Actress Bonnie Bartlett is considered one of the greats. Currently age 91 years, Bonnie has seen the entertainment world change considerably over the past 60 years. Yet some things, like acting techniques, still remain the same.
There are some really juicy details in this interview about Bonnie’s contracts, her step from soap operas to primetime and so much more.
Bonnie Bartlett is living proof that you can make acting your career. Stamina and keeping connections has led Bonnie to having, and continuing to have, a successful run in the field.
You became an actress because you wanted to live out your father’s dream. Your father E.E. was a failed Shakespearean actor who became an insurance salesman. Why were you so determined to do what your father was unable to accomplish? If acting wasn’t your father’s dream, would you have pursued it? What does E.E. stand for?
First of all you should never believe the information you get off the internet. Only believe the information you get from the actual source. My father was not a “failed” Shakespearean actor. He was an actor who worked all the time in stock, Texas, New York etc. and gave up the theatre because my mother wanted to live in Wisconsin.
E.E. stands for Elwin Earl. I was determined to be an actress from the time I was about three years old. It had nothing to do with my father at the time. Later, I realized that he had given up something he dearly loved and I was angry with my mother.
St. Elsewhere William Daniels as Dr. Mark Craig, Bonnie Bartlett as Ellen Craig. Photo by: Frank Carroll / NBCU Photo Bank
Being accepted into Northwestern University not only helped you with your acting chops, but it’s where you met your husband, William Daniels (married 70 years on June 30, 2021!), a fellow actor. What lessons did you learn from Northwestern that guided you in your career? In life?
I was very disappointed in the way the theatre dept. was running at Northwestern at the time I was there. I learned that the world everywhere was very political and if you didn’t play the game you might lose.
You chose to study with Lee Strasberg, who taught method acting. Why did you go this route? Today, there are so many different acting techniques. Is one any better than the other?
I had no idea who Strasberg was when I started studying with him, it was just a suggestion by a producer and I was just filling in my time. Yes, there are a lot of acting techniques. Whatever works.
You started out on television playing the heroine “Vanessa Dale Raven” on the soap opera Love of Life from 1955 to 1959. How did you get that role? What was going through your mind during this time?
I got the part on Love of Life because of work that I had done at Northwestern. A well-known director was a fan of mine from Dark of the Moon and Lady Macbeth. I didn’t think of it as anything more than a job but I did hope that it would lead to other work.
In the past, it was a dream to step up from a daytime soap to a primetime evening show. In the 60s, you moved to nighttime. How was shooting a nighttime series different than daytime?
Doing a daytime soap is not fulfilling. Doing nighttime work gives you more rehearsal and you have a better chance of doing something good. Larry Auerbach, the soap director, after years of working so fast, said he could never do nighttime because he wouldn’t know what to do with all that time. However, for the actor, the more rehearsal time you have, the better your work.
Bonnie Bartlett and William Daniels win Emmy Awards together.
You are very well known for playing Ellen Craig on St. Elsewhere, having started as a recurring role and then made a contract player as your story deepened. Did your contract have to be changed when you were made a contract player? Who did the negotiations for you regarding your pay? Was the leap to contract player a substantial different when it came to finances, time on set, etc?
My contract on St. Elsewhere never changed. It should have as I won two Emmy Awards and became a very important part of the show. My agent at the time couldn’t do very much for me. No, a contract player is not any different from a recurring player as far as the work. So they don’t have to give you a raise unless you have the power to demand it.
Your husband William was also in St. Elsewhere and you also worked with him in the ABC series Boy Meets World. What’s it like working all day with your spouse?
Bill and I have always loved working together. It saves a lot of time. It’s like a shorthand. Bill and I learn the lines differently so we did it separately.
One of the most memorable characters you’ve ever played was that of Lynn Bernstein in Kenneth Johnson’s 1983 mini-series, “V”. Lynn, out loud, read her father in-law’s (Abraham Bernstein) farewell letter as she refuses a Resistance member Robert Maxwell’s pleas for help. Abraham’s letter coincided with his being a Holocaust survivor. Did you, at the time, realize the importance of the letter-reading scene? What type of discussions did you have with Ken Johnson and the other actors in your TV family (Leonardo Cimino, George Morfogen, David Packer) about the significance of your characters?
V The Original Mini Series 1983. George Morfogen and Bonnie Bartlett
When I was on V, I was too traumatized by the death of our first leading lady, Dominique Dunne, to really concentrate. There were no conversations with any of the production people but I enjoyed very much working with George Morfogen.
I must talk about Little House on the Prairie. Tell us everything!
Little House on the Prairie was my first big experience in Hollywood. It was a joy. Leaving the house at 4:30 AM but getting home before dark. Michael Landon, Karen Grassle, Melissa Gilbert and all of the actors were a pleasure to work with. I was sad to be written out of the show.
Bonnie Bartlett and William Daniels today.
You and Bill have been doing the fan convention route for a while. When you became an actress, did you ever in your wildest thoughts think you’d be asked to attend conventions? Please share some convention stories!
The conventions are something that totally surprised us. It’s a wonderful way to meet your fans and travel a bit. Bill loves meeting all the kids from Boy Meets World again and I go along for the ride.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I have just completed a book that I’ve been working on for years. When it is published, I hope soon, buy it and you’ll read a heck of a lot more about me. It is presently called Middle of the Rainbow but that could change.
Bonnie Bartlett, William Daniels, Ben Savage and Rider Strong in Boy Meets World. Photo by Randy Tepper, ABC via Getty Images 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.