Actor William Daniels—known for roles such as Mr. Braddock in The Graduate, John Adams in 1776, the voice of Knight Rider’s KITT, and the stern, yet caring, Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World—has written a memoir titled, Still At Play: My 75 Years in Show Business and the Roles that America Embraced. Daniels, who recently turned 88, has been able to create an iconic role for every generation, from his work in the golden age of Hollywood, to influential characters in classic ’90s sitcoms.
He expounds on these memories in his forthcoming book, and while he has yet to disclose the publisher or publishing date, he shared an exclusive excerpt with us.
By the time I was nine years old, I considered myself a pretty good tap dancer. Although my family only went to the movies once or twice a year, it was at the movies that I found my hero.
Shirley Temple was a big star in those days and about the same age as my sister Jackie. In her movie “The Little Colonel,” she performed a wonderful dance routine with a tall elegant man who smiled at her with genuine warmth. She beamed back at him, but I figured that since she was a little girl, a child like me, she had probably been told to keep smiling.
The man’s movements were mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Every step he took was clean and precise. His dancing looked so effortless and graceful he seemed to glide across the screen.
When I got home from the movie, I wrote the only fan letter I’ve ever written in my life. It was to Mr. Bill Robinson, Shirley Temple’s dancing partner. I don’t know where my mother sent it, but soon I received a handwritten reply on the stationery of the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. Mr. Robinson thanked me for my letter and told me to keep dancing, practicing and working hard. He was sure, he wrote, that one day I would find my name up in lights.
He also invited me and my parents to come as his guest to his next engagement at the Cotton Club, the one in midtown Manhattan. He even mentioned the date on which we should be there. Here was a man, a big star, who received a fan letter from a nine-year-old kid and sat down to put pen to paper. Not only did he answer; he offered encouragement and an invitation to see him perform. It’s hard to imagine anyone of his prominence doing that today.
When Mom and I got to the Cotton Club (Dad had to stay home with Jackie), we were led to a ringside table in an enormous room with a raised stage – a thrust stage – that had round tables surrounding it on three sides. Immaculate white tablecloths were draped over the tables. This was a supper club. A waiter came over and asked us what we would like to drink, then handed us two menus. I looked at Mom as she scanned her menu.
“Two ginger ales, please,” she said. She closed the menu and did not look at it again.
By the time we sat down, the show had already begun. Cab Calloway, the “Hi-De-Ho” man, and his orchestra were going full blast. Mr. Calloway stood before the musicians in a suit of white tails, waving his baton wildly while a group of beautiful women in tiny costumes danced in front. I looked around. I was the only kid in the audience. Mom studied the dancers carefully as if she were memorizing their routines.
After the chorus line left, Mr. Calloway turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to present the great Mr. Bill Robinson.”
There he was, the man I had seen in the Shirley Temple movie, the man who had invited us here to the Cotton Club. He shook hands with Mr. Calloway, went to center stage, said a few words to the audience and then started to softly tap, with arms extended, fingers moving like he was playing a piano. The orchestra came in softly behind him. I listened to and watched tap routines I had never encountered before. Between numbers, Bill Robinson would ad lib with Mr. Calloway.
Toward the end of the performance, Mr. Robinson walked over to the edge of the stage where I sat, my head barely above the stage floor. He bent down and held out his hand to shake mine.
“This is for you,” he said. Then he began his famous last step, one leg out at a time, forming little circles with the toe of each shoe and making taps as rapid as gunfire – rat a tat a tat a rat a tat – first one foot, then the other. He kept his upper body absolutely still. He did this step all the way off the stage.
I had never seen anything like it. I worked on that step for years afterward. It requires a completely relaxed leg; the effort is confined to the foot. No matter how hard I tried, I could never do it the way Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson could.
When the show was over, Mom asked for the check. We’d had two ginger ales each.
“No check, ma’am, you’re Mr. Robinson’s guests,” the waiter said.
“Oh, my God,” I thought. “I could have had a hamburger and French fries.”