Bill's Road Trip
Fifty years ago, the versatile and highly regarded actor William Daniels, now 90, had yet to achieve his greatest fame as John Adams in the Broadway and film versions of the musical 1776, Dr. Mark Craig in St. Elsewhere, the voice of KITT the intelligent computerized super-car in Knight Rider, the mentoring schoolteacher George Feeny in the two series Boy Meets World and Girl Meets World, and two contentitous but rewarding years as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. He nonetheless enjoyed a very visible 1967 with prominent and diverse roles on both home and theater screens. His year kicked off as the lead in the short-lived goofy, spoofy superhero NBC comedy series Captain Nice. At the movies, where he’d already been seen to good effect in Ladybug, Ladybug (1963, directed by Frank Perry) and A Thousand Clowns (1965, directed by Fred Coe, encoring his Broadway role as officious social worker Albert Amundson), he played three notable parts that comprise a miniature commentary on the fluctuating states of 1960s American politics, affluence and attitudes. In The President’s Analyst, his soft-spoken, gun-packing suburban liberal is one of the many unhinged characters who make matters difficult and dangerous for James Coburn’s title character. At year’s end, he would score in a few brief but bittersweet scenes as Dustin Hoffman’s testy, tough-love father in the box-office and cultural phenomenon called The Graduate.
Midway through the year, Daniels was, as he reminisces in his briskly and entertainingly penned 2017 memoir There I Go Again, “the ugly American” sharing driving duties across the countryside of the French Riviera in the trenchantly witty and innovatively told romantic relationship tale Two for the Road (1967), starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as the central couple and Eleanor Bron and Gabrielle Middleton as Daniels’ oblivious wife and rambunctious daughter. Working under director Stanley Donen and presented with a Frederic Raphael-written character that was uptight, outspoken and drawn in sharp contrast to the easygoing free spirits embodied by Hepburn and Finney, the ever-professional Daniels recalls hearing Donen’s rundown of how the role should played: “I listened carefully and nodded in agreement and proceeded to do the part the way I thought it should go. The qualities Donen envisaged for my character were indeed apparent in the script, but it’s a trap for actors to emphasize what is already there; what the actor must often do is find the character’s human attributes other than what is written. Does he have humor? Does he have a warm and sympathetic side? Is he uptight and maybe even nervous and frightened (not that he would show it to his wife and child) while driving the roads of a foreign country and not speaking the language? My challenge was to come up with anything I could to humanize the man so as not to wind up with a caricature.” His nervousness was calmed by the camaraderie of his castmates: “I was pacing up and down under a tree, nervously going over my lines when I heard a voice. ‘Billy!’ Finney was waving to me (actually with his index finger and smiling) to come over to the car. There he sat with Audrey Hepburn next to him, and he leaned out the car window and said in a stage whisper, ‘Not to worry, she gets all the close-ups.’ I heard her giggle. And that was Albert Finney, sizing up my situation, breaking the ice with humor, and, more importantly, relaxing me. Everyone called him Albie. He was witty and great fun to be around. He was constantly teasing Audrey, calling her ‘tawdry Audrey’ or ‘Audrey Sunburn.’ Audrey was the consummate professional, always prepared and very focused. She must have sensed that Two for the Road would be one of her best film performances, particularly playing next to such a good actor. Even though it could be hot as hell out on those roads in August and most of the actors would need constant mopping up of perspiration before a take, not Audrey. She would sit under an umbrella by the roadside with not a drop of moisture on her.” In a half-century career of great small and enormous parts, two-time Emmy® winner Daniels, who recounts a career of bad breaks, uncomfortable situations, spectacular luck and reliable talent in the engaging page-turner There I Go Again, never lets the sweat show. Following his storied 1776 portrayal of John Adams, he would later play the founding father’s son John Quincy Adams in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles and Adams’ revolutionary-era cousin Samuel in the telefilm of John Jakes’ The Bastard. “I have now played every important member of the Adams family, except for Abigail,” he cheerfully proclaims. Hitch a scintillating and scenic ride with the presidential Daniels and his luminous co-stars in Twilight Time’s Two for the Road hi-def Blu-ray, available through this Friday June 30 for a limited-time 33% off original list.