For 11 seasons, from 1982 to 1993, Ted Danson played Sam Malone, a self-absorbed ex-baseball player who ran the most famous bar in America, Cheers. The NBC sitcom was the perfect storm, the coming together of a brilliant concept, exceptional writing, a great theme song, and skilled actors who made up one of TV’s best ensembles ever. On June 3, Danson entertained an audience at the Paley Center for Media, sharing many behind the scene anecdotes about Cheers and other projects he’s been a part of. A contributing founder and board member of the nonprofit organization, Oceana, Danson also talked with Paley Center President Pat Mitchell about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Danson is the antithesis of Sam Malone. Where his TV character was egotistical and intellectually challenged, Danson is self-effacing and smart. “I grew up in a home without a TV,” Danson said, jokingly telling the audience, “don’t deprive your children of pop culture.” Born in San Diego, Danson attended the Kent School in Connecticut where he played basketball, helping the team win a state championship. He arrived at Stanford the same time Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was playing for UCLA. With basketball soon out of the picture, he found himself drawn to acting and transferred to Carnegie-Mellon, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in drama.
“Acting was the dream,” he said. “I didn’t care if I was in an acting class or on the stage being paid. I love the process of acting.” Danson came up the way many actors do, working on soap operas and in commercials. The Paley Center made good use of its archives showing the audience a clip from Somerset, with a very young Danson playing a police detective, and a memorable Aramis TV commercial, showcasing Danson’s debonair good looks to great advantage—and selling lots of cologne in the process. Danson looked pained watching himself on screen and admitted that he rarely watches his performances. “I’ve probably only seen half of Cheers,” he said.
Danson’s life changed when he was cast in what would become one of the most popular sitcoms ever. He credited the writers who created great characters, as well as a terrific theme song (Judy Hart-Angelo, one of the song’s composers, was in the audience) that became an anthem for the decade. “It was the 80’s when the idea that `everybody knows your name,’ resonated with people,” he said. “The rest is with the angels.”
While viewers immediately “got” Sam Malone, Danson admitted it took him “a few years to figure out the arrogance” of the character. What finally helped was realizing that Sam’s superior attitude was honed during his years as a relief pitcher. On the show, Sam was well matched with Diane Chambers, played with feistiness by Shelley Long. “Acting is a contact sport,” said Danson, “ and you want someone on the other side smacking you around.” The clip showed Sam and Diane going mano e mano, fighting first verbally, and then physically, then finally locking lips. “She was spectacular,” Danson said.
Brilliant casting continued to keep the program fresh. “When we lost Nicholas Colasanto (Coach Ernie Pantusso) we got Woody Harrelson, and when Shelley left, they brought in Kirstie Alley,” Danson said. Colasanto’s death from a heart aliment after less than three seasons into the show greatly affected the cast. A picture of Geronimo that had been in Colasanto’s dressing room, was moved onto the set. Danson said that as the cast was introduced before each show (Cheers was filmed before a live audience) each actor would touch the wall near the painting while descending the steps onto the stage. The last scene of the final episode of Cheers, watched by an estimated 80 million people on May 20, 1993, found Sam straightening Geronimo’s picture one last time.
Starring in a hit TV comedy opened doors for the cast members with many going on to star in other TV shows and in films. “We were all very grateful,” Danson said, acknowledging that everything that has come his way since has been a result of Cheers. One such project was the TV movie There’s Something About Amelia, a groundbreaking show for its time (it premiered on ABC-TV in 1984) that dealt with incest. Playing the father who molests his daughter was a risk for Danson, a dramatic departure from the affable character he was playing on Cheers. Yet he said that Cheers’s producers did not prevent him from taking the role. The clip shown at the Paley Center was riveting, capturing an emotional meeting between father and daughter with the mother, played by Glenn Close, looking on.
Flash forward to the present time and Danson and Close are once again working together on the FX drama Damages. (After Cheers, Danson spent six years playing a doctor on the sitcom, Becker). Close, Danson said, “raises the level of everyone in the room.” Danson also is a regular playing himself on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO. The scene shown at the Paley Center was classic: Larry David didn’t like the ingredients in a sandwich named after him in a favorite deli and he tried to convince Danson to switch with him. Danson repeated what other actors have said about working on David’s show. There’s no script, no dressing rooms, and little pay. Still everyone leaps at the opportunity to be on the show.
Twice divorced, Danson has been married to the actress Mary Steenburgen since 1995. The two appeared together in the sitcom, Ink and the television series Gulliver’s Travels. During a private dinner, part of the museum’s Paley After Dark program, Danson was effusive in praising Steenburgen’s new project, writing country music.
Over the course of the evening, Danson managed to impart a great deal of advice on acting. Mitchell observed that she regretted the audience had not been filled with acting students to take advantage of Danson’s experience.
Eventually, Mitchell got around to asking Danson about Oceana and the oil spill in the Gulf. “Right now it’s heartbreaking,” Danson said. Besides pollution from oil drilling, the oceans are being threatened in other ways. The burning of fossil fuels gets absorbed into the ocean and changes the PH balance. “We’re threatening the bottom of the food chain. Coral reefs are starting to dissolve. Snails that use calcium for their shells are dying out.” Overfishing is also taking a toll, he said. “Ninety percent of the tuna, shad, king mackerel, and swordfish are gone.” Danson encouraged people to go to www.oceana.org to learn more and donate.