ILLUSTRATION BY LUKE WALLER
Ted Danson has always been charming. Anyone who watched the first scenes ofu00a0Cheers, way back in 1982, could tell that. But it wasnu2019t yet apparent that the actor who played u201cmagnificent pagan beastu201d Sam u201cMaydayu201d Malone would go on to become one of pop cultureu2019s elder statesmen, his snow-white shock of hair and his sweetly romantic, later-in-life marriage to Mary Steenburgen lending him a buoyant gravitas.
Of course, itu2019s not just his private life that makes Danson an icon. Itu2019s also his voracious appetite for new projects. Many stars with a role as memorable as his womanizing retired ballplayer inu00a0Cheersu00a0never hit the strike zone again. But sinceu00a0Cheersu00a0went off the air in 1993, Danson has embodied not one, not two, but a half dozen iconic TV characters: the mercurial eponymous physician in CBSu2019su00a0Becker; evil billionaire Arthur Frobisher inu00a0Damages; dissolute magazine editor George Christopher in HBOu2019su00a0Bored to Death; crime scene investigator D.B. Russell in two installments of theu00a0CSIu00a0franchise; sheriff Hank Larsson in the cult hitu00a0Fargo; and, perhaps most memorably, a loosely fictionalized version of himself inu00a0Curb Your Enthusiasm. u00a0
This month, the two-time Emmy winner returns to NBC, the network that launched his career, in the surreal heaven-set sitcomu00a0The Good Place, by Mike Schur, a writer-producer onu00a0The Officeu00a0and co-creator ofu00a0Parks and Recreationu00a0andu00a0Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Danson stars as afterlife architect Michael, a bow tieu2013wearing latter-day Clarence u201cAngel, Second Classu201d Odbody, who must guide the newly arrivedu2014and newly deceasedu2014Eleanor (Kristen Bell). The catch? She may have ended up in the u201cgoodu201d place by accident. u00a0u00a0
In conversation, Danson is generous, curious, and intellectually engagedu2014especially when it comes to saving the worldu2019s oceans, a longtime passion project for the actor-activist. Here, the sitcom legend talks about his new project, how cable forced network TV to get better (and weirder), and how a son of a scientist who grew up in a dry desert state became enamored of the worldu2019s watery places.
I was able to watch the first episode ofu00a0The Good Placeu00a0the other day, and it seemed so awesomely strange for network television. Were you familiar with showrunner Mike Schur before you were cast?
Well, indirectly, because I really lovedu00a0Parks and Rec, andu00a0The Officeu00a0was spectacular. He has this amazing pedigree. The first time I met him was in my manageru2019s office. He had been talking with Kristen Bell about this idea, and it sounded just so smart and so bright. Itu2019s almostu00a0Alice in Wonderlandu2013like in its wonderful, delightful insanity.
I really liked the peacock bow tie you wear in the first episode.
As an actor, you have the words. Then you try to figure out the character. And thatu2019s a wonderfully collaborative art. Wardrobe, costume design, will come up with something that is just brilliant and unlocks this little box of imagination inside of yourself. Our costume designer came up with this bow tie and it was like, u201cOh, thank you. Now I know who Michael is.u201d
It seems as ifu00a0The Good Place, for Kristen Bellu2019s character at least, is kind of a fish-out-of-water story. And your character is also adjusting to a new situation. Are you an angel? Can old angels learn new tricks?
Michael is the architect of this particular neighborhood in heaven. Literally every blade of grass has been designed by him. It has been set up and designed for 322 people exactly. Things go awry on the very first day of this new batch of souls coming into the afterlife. Itu2019s about everyone kind of coping with that.
Itu2019s such a weird premise, and it goes to show the kind of crazy things you can do on TV these days. TV used to get a bad rap. Now I think you could argue that TV is better than movies. Why do you think that is?
I think cable changed everything. You could create shows for a very specific niche. And binge-watching: People are now enjoying sitting down and watching whatever they want to watch, at their own pace. All of a sudden, you have shows that are 10 episodes long, 10 hours for a writer and a director to tell a story, which is more than you get even for features. So you start to attract writers who want to experiment in this area. And if you get really great writers, then you getu00a0really wonderful actors and directors, and you stand a better chance of making something authentic and interesting for the audience. I think networks are beginning to catch on to that. My wife, Mary Steenburgen, is on a show on Fox calledu00a0The Last Man on Earth, and theyu2019ve broken the mold for network TV comedies.
More and more shows,u00a0The Good Placeu00a0being one of them, are moving to these shorter, 13- to 16-episode runs per season. Do you think thatu2019s kind of a sweet spot?
It works for us actors, because then you can go off and do other stuff as well. Mike has expressed the thought that youu2019re able to create an arc with 16 episodes that doesnu2019t repeat itself, thatu2019s original, and each show builds on the other ones. But if you have to do 22 episodes, four or five or six are just kind of vamping.
Schur wantsu00a0The Good Placeu00a0to confront big issues of morality, goodness, and evil. Do you think sitcoms are set up to deal with these big things that touch peopleu2019s lives?
I do. I think your first mandate is to be funnyu2014itu00a0isu00a0a comedy. But look atu00a0All in the Family; it certainly did that. Weu2019re really about what it means to be a good person or a bad person, to do good things or bad things, and that they have consequences, and that there are ripples that go out from everybodyu2019s actions. Everything counts.
