Ken Levine, a longtime TV scribe who penned many classic Cheers episodes, has a Ted Danson story that tells you everything you need to know about the now 67 year-old actor.
During a screening party for the show’s finale at a Boston bar, the entire cast was in attendance, as well as thousands of fans who showed up to see their favorite Cheers characters. Levine remembers that Danson “leaned out the window and waved (at the crowd). As a goof, I joined him. I said, ‘I have a feeling they’re waving for you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but a year from now, you’ll be working.'”
This was Ted Danson in 1993, at the height of his popularity. He was arguably one of the most famous people on TV, the star of what GQ Magazine has called “the best television show that has ever been.” He’d won two Emmies, two Golden Globes, and who knows how many “sexiest man of the year” magazine cover stories. Cheers had triumphed over 11 seasons, and the finale was being watched, according to Nielsen figures, by an estimated 93.9 million people. Anybody in the universe caught in the same vortex of fame and career success could be forgiven for thinking he was hot shit.
But not Danson. Even when the entire world was on his side, he had enough humility to predict that none of it would last.
As it turns out, Danson was wrong. He would work again. Many, many times. He’s starred in underrated sitcoms (Becker) and cult comedies (Bored to Death) and crime thrillers (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and critically acclaimed dramas where he’s played against type (Damages). Thanks to a handful of brilliant guest appearances on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s almost as famous for the Ted Danson Sandwich as he is for Cheers. (It comes with turkey, cole slaw, Russian dressing, and absolutely no white fish.)
We called Danson—22 years after he predicted he’d never work again—to talk about his latest acting gig, playing a Midwestern cop in the second season of Fargo, which premieres on FX on October 12th at 10/9c. We also talked about optimism, arrogance, and why Rush Limbaugh will always be an asshole.
The first thing I thought when I heard you were going to be in Fargo is, can Ted pull off a believable Minnesota accent?
I’ll be honest, it scared me to death. And then I started working on it with this wonderful man named David, who lives up in Calgary.
Yeah. That’s where we shot everything. And we started about three weeks beforehand, working on the accent. I went straight from CSI on Friday to Calgary on Monday. And we worked and worked and worked on that accent. Even when we were shooting, you’d get more accent notes than directing notes some days.
I’m sure it was a challenge not to slip into “doncha know” stereotypes.
[With a perfect Minnesotan accent.] Oh ya, you betcha. [Laughs.] That one?
That was okay?
I’m from Chicago, which has its own thing. So I’m very sensitive to bad Midwestern accents.
It’s a hard thing to master.
There’s also the whole Midwestern temperament you have to learn. Being from the Midwest means you have this hard-wired impulse to be overly polite. You’re a California boy, right? Born and raised?
And hence an asshole, is that what you’re saying?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
I take offense to that! Also, I’m not from California. I came from Arizona, which has a Midwestern sensibility in a lot of ways.
There’s an earnestness to it. A sense of “We may be struggling but, by golly, we’re going to show up with a happy face and make the best of it.” I can relate to that, because I grew up around in that kind of environment.
It’s easy to imagine you as a Midwestern guy. Mostly because you seem so genuinely nice.
[Laughs.] Thank you, I think. Is that a compliment?
It is. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I met Ted Danson once, and he was an insufferable prick.” But you hear that about almost every other celebrity.
I don’t know if that’s necessarily a great thing. Being nice all the time comes with its complications as well, obviously.
I think if you talked to my wife (actress Mary Steenburgen), you’d get a more complete picture. I can be as dark as anybody.
Well give us an example. What was your Donald Trump moment? When you said or did something that, in hindsight, was just completely terrible and douchey.
When I’m tired, I know best. I know better than you, and I become very inflexible. Which can be maddening to live with. This is how my wife knows that I’m angry. She’ll say, “Ted, are you mad?” And I’ll say, “No.” And then we’ll both know I’m really mad. [Laughs.]
You sound like a monster.
No, it’s bad.
I don’t believe that for a second.
It’s true! Listen, I’m a real work in progress. Mary and I both say, we’re not into drama. Pay us and we’ll do drama. But otherwise, let’s leave the drama alone.
You seriously are as nice as you seem, aren’t you?
I’m not that nice.
That’s not the impression I’m getting.
Give it time.
You said in an interview once that it took you “a few years to figure out the arrogance” of the Sam Malone character on Cheers. Did you mean specifically that character’s arrogance, or just the concept of arrogance in general?
I have a need… [Laughs.] This is starting to sound very therapeutic, this conversation.
Are we getting too personal?
No, no, I like it. What the heck, let’s do this. Growing up, I was raised to leap over any negative emotion and go to the noble, the loving, the caring, the nurturing feelings. Which is great, but sometimes you can’t really leap over the anger, the pettiness, the vanity, all of that dark stuff that we all have.
So what would you do?
I’d leap over it anyway. Arrogance was one of those things that, as a child, I learned to avoid. It was dangerous and bad. I was meant to be humble. Then along came Sam Malone, and this guy is a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He’s the epitome of arrogance.
