The Man

by Joan Tarshis
photos by Jeff Katz

It’s effortless being jealous of Ted Danson.

Not because he’s starring in his second enormously popular sitcom as the lead character in “Becker.” Or because his inspired portrayal of Lemuel Gulliver, in the 1996 NBC-TV production of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” earned the network its highest ratings for a mini-series in nine years. Or because Gulliver’s episodic odyssey also showed his dramatic prowess to those who had previously only known him as “Cheers’” flirtatious Sam Malone. The successes of his career has nothing to do with it. The envy is because of his storybook love for his wife, acclaimed actress Mary Steenburgen.

Come to think of it, the rate of his success is admirable also. Six months after he arrived in Los Angeles, he won the role of Officer Ian Campbell in the 1979 feature, The Onion Field. Two years later he co-starred in Body Heat, opposite Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. Then, in 1981, lightning struck - he landed the role in “Cheers” that transformed his life. As Sam Malone, the charming, womanizing, former baseball star bar owner, he was nominated nine times for the Best Actor in a Comedy Emmy Award and won two years in a row, in 1989 and 1990. He won the Golden Globes the same years.

Though his portrayal of Sam Malone might have left his career permanently trapped behind a bar, his post-“Cheers” achievements are quite varied indeed. During and after his pint-pulling days, Danson supplemented his career with film roles, including Three Men and a Baby, opposite Tom Selleck; Cousins, his first serious, romantic role opposite Isabella Rossellini; as Jack Lemmon’s son in Dad; and Made in America with Whoopi Goldberg. His most recent film roles have included standout performances in Saving Private Ryan, Mumford, and Jerry and Tom. Danson also starred with Brian Dennehy in the critically celebrated Showtime film Thanks of a Grateful Nation, about the Gulf War syndrome. Though the humble actor has expressed mixed feelings about is success, in 1999, he was presented with a coveted show biz honor: his own star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Living most of the year in Hollywood, where everybody knows your name - but not necessarily in a good way - must make it deviously delicious for Danson to play Dr. Becker - a man who says what he feels, not acrimoniously, but because his self-censor chip is broken. He’s the Louie DePalma of medicine, a bull whose entire world is an emotional china shop, but also a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, albeit transplanted. Danson can’t remember the worst things Becker has said to people, but he can remember his own verbal blunders.

“I am the king of the faux pas. I call everybody by their wrong name, and I congratulate women who are not pregnant. I’ve done so many awful things by mistake, and usually it’s things that make me look totally foolish.”

Danson has avoided stepping into the slush of self-centeredness that seems to come with enjoying the slightest sense of power and privilege - be it in Tinseltown or Toledo. Unfortunately, it’s the rare egg who shares his toys in the adult sandboxes, and it’s said by Hollywood sources that Danson always “works and plays well with others.”

“You know what that means?” asks the actor, rhetorically. “I am a major dick-head. Seriously, I think it’s probably because my ego is so huge that it terrifies me and I try to duck it all the time. Early on, I realized that all the attention that is focused on a celebrity is exactly like a bunch of adults in a room focusing on a 5-year-old.”

He continues, “I looked immediately to some way to deflect it so it wasn’t about me. And the truth is, it isn’t about me. Or us. I deflected it by doing things like the American Oceans Campaign (which he worked for to help protect the waters of the planet). People need to put that energy into doing something else that is not about you. I mean, Lord, I am the opposite of ego-less. I’m as full of ca-ca as any person in Hollywood and I step in all of the traps constantly.”

“I did have a mother who was pretty relentless in trying to make you see that life is not about you - a fairly spiritual lady. She taught me that the intention to have people feeling good about themselves when you left them is very important. When I was in high school, basketball was my life. When I was in prep school, I would call home and say. ‘We won. We won.’ My mom would say, ‘Oh how wonderful. The coach must be so happy, and everyone on the team...’ My father would ask, ‘How much did you score?’ So, it was my mother who was always bending over backwards and leading me in the right direction.”

The other important female in Ted’s life, (other than his two daughters from his first marriage, and another from Mary’s marriage to Malcolm McDowell) is, of course, his wife. When he recalls meeting her for the first time, his voice becomes dreamy.

“We were at a table, and - it wasn’t a line, I hadn’t thought about it beforehand - I sat down, looked at her, and the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘I can’t believe I have an excuse to just look at you and that we are about to make a movie together.’ She absolutely glows. It looks like there’s a thousand-watt bulb in her head some place.”

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