Bonnie Bartlett interview

Interview – Bonnie Bartlett

A classically trained actress, Bonnie Bartlett has built an expansive career lasting over seven decades. Versatile, Bartlett has spent time in the theater, on television, as well as in feature films with a colorful list of credits. Famously recognized, most associate Bartlett with her role on Little House on the Prairie, the hit series St. Elsewhere, or perhaps even on Boy Meets World. Truly someone who fits in many places, she was even awarded an Emmy for her outstanding work on St. Elsewhere back in 1987 at The 39th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. 

Taking none of her success for granted, and continues to find interesting projects through the years, Bartlett recounts much of these life experiences in her 2023 memoir Middle of the Rainbow. Something which offers very insightful, introspective commentary, the book was most recently released in audio format, and best of all, is read by Bartlett herself. An exceptionally interesting individual, Mrs. Bartlett recently took some time to chat about her career, family, sustaining over seventy years of marriage with William Daniels, plus a lot more.

Cryptic Rock – You have built a very diverse, extensive career as an actress over the last fifty years in theater, film and television. How would you describe this really incredible journey that you have been on in the arts?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, it’s been an almost totally positive thing. In other words, I’ve been very lucky. I have worked with wonderful people; we’ve gotten along and it’s just been wonderful. Rarely, in New York when I was doing theater here and there, sometimes there I had problems with a director; because the theater directors, young ones, are so afraid of failing. In the theater, they’re nervous and they take it out on the actors. Somebody thinks he’s failing, he’s not doing well, so he’ll take it out on an actor.

Cryptic Rock – That is unfortunate. Beyond theater, you worked in television heavily too. For example, there was Little House on the Prairie, which to this day is still a very beloved series. How did your television roles come about for you?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, I started out in New York, again with theater, and then doing a Soap Opera. I did the lead on a Soap Opera, and that took about four years out of my life. It was very hard work, but paid very well. Then I quit. I just walked out. I thought, “No, this is enough.” It was very scary to do because it was giving up a good income. I knew that if I didn’t get out, I’d never get out. I went through a period where I didn’t work very much.

Then, fortunately, we wanted to have a family so we worked very hard on that. We lost a baby, but then we adopted two wonderful boys. That all turned out for the best. It was just wonderful. We got great kids, and we’ve had a marvelous sixty years with those two boys. We are very happy and the family has made our life work.

After my husband became so successful, I didn’t work for a while; I just took care of the boys. When he wanted to come to California, I didn’t want to, but we came to California. He sent me over to his agent, they sent me out, I just started working, and I never stopped. I’m very versatile, and I’m very usable, particularly during those years; I’m not so sure now. I could do all kinds of things, and I did them all, and loved them all.

Little House on the Prairie
Little House on the Prairie / NBC 
St. Elsewhere
St. Elsewhere / NBC 

Cryptic Rock – It is interesting to hear how everything worked out. You mentioned how important your family has been. Many who have a family of their own would agree that family is everything. Nothing else can compete with that.

Bonnie Bartlett – That’s true. They just come first.

Cryptic Rock – Most certainly. You speak of your husband, William Daniels. You two have been together a very long time, and have accomplished some really interesting feats together; such as both winning Emmy Awards on the same night.

Bonnie Bartlett – On the same show too.

Cryptic Rock – That is really interesting.

Bonnie Bartlett – It’s unique. It hasn’t been done before.

Cryptic Rock – It certainly is unique. That being said, you have worked with William through the years, whether it be on St. Elsewhere or Boy Meets World. What is that like working with your spouse like that?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, we started working together when I was eighteen at Northwestern, and we were both cast in a play. So that was the beginning of it. Then we worked at Northwestern in lots of different plays and did MacBeth together. We’ve never set our career to be together, but it has sometimes joined. Bill came on my Soap Opera. We did a lot of stuff together and then separated because he did Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story. That put him on the map because it was brilliant. He was brilliant.

From then on, he just worked. Did a lot of little character things in plays and then eventually worked into movies with Audrey Hepburn. He did 1776, the musical, on Broadway. Then that went on to make a movie in 1972, and he was lucky enough that they cast him for the movie.

We did St. Elsewhere together. He starred in it and he had a big role. They brought me on just as a little part, and it grew because the writers loved to write for us. It was very good writing and a very good show. I did a ton of movies of the week too. I got a list of them and that was a wonderful source of income.

