Excerpt: There I Go Again

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The following is an excerpt from There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, and Many Others (Potomac Books, March 2017) by William Daniels, an actor and former president of the Screen Actors Guild. Below Mr. Daniels writes about his time as a student at Northwestern University.

From Chapter 5: Go West, Young Man, to Northwestern

The campus was magnificent, particularly in the eyes of a kid from Brooklyn: Gothic-style buildings, a row of fraternity build­ings on the street opposite sorority houses, and private homes that always had rooms for students to rent. And of course it all fronted on beautiful Lake Michigan.

Harry Westerfield, a friend who knew my family and my sisters and me as performers, kindly arranged that I be admitted to a fra­ternity, Sigma Nu, without going through the rigmarole of pledge week. If I had gone through that week, I would have known that fraternities were not for me. I lived in the fraternity house for a couple of weeks before they got around to a silly initiation; they took you into the conference room and made you bend over while they pad­dled your behind. That did it. I left the room and yelled down the stairwell, “You can take your fraternity and shove it up your ass!”

The next day I found a room off campus and left Sigma Nu. After two years in the army I was too old for such nonsense. Besides, I had no need for that kind of fraternity. I didn’t need to join a club, either to meet new buddies or to prove how much liquor I could hold.

I had a new fraternity. It was located in Annie Mae Swift Hall, the university building that housed the theater program. It was one of the oldest buildings on campus and small compared to all the other buildings. It was a two-story red stone structure that housed an auditorium with a small stage. A rather large room on the left as you entered served as a gathering place in which students could hang out between classes or just spend time with other aspiring actors. The second story consisted of classrooms and faculty offices. The auditorium with its stage housed our theater productions, as well as acting classes and something called B-40, a technical course in lighting, stage sets, and costuming. Sets were built in another building close by.

Aside from the classrooms where our required liberal arts courses met, these two buildings were where theater students spent all their time—day and night—studying acting, building sets, and appear­ing in productions.

I was happy to jump into all this. I have to confess I was a bit cocky. After all, I’d acted on Broadway while all the others were coming from high school productions. I attended an audition with fifteen to twenty other students, all hoping to be cast in an antiwar play by Irwin Shaw called Bury the Dead, in which characters rose up out of graves and told of dying in war or losing loved ones. Not a laugh in it.

We sat at desks in a classroom with the director at the head of the class calling on one student after another to read different parts. I sat up front listening to one awful reading after another. I was just thinking that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in this turkey when the director called out, “Bonnie, read the next section.”

I heard the voice of a real actress. I turned around to look, and there in the back reading was this tall blond with a lovely voice. She was making a highly dramatic scene believable. This was a girl who was obviously talented. After the audition was over I waited at the classroom door for her to pass by.

“How about a cup of coffee?” I said.

“You’re too short,” she said without hesitation. But we were exactly the same height.

“Come on, have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay.”

Eventually she told me that where she came from, some place called Moline, Illinois, girls were expected to date only boys who were taller than they were. Obviously, some primitive, midwestern, unwritten law. She said she had been following me around cam­pus because she had heard I had acted on Broadway. The air force leather jacket I wore didn’t hurt either.

I took her to a student hangout called Cooley’s Cupboard, and we joined some other students who had been at the audition. No one knew each other, and at one point during a lull in the conversa­tion Bonnie (her last name was Bartlett) told a joke about a newly married couple in the upper berth of a train on their wedding night. Her story was greeted by utter silence. Not only was it not funny, but when I looked at her I realized she didn’t know it was a dirty joke. Eighteen years old, coming out of Moline—what could you expect?

What I didn’t expect was that our “coffee date” would turn into almost a seventy-year relationship—with me telling the jokes. We have a kind of George Burns and Gracie Allen routine. When Bon­nie tries to be funny and fails, the situation can always be saved by a simple “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

We’d been going together for a little while but nothing had been physical. I’d bring her flowers and serenade her with a Sinatra song or two. But it was enough to make Bonnie break up with the boy­friend she had left in Moline. On opening night of Bury the Dead Bonnie arrived at the theater in tears after making the “Dear John” phone call, and she was so distraught I had to do her makeup for her. The intimacy of this moment was something Bonnie wasn’t used to in her life, and she remembers it as a pivotal moment in our relationship. She also remembers giving the performance of her life that night.

Although Bonnie was, and still is, a great dramatic actress, she had a problem when it came to singing. When she was in rehears­als for Dark of the Moon, she had to sing a song called “Barbara Allen.” Singing was a challenge for Bonnie. None of the parts she had played in high school—from the title role in I Remember Mama to Lady Macbeth—required her to sing. In fact Bonnie had a men­tal block when it came to singing, so, being the old song-and-dance man, I stepped in to help her.

There were few places on campus where you could get any pri­vacy, but Bonnie lived in Willard Hall, which had a finished base­ment that was used for student activities. It was usually empty, so we figured it was a good place to work on Bonnie’s singing without being disturbed.

We were down there going over her song, and I could tell she had a good voice but was afraid to use it. First I tried to get her to relax, then to stand up and breathe from her diaphragm and just sing. Then I put my hands around her waist, to check her breath­ing. We looked at each other and I kissed her. Her knees actually buckled and I had to hold her up—but I kissed her again. The song took care of itself.

Later Bonnie was called into Miss Yearly’s office (she was the dean of women) and reprimanded for necking in the basement with a New York actor. To this day we don’t know who had spied on us. Miss Yearly suggested that playing Barbara Allen, a loose woman, was having a bad influence on Bonnie’s behavior. She was even thinking of calling Bonnie’s parents. Ah, those were the days.