William Daniels has been an actor for the majority of his 96 years. His long career has included stints on Broadway, classic films including The Graduate, and popular television series including St. Elsewhere. However, he was unprepared for the kind of fame that playing teacher George Feeny on Boy Meets World would bring him so late in his career. “I didn’t realize how popular he was until one day I was walking down Eighth Avenue [in New York City],” he tells Closer. “A school bus was in front of me, and the students were getting off. They spotted me and started chanting, ‘Feeny! Feeny! Feeny!’ I ran around the corner and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is popular!’”

You’ve been performing since childhood. How did that happen?

“I had a stage mother. My mother was intent on putting my sister and I into show business. She would keep track in the paper of anyone hiring children. That led us to a show called The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour at NBC in New York.”

It was a variety show. What did you and your sister do on it?

“Well, we auditioned as tap dancers, but the director stopped us and said, ‘This is radio. There’s no place for tap dancers, but if they sang…’ So, our mother dragged us home and taught us a song. My sister had the better voice. She took the melody, and I sang harmony. We went back to the next meeting, and we sang for him and he said, ‘That’s it,’ and he put us in the show.”

By the time you were a teenager, you were on Broadway in ‘Life With Father’. How did you get that role?

“I was 14 and on a date with a girl when my mother called me and said, ‘I want you to go to the theater and audition.’ I met the producer who asked if I had any Broadway experience. I said, ‘No, but I’m a song-and-dance man.'”

But ‘Life With Father’ is a drama!

“Yes, he started to laugh and said that I reminded him of himself when he first came to New York, so he let me audition.”

Your mom seemed to be a big catalyst of your early career. Was that difficult?

“Yes. When our mother put my sister Jackie and I in the business, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like being told what to do. I didn’t like having to go over to New York on Saturdays to rehearse and perform on Sunday at NBC. I didn’t like any of it, so I was an angry young man until quite a way down the road.”

When did it change?

“When I began to see that I was pretty good at this, I started to reevaluate my opinion of what had been going on. I stopped being angry at my mother for putting me in this and appreciated her because she got me into a business that I seem to have some facility for. I became less angry and more appreciative because I started to get a certain amount of success.”

What has been among the favorite roles of your career?

“My favorite role was John Adams in [the 1969 Broadway production of] 1776. It was my favorite because it was the toughest. He was on stage all the time. Through three acts, he had nine musical numbers, and I played it for over two years. I loved the part. It was a big success, and it kind of put me on the map in New York.”

You’ve also done many films and TV roles, but it seems like ‘Boy Meets World’ really made you a household name. Is it true that you turned down the role of Mr. Feeny twice?

“Yes, I thought the name Feeny was somehow a silly name and disrespectful of teachers. I told the director that I was turning it down because I don’t want to make fun of a teacher. They are underpaid, and they’re very important to our society. He explained to me how it was not going to be silly but treated with a great deal of respect. The role lived up to that.”

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Do you have any fond memories of the show you can share?

“I loved those early shows with Ben [Savage] when he was a little boy. I also was very moved by the last scene we shot. Mr. Feeny finished with his students and he said, ‘Class dismissed.’ He had been kind of a tough teacher. After they all left the room and I was alone, I said, ‘I love you all.’ I found that very moving.”

You recently had a reunion with the ‘Boy Meets World’ cast for your birthday.

“That’s right! We all got together in Chicago, and it was lovely. Danielle [Fishel] arranged it all. She’s kind of the manager. She’s grown into a magnificent woman.”

You and actress Bonnie Bartlett have been married for 72 years. What is your secret?

“The secret is a lack of imagination! [Laughs] There has to be communication between the two of you. If you stop talking to each other, you’re probably angry and you probably shouldn’t be married. Communication is a way of knowing what each one is going through.”


She also played your wife on ‘St. Elsewhere.’ Was that difficult?

“No. I enjoy working with Bonnie because she is such a good actor. We get along pretty well. We don’t criticize each other, and we don’t have any jealousy. If something good happens to her, I’m happy, and if something good happens to me, she’s happy. I think that is a key to our relationship.”

Last year, she wrote a memoir about her career, ‘Middle of the Rainbow’, that also recounted your life together. Was that ever uncomfortable?

“I was interested in seeing her point of view, which didn’t always resemble my point of view. From that point, I learned about my wife and what she actually thought and what she actually did, so it was important for me to read that. I thought it was very nice, very good, very accurate.”

You have two sons. How are they doing?

“My boys are just two terrific men. One, Robert, lives in New York, and one, Michael, lives very close to us [in Los Angeles]. They’re great boys. We also have four grandchildren. We’re so lucky.”