Bill then went into Boy Meets World. I kind of relaxed during most of that; because I was out in Santa Barbara and working with the ballet, and doing things I wanted to do myself. Then they brought me on that show too. I was on Boy Meets World with him, and we had a great time. We were recently at a Boy Meets World convention.

Cryptic Rock – Very nice. Boy Meets World has a very dedicated fan base; a lot of people grew up with that show, and it means a lot to them.

Bonnie Bartlett – It means a tremendous amount. It’s amazing what he means to fans. We’ve been married so many years and people love us as a couple. We’re going to be celebrating our 73rd year of marriage this June.

Cryptic Rock – That is truly amazing. Congratulations. Marriage takes a lot of work. What do you think is the key to that longevity in marriage?

Bonnie Bartlett – Yeah, but it is just what happens and how you deal with it. All the bad things that happen, if you come out of them, get through it and go on… it depends on what you do and how much you care about keeping this whole thing together. We care a lot about keeping it together, despite problems.

Cryptic Rock – Right, that is definitely the key. You have to work through the problems. It seems like a lot of the younger generation does not want to work through the problems. They just part ways.

Bonnie Bartlett – Yes, it is a different idea. We, interestingly enough, never started out with a commitment for life. Maybe that’s why; we didn’t set our sights very high. We were able to work through them. People who go into a marriage and think, “Oh, it’s all lovely, once-in-a-lifetime thing,” it isn’t true. It doesn’t work that way.

Cryptic Rock – Of course. It takes patience. It takes compromise.

Bonnie Bartlett – And it takes luck.

Bonnie Bartlett & William Daniels
Bonnie Bartlett & William Daniels Emmy winning night

Cryptic Rock – Exactly, that is very true. As we spoke, you have done theater and television, but also feature films. These are all different dynamics. Obviously, a live theater performance is different from television, as opposed to a film. How would you compare the three different platforms?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, certainly the hardest one is theater; because you’re out there on your own and you really have to know what you’re doing. That’s the toughest one.

Television is comparatively easy; because it’s fast and they don’t expect a whole lot from you. Whatever you give them, whatever the character is, if you’ve got it, they usually cast it carefully. If they cast it carefully, you’re right for it, and you can do no wrong in a way. Although, my husband felt that way on the stage. He loved the stage, because he felt he could do no wrong. He felt that he was totally in charge on stage and he loved that.

I never had that feeling on the stage. I was a little bit of a nervous theater actor. I was fine once I got going, but I was anxious about doing well. Bill never had that problem. I don’t know why.

Cryptic Rock – Interesting. What about working in films? The process is a little more drawn out, yes?

Bonnie Bartlett – Film is different in the sense that you’re doing a shot here and a shot there, you’re doing different things, and it takes a lot of time. It isn’t as much performing. You’re just there. The camera comes in and takes whatever you’re doing with the other actors, and you all kind of work together. It doesn’t feel like a performance. It feels much more like the reality of the camera catching the performance.

Cryptic Rock – That is a very interesting point of view. Through your career, you have also worked in various different types of genres too; whether it be Comedy, Drama, even Horror with 1979’s Salem’s Lot. Do you have a particular genre that you enjoy most as a performer?

Bonnie Bartlett – I think I’m basically a dramatic actress. Comedy has come slowly, and I love it. Recently, I’ve been on Better Call Saul, which is lots of fun. Very different kinds of work.

Key and Peele, those two guys, very special guys and very special ways of working. I love going into a situation and, “Oh, this is how we do this. Ah, this is what we’re going to do. Ah, okay.” I’m completely amorphous. In other words, I enjoy whatever it is. I’ve never been presented with something terrible or anything like that.

It’s been really joyous. I have been very fortunate, as I say, that the people that I’ve worked with have all respected me. I’ve been a collaborative actor. I’ve been consulted and worked with, and we all work together.

Cryptic Rock – Those are positive things. It seems you enjoy the challenge of taking on different roles and being open-minded about it.

Bonnie Bartlett – That’s why I became an actor. I was an actor when I was a little girl. I imitated all the ladies in the movies, and that started me. My father had been an actor. We did a lot of things together that groomed me already before I even went into the business.

