, “but there you rehearse all day and then the writers come down, they see it, they change it, the next day you do that material, then they come down and make more changes. Then you’ll do it for the camera, and then you rewrite and do it again. But Sidney wrote his scripts in an hour. He would write them, give them to us and leave. So Larry and I are standing together, talking for like 20 minutes, and Larry would come up with these brilliant ideas we should do, and then we’d get to rehearse it like a play. Larry would set up the whole set and we’d rehearse it like crazy so that I not only knew my lines, I knew what I was doing. On Newhart, once we went in at 10 and were out at 11. Not a lot of rehearsal. It worked great for Bob, but I don’t like working that way. It terrifies me.”
He actually praises Barbara Eden for the success of the show, both in terms of the audience and the actual making of it. “Barbara was a pro,” enthuses Bill. “If it wasn’t for her, the show wouldn’t have gone on, because there wouldn’t be a show there. But she let us be crazy; she had no temperament. I think what bothered Larry a bit was that she became a superstar. But let’s face it, if you’re TV Guide, do you want Bill Daily on the cover? Do you want Larry Hagman on the cover? Or do you want Barbara Eden on the cover?” The answer was obvious.
Which is not to say he didn’t have high praise for Larry as well, who he referred to as “the greatest straight man I’ve worked with in my life. I didn’t know it then. Fortunately I got to spend some wonderful time in New York with him after 30 years, and I got to tell him how absolutely brilliant he was. See, things can’t work the same way today that they did then. You can’t go in and make up things and do things and change things. We made up things all the time. Back then, though, I thought he was awful, because he wasn’t as funny as I was, but, boy, I look back and he was, again, a brilliant straight man. And who can play that character and then go and play JR on Dallas? Even Jack Nicholson might have a tough go at that one.”
When asked about a favorite episode, he referred back to the period when Roger didn’t know about Jeannie actually being a genie, and one episode in particular — season one’s “The Yacht Murder Case”. “We’re out on a boat,” he reflected, “and she disappears, and everybody thinks he’s killed her because she’s gone. So Tony’s in jail and she’s back at the house, in her bottle. And because he can’t tell me the truth about her, he says, ‘I want you to go to the house and talk to the walls. Tell the walls I love them and I miss them.’ And that’s my scene. I had a romantic scene with the walls. It was just so wonderful.
“So Roger didn’t know who Jeannie was at the time, which I thought was better for my character,” Bill added. “Not that I voiced that. Are you kidding? I didn’t voice anything. I was having the best time of my life, making money and having a series and being funny. Oh, man, it was heaven. I just had the best time, because once we got on the stage, we could make it work and we did.”
One idea he was opposed to was the network’s insistence in year five that Tony and Jeannie get married. “That just killed us,” he observed. “Get Smart had Don Adams get married at the same time, and it killed them, too, because it becomes a whole different show. And for us, we just died, but the network made Sidney go with it for some reason, and he fought it like mad, but couldn’t convince them. So I can’t say I was shocked when the show was canceled. We were never a big hit, so every 13 weeks Sidney would call us down and say whether or not we were picked up yet. But I didn’t mind the end, because we were all doing pretty well and I had some pretty good offers, so didn’t feel too badly about it.”
Bill spent 1972-78 as part of The Bob Newhart Show, playing an apartment neighbor of psychiatrist Bob Hartley, who would usually pop in for a few comic moments and then take off. As noted, the actor praises the writers, didn’t like the lack of rehearsal, but truly treasured his relationship with Newhart himself, particularly the way he was able to bring his co-star to laughter.
“I break him up,” Bill shrugged with a smile. “I’ll tell you, there were times we couldn’t do the show. I’d walk into the apartment and Bob would turn away and bite his lip and I’d have to work with him that way. I don’t know what it was, but we have outtakes where I’d walk in and he’s say, ‘What’s that line? What’s what walk you’re doing?’ and he’d just cry with laughter. I’d be sitting on the couch and I’d say something, and he’d just go into laughter.”
Following The Bob Newhart Show, Bill had a recurring role in 1981’s Aloha Paradise, had his own short-lived 1983 series Small & Frye, and was a regular on 1988’s Starting From Scratch, but mostly made appearances on other TV shows and in TV movies, two of which were the reunions I Dream of Jeannie… Fifteen Years Later (1985) and I Still Dream of Jeannie (1991), neither one of which featured Larry Hagman. The first had former MASH star Wayne Rogers in the role of Tony Nelson, and the second had Tony missing.
“Those are the worst,” he said. “I thought Larry was going to be on it. I’m in my dressing room and Wayne Rogers walks in with Larry’s suit on. He wasn’t funny on MASH. And the show was just written so badly. Then I get the next script, and it’s even worse. I said, ‘I can’t do this,’ but then they said we’d be spending five weeks in Vancouver and I’m, like, ‘Five weeks in Vancouver? Maybe the script isn’t that bad.’ But it was.”
As we say goodbye to Bill Daily, there’s a wonderful moment in the interview where he’s more or less asked what, as a performer, he brings to the table, to which he matter of factly responded, “The only thing I do well is that I’m funny, and that’s a God-given thing. So thank you God.”
And thank you, Bill, for the laughs.