Cheers for Ted Danson.
For years, Ted Danson worried that he wasn't successful enough. "Should I leave 'Cheers'?" he would agonize. "Why aren't I a big movie star?" he fretted. Even though he was costantly employed, the tall, handsome actor couldn't relax enough to enjoy his work or his life. Seven Emmy nominations for his performance as womanizing Sam Malone were nice--but where was the trophy?
Well, he's got it now. Last fall, when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences held its annual awards night, Danson finally was able to deliver an acceptance speech. He was charming, gracious and, most of all, relieved. With the official acknowledgment of his talent right there is his hand, he finally felt appreciated.
Now Danson has everything he worked toward in his 19-year career--respect for his political involvement, a family he worked hard to keep together and, with Three Men and a Baby and its recent sequel, Three Men and a Little Lady, acclaim at the box office. Through his production company, Danson/Fauci, he was executive producer for two of his TV movies--When the Bough Breaks and We Are the Children--plus a new series, "Down Home," starring Judith Ivey.
And "Cheers," the show that he once feared would keep him in a little box marked "TV Star Only," turned out to be the key to his success--and his wealth. Already he has earned millions as a nondrinking ex-relief pitcher and bar owner, and it appears the money may never stop. One of television's top-rated series, "Cheers" is completing its ninth year with no signs of aging.
Danson has signed on for another season, and he doesn't discount the possibility of more after that. Gone are the days when he used to say, "I love 'Cheers,' but the flush is off the rose. I want to do features. It's an ego thing that somehow features better. You have more rehearsal time and more opportunity to stretch deeper into your character."
Recently returned from Boston, where he and other cast members took part in a week-long celebration commemorating the series' 200th episode, he is exhausted but also euphoric about the public's response to the show. "After celebrating in front of millions of people, I'm zonked," Danson says with an easy smile.
At 43, he is finally at peace with himself. "Trying to get away from my TV image was a young man's sport," he says. "I don't have the legs any more to be neurotic." Stretching out those legs and the rest of his 6-foot-2 lanky frame on the couch, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is balding. This is the relaxed Danson, the family man television audiences seldom see. "I wear a hairpiece when I'm an actor, and when I'm not I don't," he says simply.
When he is off-duty, Danson dresses in jeans. But never does he seem frivolous or even light-hearted. He says he is amazed that his success has come in comedy. "Isn't it funny, because I'm really so unbelievably serious. I'm too serious. Humor is the relief I get from being too serious. At home I'm desperately serious. It's awful. I'm working on that in my life, actually."
His "Cheers" co-workers see a different side. Woody Harrelson, who plays the naive bartender, says, "Ted is like a big brother to me. I remember one day when he was driving me home from work, and we passed the Improve (a Los Angeles comedy club). I was a fairly gregarious mood, so I convinced him to stop. I got up on stage and started talking to people, and then I got Teddy to come up. It was so much fun."
Kirstie Alley, who plays career-minded Rebecca, chuckles over Danson's well-known penchant for dithering. When she was contemplating signing on for next season, she said, "'Cheers' is a wonderful working environment, but I wouldn't do the show without Ted. But leaving something up to him to decide is hopeless. He'll change his mind 50 times in an hour. You have to wait till you see his signature on a contract to know whether it's really happening or not."
There was a time when stardom was the furthest thing from Danson's mind. Back then, eating was foremost. Like his character in the "Three Men" movies, a mostly out-of-work actor who stays off the bread line by making commercials, Danson did the same routine.
For one TV advertisement, he encased his skinny legs in yellow tights, put a cardboard box over his head, and danced around playing a lemon chiffon pie mix. Later, he spent several years as the Aramis Man.
Danson's career didn't really start to cook until he was nearly 30. The son of an archaeologist who was director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Danson grew up near a Navajo reservation outside Flagstaff, Arizona. As a child, most of his friends were Indians. Now he is a board member of Futures for Children, a nonprofit organization that sponsors education and self-help programs for Indian children.
At 13, Danson's life changed dramatically. He went off to Kent Preparatory School in Connecticut, and from there to Stanford University. He had no intention of becoming an actor until the day he accompanied a friend to an audition and tried out, too. He got a small part and discovered the adrenaline rush of acting. Finally focused on his future, he transferred to Carnegie-Mellon, which was noted for its drama department.
At 22, Danson married a fellow acting student, and following graduation in 1972 they both headed to New York. His first big break came in an off-Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. He also appeared in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions before getting work on two daytime soap operas, "The Doctors" and "Somerset."
Danson and his wife divorced after six years. Then in 1977, he encountered Casey Coates at an EST seminar. An environmental designer, she was nearly 10 years older, but the age difference seemed not to matter. Danson recalls, "The first night we met, we sat together and talked till 4 a.m. She was in the mood to get married when I met her. She said, 'I want a committed relationship. If you don't, there's the door."
Within six months they married and moved to Hollywood. Danson quickly found work as a policeman in The Onion Field (1979), a dancing lawyer in Body Heat (1981), and a zombie in Creepshow (1982). He also appeared in episodes of "Magnum, P.I.," "Laverne and Shirley," "Taxi," and "Family." In television films, he played an insensitive husband in The Women's Room, a father who molested his daughter in Something About Amelia, and a crippled ex-rodeo star in Cowboy.
