The Many Uniforms of Bill Daily

Comic character actor Bill Daily came into the world on August 30, 1927, and I’m thankful he did, for he’s made me roar with laughter a hundred times, sometimes seemingly by barely lifting a finger. He just had a persona that’s perfect for comedy.

Originally from Iowa, Daily moved with his family to Chicago at age 12. Prior to becoming a ubiquitous face on TV sitcoms Daily served in the Korean War, studied at the Goodman Theatre School, played bass in jazz bands, was an announcer in local TV in Chicago, and made a name for himself in stand-up.

Daily’s first TV part was a guest shot on Bewitched (1964), followed by one My Mother the Car. As rarely happens in show business however, he almost immediately landed a long term steady gig, that as Major Healey, Larry Hagman’s co-worker and best friend on I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70). The “best friend” role on a sitcom can be a great showcase for an actor’s talents. Daily’s part was essentially third in the ensemble’s hierarchy and generally got good comic business in every episode. He had a likable, relaxed presence that was frankly more appealing than those belonging to the titular stars, the tense, jittery Hagman, and the earnest Barbara Eden.

Daily’s true glory, however, was achieved on his next sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78). Daily’s part as a neighbor was much smaller on this show, yet much more hugely comical, at once extremely broad, yet fully within the show’s deadpan tone, set by its star Bob Newhart (whom Daily had known and worked with in Chicago and in the stand-up circuits). As Howard Borden, a airline navigator and co-pilot, Daily was always wandering over to Bob and Emily’s apartment borrowing things, inviting himself to dinner, or just generally crying for attention. The character was screwy in a Gracie Allen/ Dick Martin kind of way, but played in Daily’s blandly vacant, absent-minded and quiet manner it was of a piece with the Newhart universe, and his visits were a highlight of every episode of the show.

One might forgiven of thinking of Daily strictly in terms of these two long running sitcoms of the ’60s and ’70s, but he had three others which saw him through the ’80s:

Stephen Shortridge, Debbie Reynolds, Pat Klous and Bill Daily (l to r)

Aloha Paradise (1981) was a sort of Fantasy IslandLove Boat knock-off produced by Aaron Spelling that starred Debbie Reynolds as a hotel manager at a Hawaiian resort; Daily played her assistant manager. Daily, like most celebrities of the time, had a track record in similar vehicles, having had guest shots on Love American Style, The Love Boat and remarkable similar sounding TV movies called Rendezvous Hotel (1979) and Valentine Magic on Love Island (1980).

From 1987 to 1989, he had a recurring role on ALF as a doctor named Larry.

From 1988 to 1989 Daily finally got to star in his own sitcom Starting from Scratch, in which he played a veterinarian whose ex-wife and kids return to live with him. The syndicated show also had Connie Stevens and Nita Talbot in the cast, but only lasted one season.

In the ’90s, Daily did guest shots on Bob Newhart’s subsequent two sitcoms, Newhart (in 1990) and Bob (in 1992 and 1993). There were also the inevitable Jeannie reunions: I Dream of Jeannie…Fifteen years Later (1985), and I Still Dream of Jeannie (1991). Camp horror was also a staple of his later years, appearing on The Munsters Today (1990), and in the films Alligator II: The Mutation (1991), and Horrorween (2011).

Bill Daily passed away in 2018 at the age of 91.