“Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.” With those final four bits of sage advice, Mr. Feeny, played by Williams Daniels, bid goodbye to Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Eric on the family sitcom Boy Meets World, which ran from 1993 to 2000.
By the time Daniels took on the role of the iconic middle school teacher, he was already a distinguished veteran of the stage and screen, most notably for his Emmy-award winning tenure as Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere. Now 92-years-old, the Brooklyn-born star still does some occasional acting — including five episodes of the Boy Meets World reboot Girl Meets World from 2015 to 2017 — and makes appearances at fan expos for the show.
His career began on Broadway and won two Emmys before playing Mr. Feeny
Long before he was doling out quotable advice to the next generation, Daniels had been a performer, starting in the 1930s as part of a brother-and-sister act. “We were a song-and-dance team, and there was very little acting involved,” he told Variety in 2017.
But he didn’t exactly choose to go down that road. “I started performing so young that it seemed like I just fell into it,” Daniels continued. “It’s true that I’ve always been a little angry that my mother made me do this.”
That said, he eventually came to embrace the profession and discovered that he did have a passion for acting and pursued theater in the New York area.
As John Adams in 1776, he earned a Tony nomination in 1969 — but turned it down because of a pesky rule at the time that said only actors billed above the show’s title were “leading” actors and everyone else was “featured.” Even though Daniels was clearly the lead, the producer Stuart Ostrow listed everyone below, in the spirit of calling it an ensemble. As a result, Daniels withdrew himself from consideration.
Daniels soon turned his attention toward film, playing Mr. Braddock in 1967’s The Graduate and reprising his Broadway role as Adams in the 1972 movie version of 1776, as well as television. He ended up winning major accolades when he stepped into his St. Elsewhere character, Dr. Mark Craig, from 1982 to 1988. He was nominated for an Emmy five times and won it twice, including in 1986 when his wife Bonnie Bartlett also won for playing his on-screen wife.
Daniels quit 'Boy Meet World' after the first table read
With his background, a family sitcom scheduled for the ABC Friday night programming block TGIF may not have seemed like the most logical next step.
And it wasn’t for Daniels. “This was a huge change from playing Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere,” he wrote on his official site. “Dr. Craig was never the sort of man from whom young people sought warm counsel. That sort of advice seemed foreign coming out of me.”
On top of it, he wasn’t happy with the portrayal of teachers. “At a meeting with the show’s author and executive producer, Michael Jacobs, already an established playwright and sitcom creator, as well as movie producer, I told him I didn’t want to play a high school teacher who’s made to look foolish for the sake of some cheap laughs,” Daniels, who wrote a biography There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others in 2017 said. “I had too much respect for the underpaid, underappreciated teachers of this country to portray one of them a fool.”
That was never the intention for Jacobs, who based the character on his own “greatly respected” high school drama teacher.
After the first table read, Daniels wasn't satisfied and quit.
The role was reworked with Daniels' suggestions
But Jacobs didn’t let him go that easily. “He said, ‘Listen to me. I’m going to rework this tonight and you tell me tomorrow. If you want to [quit], okay. But wait until I revise it.’ So the next day, the whole thing, it was different! He rewrote the damn thing,” Daniels told People. “So, I stayed.”
After all, Jacobs loved what Daniels brought to the role from his past credits. “The combination of prickly rectitude and fatherly concern was irresistible to viewers,” Daniels says of why Jacobs fought for him to stay.
As for Daniels, he looks back, content with how academia was portrayed. “I wanted him, Mr. Feeny, to be written with respect,” he told TODAY, “which they were kind enough to do.”
“When you do any kind of play or film or whatever, you never really know how it’s going to turn out until you hear the audience reaction,” he continued. “It’s been a pleasant surprise for me, that the show has had such kind repercussions with people that they still talk about it.”
Daniels still gets fan mail for Mr. Feeny
Daniels starred as the wise teacher and neighbor to Cory Matthews (played by Ben Savage) and his brother Eric (played by Will Friedle) from their tween to adult years.
“Mr. Feeny’s appeal was due to the fact that he was a friend, a mentor, and an advisor all rolled into one,” he wrote in his book, adding that he still gets fan mail. “[Boy Meets World fans still] tell me how important the show and the role I played were to them in their formative years."
While the show lasted for seven seasons, he points to the series finale as both his favorite advice from Feeny, as well as the most heart-tugging scene for him.
“The series’ final scene still brings tears,” he wrote on his site. “Mr. Feeny says good-bye to the young people, refusing to say he loves them until they have all left the room.”
But then that’s when the most poignant moment happens. "They all leave the classroom. And Mr. Feeny, who's been kind of a hard-nosed guy, is alone in the room,” Daniels told Today. “And he looks over at the empty desks. And he says, ‘I love you all.’ And I thought that was a really nice way to end it.”