Before "Cheers" came along in 1982, he appeared in three other pilots: "Once Upon a Spy," "Our Family Business," and "Allison Sidney Harrison." Luckily for him, they weren't picked up, leaving him free to become Sam Malone for the ages. Despite Danson's good looks and sense of humor--rare assets much sought after in the sitcom world--he had little athletic prowess. The "Cheers" producers had to teach him about baseball.
But the series was never about sports. Working in "Cheers," Danson says, "You display the part of your personality that's appropriate to the role, so the less pretending you have to do, the better. As an actor, you play out sides of your life you might not have the guts to show in real life. I didn't know what it was like to really be a chauvinist, despite having chauvinistic impulses, until I got to play Sam. Sam is arrogant, cocky, and more than a little sad. He gets laughs because of that heaviness, that sadness."
As "Cheers" became a solid hit, Danson's film parts grew larger (a two-timing husband in Just Between Friends, a struggling actor in A Fine Mess, and an adventurer in Little Treasure). In 1987, he finally found the right film vehicle in Three Men and a Baby. His character fit neatly in between Tom Selleck's Daddy-of-us-all and Steve Guttenberg's wisecracking little brother. "He's a raging heterosexual who isn't macho," Danson says of his "Three Men" character. "He's the one whose mind fritzes when he hears a baby cry. His radius of concern doesn't extend too far past the end of his nose. He's the kind of neurotic who's been terrified all his life he's screwed up."
Danson remembers that when he was making "Three Men." "I was as neurotic as the character. I'd never been in a movie that made money. The fact that 'Three Men' made money was good for me. And I'd never played a leading man, and then I went off and played one (Cousins)." In 1989, Danson starred in Dad as a middle-aged son caring for his infirm parents (Jack Lemmon and Olympia Dukakis). Last year's Three Men and a Little Lady gave Danson most of the laugh lines.
But life would not be perfect for an adored millionaire if his Malibu beach home did not contain a happy family. In Danson's case, it is happiness he has fought long and hard to build and secure.
"Acting can be a safety valve," he says. "In my roles I can play out the fearful, insecure side of my personality, the areas I don't have the guts to lay out in real life. There's a huge part of me, for instance, that's afraid to commit. In life, I've overcome that fear of commitment myself."
His commitment to his wife has been constant and total During her pregnancy with their daughter Kate, now 11, she was bedridden with high blood pressure. In the midst of labor she suffered a stroke, and her left side was paralyzed. Danson says, "Casey and I wanted a baby, planned for it and went through a lot of difficulty to have it. Casey simply refused to accept that she would be anything less than fully healthy. It was a very difficult time for us--a two-and-a half-year emergency." Danson encouraged his wife's recovery to the point where she and the baby were both walking at eight months. Today Casey walks with just a slight limp, and the Dansons have adopted another daughter, Alexis, now six.
"To some of the characters I play, commitment is a foreign word," he says. "As Mr. Ted Danson, I'm Mr. Commitment. One way to look at what happened is that it was a blessing in disguise. I got thrown into it, terrified that if Kate sneezed once she'd disappear and it would be my fault. I probably bonded with her sooner than I would have. Having children definitely highlights the areas you need to work on in yourself in a hurry. I'd say it makes you grow up.
"I certainly developed emotionally late in life. Hopefully, you don't raise kids when you're the neediest one in the group. I'm working very hard to catch up with my kids, and I'm almost there. I'm probably not as good a dad as Casey is a mom, but I'm a great dad. My family has been a very grounding sort of experience for me. It's great that whenever I glance up from examining my navel, the kids are smearing ketchup all over themselves."
Who could want more than challenge and fun and wealth at work, challenge and fun and ketchup at home? But by the late '80s Danson felt there was still something missing.
One day he took his family to the beach in Santa Monica but were prevented from swimming by a "Beach Closed Because of Pollution" sign. "How do you explain to your daughter that she can't go swimming in the ocean?" Danson splutters. "It's absurd!".
This experience crystallized concerns Danson had long been harboring. Following conversations with his brother-in-law, an oceanographer, he signed a check for $250,000 to start a foundation, American Oceans Campaign, with the aim of promoting the enactment of a national ocean protection policy. Today, many actors lend their names and their time to causes, but most are content to bask briefly in their own visible goodness and wait for charity's next call. Danson designed his organization to be a year-round pressure group and has given it another $500,000.
"The world must make a major shift in how we spend our resources," he says. "Maybe space and defense will have to take a back seat. Businesses will have to spend more money now to clean up their messes.
"I hired an environmental lawyer and a Washington lobbyist. I've already been to Washington to talk about the issue, and I'll be going back to talk some more."
Involvement in this issue has given Danson a kind of contentment. "Instead of being embarrassed and uncomfortable with success and power, I can talk about the oceans," he says. "I realized you need things bigger than yourself. If I didn't have something like American Oceans to keep me occupied, I'd be pretty nutty."
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|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1991|
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