That reminds me of the way people felt connected to the characters inu00a0Cheersu00a0and the events in their lives. Someone said that when Sam Malone came in drunk at the start of season three, then you had a saga. Despite that, does being remembered for your role onu00a0Cheersu00a0ever get old?
No, dear lord. I got to work with some of the greats: Les and Glen Charles, Jimmy Burrows, and all the other writers they attracted who came out of that Mary Tyler Moore tradition of writing. And then I got to work with these astounding actors. It was just flat-out fun for 11 years. But also, the fact that you and I are talking comes fromu00a0Cheers. Everything, really, comes fromu00a0Cheers. So I am forever grateful, and I get it.
Do you have actor friends who also played iconic characters?
Sure. Henry Winkler was about as iconic a characteru2014the Fonzu2014as you can imagine. Iu2019m very close friends with John Krasinski [who played Jim Halpert inu00a0The Office]. What he created was astounding.
Do actors feel good about that? Or is it a heavy mantle to wear?
Itu2019s a wonderful problem to have. I think itu2019s your job as an actor to take risks and do other things. Some people may not like that; some people want to hold you as they remembered you. Iu2019ve bumped into that periodically. But if you look for really great writing, really original thinkers, and ask very nicely if you can be part of that, no matter how big the part is, you will end up branching away from an iconic character. Follow the writing and you stand a chance of doing something new and different and authentic.
Youu2019ve done some writing yourself, including a book about ocean conservation,u00a0Oceana, with journalist Michael Du2019Orso. How did you find the writing process?
Horrifying! I was working with a really wonderful writer, and most of the information and science came from Oceana [the worldu2019s largest ocean conservation and advocacy group], so my contribution was more about, u201cThis is who Iu2019ve been spending time with, this is what theyu2019re saying about this issue.u201d It turned out really, really well, and Iu2019m glad I did it, butu2026
Youu2019re not going to become a novelist anytime soon.
[Laughs.] No. The writing and reading world can rest assured. Iu2019m not coming your way.
You grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. How did you first get interested in the oceans and sea life?
Well, my father was an archaeologist, an anthropologist. So I was surrounded by scientists growing up. None of it sunk in, but there was this sense of stewardship. So I think I had that in the back of my head. Then we would go visit my cousins, all jumping in a couple cars and driving to La Jolla, Laguna, Del Mar, that area of Southern California. Weu2019d rent a little cottage for a month in the summer. That, to me, coming from the desert, was like a pilgrimage. I just loved everything about the ocean. Flash-forward to 1987, maybe the fifth or sixth year ofu00a0Cheers: I moved into a neighborhood in Santa Monica and met an environmental lawyer named Robert Sulnick who was fighting Occidental Petroleum to try to keep them from drilling oil wells on Will Rogers State Beach, Santa Monica Bay. I joined, and we won, and we enjoyed each otheru2019s company. And, really naively, we started an environmental group called the American Oceans Campaign that grew into a really well-respected organization. The more I hung around these brilliant scientists and lawyers, the more I learned, and it became this conversation that I love to this day. Itu2019s this huge potential environmental disaster that we can actually turn around. And we are. Itu2019s become this kind of hopeful story: If we save our oceans and restore our fisheries to a healthy place, we could literally feed one billion people a day,u00a0sustainably, forever.
People like to talk about the Green Revolution, arable land, and improvements in farming, but Iu2019ve never thought about applying those same principles to the oceansu2014which obviously make up a vastly higher percentage of the planet.
Absolutely. Matter of fact, part of the argument is that if you care about land, animals, and forests, then you must take care of the oceans. Because if you get your fisheries to be sustainably harvested, which is doable, then it really is the perfect protein. It takes such a huge amount of stress off of the land if we manage our oceans correctly.
I know we donu2019t have much time left, but I just wanted to mention that Iu2019m from Arkansas. I grew up in Little Rock, not far from your wifeu2019s hometown of Newport.
Oh, thatu2019s fantastic! Really? Are you kidding me? Been there recently?
My parents live there, and my brother and his kids, so I go back fairly regularly.
Well, tell them please go tou00a0the restaurant South on Main, in Little Rock.
Iu2019ve been there. Itu2019s excellent.
Oh, thatu2019s fantastic. Maryu2019s niece and her husband run itu2014heu2019s a chef, Matt Bell. She runs it and keeps it afloat, and we are partners with them in that. Itu2019s a great music venue, too. A bunch of musicians come through. Iu2019m so glad youu2019ve been there.
How do you feel about being an honorary Arkansan?
I feel so welcomed by that state. Seriously, if Iu2019m walking through an airport and anyone says u201cLittle Rock,u201d u201cNorth Little Rock,u201d or u201cMary Nellu201du2014which is what people who knew my wife in Little Rock call heru2014if I hear any combination of that, weu2019ve been known to miss airplanes talking to people.
Speaking of your wife, one of the jokes onu00a0Curb Your Enthusiasmu00a0is that Mary gets along really well with Larry David, who doesnu2019t get along with anybody. Is she as easy to get along with in real life?
She is very approachable, yes indeed. Most people will take a second look at me and go, u201cWell, I guess heu2019s not that big of an idiot, if sheu2019s with him.u201d
Brooklyn-based writer and editoru00a0Hunter R. Slatonu00a0aspires to play a loosely fictionalized version of himself onu00a0Curb Your Enthusiasmu00a0someday.