Bill Daily, sidekick on hit 60s and 70s sitcoms, dies at 91

Actor with a household face had supporting roles on ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘The Bob Newhart Show’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 4:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 4:47am

Bill Daily, the comic sidekick to leading men on the sitcoms I Dream of Jeannie and The Bob Newhart Show, has died, a family spokesman said on Saturday.

Daily died of natural causes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday, at his home where he had been living with his son, J. Patrick Daily, spokesman Steve Moyer said.

Daily was not a household name but he was a household face, familiar to many millions of baby-boomer viewers in the 1960s and 70s from two of the era’s biggest shows.

He played Major Roger Healy in all five seasons of I Dream of Jeannie from 1965 to 1970.

Healy was the astronaut partner to Larry Hagman’s Major Anthony Nelson as both men tried to contain the antics of Jeannie, the childlike blond bombshell who lived in a bottle played by Barbara Eden.

Eden said on Twitter on Friday night that Daily was “Our favourite zany astronaut.”

“Billy was wonderful to work with,” Eden said. “He was a funny, sweet man that kept us all on our toes. I’m so thankful to have known and worked with that rascal.”

Just two years later he landed a very similar role and had an even longer run on The Bob Newhart Show, playing aviator Howard Borden behind Newhart’s psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley for 140 episodes between 1972 and 1978.

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Newhart, now 89, said in a statement on Saturday that he and Daily had been friends since both were trying to break into comedy in Chicago in the 1950s, and Daily was a clutch comedian that could make anything work on the sitcom.

“I called him our bullpen man. Whenever we were having trouble with a script on the show, we’d have Bill make an appearance,” Newhart said. “He was one of the most positive people I ever knew, and we’ll dearly miss him.”

Daily saved scenes instead of stealing them like other sidekicks of the era.

He specialised in support, upping the comic moments of his co-stars – his Newhart character was, fittingly, a co-pilot – with a goofy warmth.

Actor James Urbaniak called him the “king of affable vulnerability” on Twitter on Friday.

But like all co-stars on long-running shows, he got occasional episodes of his own, including one where he stole the role of Jeannie’s master from Hagman.

Daily was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but raised in Chicago, which he always considered his hometown. He said he was always a class clown despite losing his father while still a child.

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Before acting, he tried to make it in show business as a jazz bass player, playing in a combo called “Jack and the Beanstalks.” Appearing in variety shows drew him into stand-up comedy and then acting.

He landed one-off roles on the oddball shows of the early 1960s like My Mother the Car and Bewitched, which brought him to the attention of the creators of I Dream of Jeannie.

He said his work at first was derivative – and not very good.

“I was doing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby,” Daily said in a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I was terrible. I think I was funny, but I didn’t know what I was doing.”

After Jeannie he returned to guest-starring roles, including one on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, before his old friend Newhart came seeking a sidekick.

On The Bob Newhart Show, Daily’s Howard Borden was the neighbour across the hall who always popped in looking to borrow or mooch something, like Kramer on Seinfeld two decades later.

He said the writers and his co-stars made the part a breeze.

“I just think the scripts were just written so beautifully,” Daily said in the TV archive interview. “And Bob was a brilliant straight man, he’d just give you everything.”

Daily later appeared on game shows and in reunion specials for his two shows, and in later years hung out with his co-stars on the nostalgia convention circuit.

In his last well-known role, he played a psychiatrist on the cult hit alien-puppet sitcom Alf from 1987 to 1989.

Daily was married three times. His third wife, Becky Daily, died in 2010 after 17 years of marriage.

He adopted two children, daughter Kimberly and son J. Patrick Daily. He had been living for several years in New Mexico with his son and son’s wife Sharon.

At Bill Daily’s request no funeral is planned. He just wanted his loved ones to have a party, which is tentatively planned for next year, the family said.