Cryptic Rock – That is another interesting point… you have been doing this a very long time. Your career has also transcended decades of television, and television has changed over time as well. The sitcom has faded away, but you have experienced different eras of television in your years. What are some of the biggest changes that you have seen after all these decades?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, it used to be in a sitcom that you had to go so long, that you had to have a laugh. They counted the times. It was all about making people laugh. Now, it has become things like Parks and Recreation, which I was on. These shows, like Better Call Saul, work very differently. It’s humor, but it doesn’t necessarily want you to laugh out loud. It’s a different thing. They used to have a laugh track that they put into the sitcom. It’s a totally different energy. That energy was fun, when it worked. When it worked, it worked beautifully. When it didn’t, when the shows weren’t good, then it wasn’t so good. But Better Call Saul, Parks and Recreation, Key and Peele, they’re all a different way of humor, a different way to laugh.

Cryptic Rock – Right. It is a different time. You have actually documented your life in entertainment with the book you release in 2023.

Bonnie Bartlett – I did. Yes, it’s good. I have just completed the audio version, and I recommend that too. It’s a memoir, and it’s called Middle of the Rainbow. You can get it anywhere. I have a website where you can read about me and read about the book and so forth. So yes, it’s been very successful.

We had a slow start, but were very successful. I’ve been very pleased, particularly with the response I’ve gotten from men who have said, “Okay, I get it.” Because I’ve been around a long time. Men have had to kind of learn how to deal with women in the workplace and so forth. They’re doing it and they’re getting a lot better.

Twins movie poster
Twins / Universal Pictures (1988)
Boy Meets World series
Boy Meets World / ABC

Cryptic Rock – That is positive and progress.

Bonnie Bartlett – Yeah, it is progress.

Cryptic Rock – Most certainly. Writing a memoir is a pretty massive undertaking. What was that like for you?

Bonnie Bartlett – It was very hard. I’m not a natural writer. I worked very hard on it, rewrote, had an editor who pushed me and he said, “Write more of this. Write more of that.” He really helped me to form the book. I really appreciated his work so much. His name is Loren Lester, and he’s actually an actor, but also a wonderful editor. Some of it is very painful with the memoir though… there’s no question about it. When I did the audio version, it hurt a lot, but I did it, and it’s good.

Cryptic Rock – Recollecting memories can be challenging.

Bonnie Bartlett – Because then you’re living through it. When you’re writing it, you’re not living through it as much. When you’re actually doing it, you’re living through it.

Cryptic Rock – It is great you got through it though. It has to be redeeming to get through after all the work you put into it and seeing other people respond.

Bonnie Bartlett – Yes. It’s all about communication. That’s why you become an actor, really, because you want to communicate with people. You want to tell them something, and you do it by acting in these parts. It’s a matter of communicating with people and trying to say, “Look, this is who I am and look at what I’m doing.” You want to share.

Cryptic Rock – Right, that is how we learn about one another.

Bonnie Bartlett – Through something I enjoy more than learning about people.

Cryptic Rock – What better way to actually have a conversation with someone then with a film, television, music, a book, or art on the wall. These aspects of culture are how we relate with one another. Seeing that you have had this extensive career with so much experience, out of curiosity, what are some of the most important things you have learned from it all?

Bonnie Bartlett – Well, I would say I’ve had to learn to be patient; because I was not a patient person. I was kind of a wild kid, and just wanting to show off and things like that. It’s gotten deeper and deeper as the years have gone by. Often actors who are older, it just happens. They don’t have to work at it. They don’t have to study it or make it happen. It’s there. A guy like John Gielgud, he was such a phony young actor, but brilliant. By the end of his life, all he had to do was sit there and say something… it was all there. He didn’t have to work at it at all.

Cryptic Rock – That is a good lesson to be learned. We could all learn from that. We have to be patient with what we are working on, or learn to be patient with other people.

Bonnie Bartlett – Exactly.

Cryptic Rock – These are paramount aspects of life. This all-in mind, do you have anything coming up that maybe has not been released yet that you can mention?

Bonnie Bartlett – I did something for Christopher Carter Sanderson who was putting out Shakespeare’s Richard III, and it’s something that you can actually get on your phone. I played a very, very tough part. And my husband played a part too. Now, I don’t know if that’s out yet or not. They really don’t keep you informed about things. (Laughs) I hope it’s out or will be out soon… but I haven’t seen it. I’ll be curious to see if it’s out, see how it works, and see if it makes it.

Bonnie Bartlett - Middle of the Rainbow
Bonnie Bartlett – Middle of the Rainbow
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