“Alice Actress” Tells All in New Book

The cover of the book 'Middle of the Rainbow' by actress Bonnie Bartlett Daniels

Bonnie Bartlett Daniels is admittedly not a household name, but several generations of households have seen her work in hundreds of films and television episodes. The staged-trained actress from Wisconsin pops up everywhere, on TV shows like Little House on the Prairie, St. Elsewhere, Boy Meets World, and Better Call Saul, and big screen box office hits like Twins, Primary Colors, and Dave. Along the way she’s won two prime-time Emmys, raised two sons, and been the better half to award-winning actor Bill Daniels for 72 years. Bill, who starred in 1776, St. Elsewhere, and Boy Meets World, was also the voice of KITT on Knight Rider, and he’s responsible for giving Bonnie the affectionate title, “Alice Actress”. The two have played husband and wife on-screen in three different TV series, and made history when they both won Emmys on the same night for the same show.

I first got to know this power couple back in 1997 when I was helping to promote TV Land’s re-airing of St. Elsewhere, and on one of my trips to L.A., they made sure that I had a hot meal after a long day of jet lag. Bonnie is 93 (Bill is 96), and last month she finally got around to publishing her autobiography, Middle of the Rainbow. I spoke with Bonnie recently about the book, her career, and her marriage.


JL: Why did you write the book, and why now?

BB: Well, it had to be now. It couldn’t have been earlier because my mother and father were still alive. I was so afraid of hurting somebody or betraying somebody, so I had to wait until I could be thoroughly honest about everything, and that’s how I feel now. At my age, I can tell everything that happened.


And for Bonnie, telling everything meant writing about being sexually molested by her father at an early age, and then, years later, raped by a fellow actor at the beginning of her career. 


JL: You go into detail about the molestation and rape. Was writing about those incidents painful, therapeutic, or both?

BB: Both. I am still dreaming every night about them. All the feelings come back again, but hey, it has helped me tremendously to go through it all again and write about these things.

JL: Who was your favorite actress growing up?

BB: Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard. I loved all of those blondes. I didn’t really want to be them, but I used to imitate them. I entertained the family by doing imitations of those very brassy gals.

JL: Of course, you’d want to imitate brassy women.

BB: Oh yes, but I wasn’t like that at all.

JL: Other than entertaining the family, what was the first time you remember performing in front of an audience?

BB: The first time I remember being appreciated was in junior high school. We had a speech class and I got up and played all the parts from Pygmalion, and the kids in class loved it, and they laughed and thought I was wonderful. Well, that was enough for me because I always wanted attention and I always wanted to be liked. So, I thought, “OK, I’m pretty good. I can do this stuff.” So as soon as I got into high school, I did every play they had, and I was good. I could do everything from playing young girls to old ladies. 


Bonnie went on to perform in numerous productions at Northwestern University where she met and fell in love with Bill. Over the years whenever the lovebirds have worked together, their acting has looked effortless.


JL: Have the two of you always been in sync as actors because you’re that way in real life?

BB: We always have been. When we were at Northwestern and I realized I was “smitten” with Bill, as he says. [laughs] I remember calling a boy back home to tell him that I couldn’t see him anymore. I was crying and upset after the phone call and was getting ready to go on stage. Bill didn’t know what was going on, but he saw me crying, so he came over and sat there and put my make-up on for me. It was so sweet of him. We’ve just always been there for each other. 

JL: You and Bill have stayed together through a lot of ups and downs over seven decades of marriage. If you were writing an advice column, what advice would you give to young women who are thinking about getting married?

BB: It’s different for everybody. There are marriages that I think the women are crazy to stay in, and there are marriages where, if they worked a little harder, they could make it. One thing, though, is not to let yourself get bored with each other.


Of course, it’s hard to get bored when both spouses are constantly working, and Bonnie has always been in demand as one of Hollywood’s most enduring character actresses, supporting scores of leading men and women. Just for fun I dropped a few names and asked her to give me her first reaction.


Jamie Lee Curtis: “An amazing woman, articulate and funny.”

Robert Duvall: “Scary, no like.”

John Travolta: “a wonderful man, very loving.”

Denzel Washington: “An amazing talent, but a little stand-offish.”

Bob Odenkirk: “special, different, nice, but off the beaten trail.”

Mark Harmon: “A terrific guy and a terrific carpenter.”

Kirk Douglas: “I won’t say anything, but I like Michael.”

William Shatner: “There’s nobody else like him.”

George Clooney: “Handsome, but he bites his fingernails, and that was a turn-off.”

Tim Allen: “Funny, helpful, and we both loved hot fudge!”


And, what’s my reaction when someone drops Bonnie’s name? Well, I’ve known Bonnie for 25 years, and I’ve come to appreciate not just her talent, but also her toughness. She is a survivor of personal traumas and professional challenges. And she is relentless. That’s why my favorite passage in her book is about the time when she and her parents were driving to Des Moines. Bonnie was three years old and she had been acting up in the car. Her father threatened to put her out and make her walk if she didn’t settle down. She didn’t and he did. Left by the side of the road, three-year-old Bonnie watched as her parents drove away. They eventually turned around and retrieved her, but, in the interim, she just kept walking up the highway. She never panicked or cried. She just kept walking.


JL: That sort of describes you in a nutshell, doesn’t it? No matter what happens to you, no matter the situation, no matter what you’re given to work with, you just keep going and you move on.

BB: That’s right. [laughs] That’s absolutely right. You ask me to do something, and I’ll do it. That’s the kind of kid I was.


And that’s the kind of woman she became. That’s why, to use Bill’s words, I’m smitten with her.

Middle of the Rainbow is available from BearManor Media or Amazon.com.


One Comment

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