How is a relief pitcher arrogant?
Are you kidding me? It’s right there in the job description. You come in at the end of the day and save the world. You only come in when things are falling apart and then you fix it and you’re the hero. You could look at that as requiring some degree of arrogance.
One could also argue that acting is a profession where you need to be a little bit arrogant.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And that was tough for me, especially with Cheers. It took me about a year and a half before I got over that fear, that feeling of “Oh my god, I’m on television and everyone is watching me and judging me.” You know what I mean? Half of them will like me, and half of them won’t.
That’s if you’re lucky.
That’s if you’re really lucky. And to get to the point where you’re like, “You know what? People can think whatever they want, who cares? Do what you’re going to do, and to heck with them.” And that involves a degree of arrogance that made it easier for me to relate to Sam Malone.
Did the success of Cheers make it easier for you to embrace arrogance? It was the biggest show in the universe.
For a while.
Eleven years! Over a decade.
Well… [Laughs.] We all like to think we’re above it, that we’ll never fall under the spell of vanity, pride, ego, whatever. But it’s almost unavoidable. The best you can do is pick yourself up and try to do better next time. After I do this interview, where we’ve been talking about how amazing I am, I guarantee you that I will walk outside and step into the biggest pile of dog poo.
That’s a great image.
So speaking of arrogance, let’s talk about your environmentalism.
[Laughs.] Uh-oh. Have I been too arrogant about that?
Actually, no, just the opposite. You’ve been right on the money. You’ve been warning us for decades that the oceans are in trouble, and you’ve been repeatedly mocked for your beliefs.
Didn’t Howard Stern have something like “Danson’s Countdown to Doom”?
[Laughs.] He did, yeah.
And Rush Limbaugh loves poking holes in your predictions. Do you ever feel like it’s not worth it? I mean, the oceans are still in trouble. It can seem hopeless. And you’re the whipping boy for saying anything about it.
My new philosophy—it’s what I’ve come up with to make myself feel better—is you fight and you fight as long and as hard as you can, and then you die. That’s it. It’s not like you win. It’s not like we save the planet, and your life changes in some meaningful way. You still die. So just go for it, do the best you can.
That’s a nice way of looking at it.
It’s the only way. You get a lifetime to find out what we’re made of. And like with James Bond, the bigger the villain, the better the movie. So for me, it’s not about, “Will we accomplish anything? Will we make a difference?” You just have to enjoy the process of trying to make things better.
So you’re not holding out for an apology from Limbaugh?
Oh no, no, no, no. I misspoke so many times, said some things that were totally wrong. Poke fun at me, please do.
I believe you said in 1988 that the oceans would be gone in ten years.
And that’s why you shouldn’t get science from celebrities. Go check it out for yourself. Listen to the scientists, talk to the fishermen. Getting slammed for those statements was good for me, seriously. I’m not being humble here.
That’s just most evidence of your inherent niceness. Most people would be like, “You know what? Rush Limbaugh can go fuck himself.”
Oh no, please please, don’t misunderstand. Rush can go fuck himself. But not because of what he said about me. The fact that he speaks to people who have genuine fears and righteous anger, and he twists their fears into something ugly and full of rage, and he does it all for his own benefit, he can absolutely go fuck himself.
Over the years, you’ve repeatedly called yourself an optimist. Do you still consider yourself one?
An optimist? Yeah, I think I am. I know that optimism makes it sound like you think good things will happen.
Like the Louis CK definition of optimism.
What does he say about it?
He has a bit in his act where he’s like, “An optimist is somebody who goes, ‘Hey, maybe something nice will happen.’ Why the fuck would anything nice happen?”
[Laughs.] I get that. But I also think you have to work at it. Optimism doesn’t work if you don’t put any effort into it. You can’t just sit back and wait for good things to happen to you.
Life is more complicated.
It’s way more complicated. But if you know where you want to go, and you can imagine it happening, and you do something every day to make that perfect vision of the world come closer to being a reality, but you also remember to be grateful and happy with what you’ve got, then you’ve found the correct combination. If that’s what we mean by optimism, then yeah, I am an optimist. Except when I’m not.
When are you not?
When I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and I’m full of doom and gloom. That happens, and it happens for no good reason. When I talk about optimism, it’s how I would like to be, but it’s not always how I actually am.
Alright, one last question. What happened to Sam Malone?
How do you mean?
The last time you played him was in 1995, in an episode of Frasier. He was struggling with a sex addiction, and things weren’t looking so hopeful. How did the last two decades treat him?
Well, the writers would be better at answering this. It’s not really my place to say.
But you must have thought about it. In your head, how did life turn out for Sam? Did he marry? Die of a heart attack? End up in prison? Is he aging gracefully?
[Long pause.] I imagine that whatever happened to him, he ended up back in the bar, with everybody else. I’m about to be 68 in December, so he’s probably around that age. I can see him just standing behind the bar, saying, “What? What did you say? A horse walks into a car? That’s not funny. What? You’re going to have to speak up!”
(Originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Malibu Magazine.)