“I’m so happy to be part of it,” TV icon Ted Danson says of The Good Place, the NBC series for which the 70-year-old recently won the best actor in a comedy series Critics’ Choice Award and received his 16th Emmy nomination, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. Danson’s latest Emmy nom is a record-breaking 12th that the actor has received in the best actor in a comedy series category; he received his previous noms on the heels of each of the 11 seasons that Cheers ran on the Peacock Network. Throughout The Good Place‘s first season, Danson’s character Michael appeared to be a godlike architect of the place where dead people go if they have been “good”; in the season finale, however, his real identity was revealed, setting up a delicious second season in which the actor could — and did — show a whole new side of Michael. Danson continues, “It is a show about decency, it’s a show about ethics,” adding, “It’s a perfect thing for right now. We’re all a little bit adrift on what it means to be ‘good.'”
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Danson was born in 1947 in San Diego, and was raised between Boulder, Colorado, and Flagstaff, Arizona. He was enticed into acting by an attractive female classmate at Stanford University, and ultimately transferred to Carnegie Mellon University, which was better known for its acting offerings, graduating with a BFA in 1972. “I was just smitten by acting,” he says, and he then immediately headed to New York. There he found work as an understudy at an off Broadway show, in commercials and on two soap operas, Somerset and The Doctors. “What excited me most was something with a camera,” he recalls, so he ultimately moved to Los Angeles, where he appeared in several films (including 1979’s The Onion Fields and 1981’s Body Heat) and in guest parts on several TV series.
Danson’s audition for an episode of ABC’s Best of the West, which James Burrows directed, and then his appearance on ABC’s Taxi, which Burrows co-created with fellow MTM Productions vets Glen Charles and Les Charles, led to an invitation for Danson to audition for an NBC pilot called Cheers — specifically, to play cocksure ladies’ man Sam Malone, a former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox whose career was derailed by alcoholism and who runs a Boston-area bar. Despite the fact that Danson himself had rarely gone to bars, never played baseball and was decidedly not a ladies’ man, he edged out two other actors and was cast opposite Shelley Long, who would play Sam’s principal love interest, Diane.
When Cheers hit the air, it was anything but an instant smash — in fact, in November 1982, it finished 68th of 68 shows in the ratings — but critics’ support kept it on the air, and three seasons into its run its Thursday night lead-in became The Cosby Show, which sent its viewership soaring. (It ultimately became the only show other than Lou Grant ever to have finished both last and first in the ratings.) Long left after its fifth season, but Kirstie Alley arrived for the sixth, and Danson remained — and was Emmy-nominated — for all 11, winning for the ninth and 11th seasons. Danson’s and the show’s popularity can be measured in other ways, too. No comedy in NBC’s history has ever run for as long; its last eight seasons finished in the top 10; and its season finale, on May 20, 1993, was and remains the second most-watched series finale in TV history, after only that of M*A*S*H. “I guess it hit something in America,” Danson theorizes, “wanting to belong, wanting to be part of, wanting to go some place. Maybe we were losing our feeling of being able to be small-town special, and we were all getting a little lost in the shuffle, so we all did want a place to go where [quoting the theme song] ‘everyone knew our name.'” He pauses and adds, “That was probably deeper than I really believe. I just think it was funny. Let’s go with funny!”
During Cheers‘ run, Danson participated in other projects — he won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of a father who commits incest in the TV film Something About Amelia (1984), and he also starred in the blockbuster Three Men and a Baby (1987). After the show’s run, Danson took some time before diving back into work. “My private life was in such a turmoil, and publicly it was a messy, messy time,” he explains, referencing an extramarital affair he had with Whoopi Goldberg and a Friars Club roast of her gone very wrong (“I was stupid and arrogant,” he says of what led to a blackface performance at the event). “I wanted to stop being a liar, I wanted to be creative 90 percent of my time and I wanted to grow up.” His personal life turned around when he met the Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, who has been his wife since 1995.
In the years since, Danson’s career has been something of a rollercoaster. He and Steenburgen co-starred on Ink, a CBS sitcom that was very short-lived, lasting only from 1996 into 1997. He played a small part in Steven Spielberg‘s Oscar-nominated film Saving Private Ryan (1998). And then, in 1998, he embarked on a six-year stint as the titular character on the CBS comedy series Becker, which was respected but not loved. “Cheers and Becker were great,” Danson has said, “but I hung on to that style longer than I should have. I felt like I’d stayed at the party too long.” Then, starting in 2000, his love of acting and his career itself were unexpectedly rejuvenated by an invitation to play a version of himself on pal Larry David‘s HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, which continues to this day. “I started to have a laugh again about going to work,” he says, while noting that the show takes liberties with the truth, such as depicting him and Steenburgen as having gotten divorced: “We had friends call us and say, ‘Are you guys all right? Tell us it’s not true!'”
Danson’s renewed passion for his profession was only further enhanced by the opportunity to play an out-and-out villain for the first time — what he calls “the indulgent, ‘fuck you’ kind of acting” — on the FX drama series Damages, which he was part of from 2007 through 2010. It also got a boost from playing a character obsessed with hanging out and keeping up with younger people — as Danson says he is — on the HBO comedy series Bored to Death, which ran from 2009-2011. At one point, he was doing Curb, Damages and Bored simultaneously.
Then came The Good Place, which co-stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) and was created by Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the American version of The Office). The first and second seasons presented very different challenges for Danson. The first “was really hard,” he says. “I mean, there were times when I would watch — literally — and go, ‘This is either the worst acting job that I have ever done in my life, or I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’ Because usually you learn about people in their private moments. I had no private moments or you would have seen me shining up my horns or something. So I would just pop in in this kind of Willy Wonka hyper way and then pop out again. He adds, “There was no wink or nod to the audience at all, so it was very hard to find the funny.” The second season, for which he is now Emmy-nominated, couldn’t have been more different. “The second year was carte-blanche because everybody knew what was going on,” he says with a chuckle. “It was like looking behind the curtain.” Danson wrapped on the show’s third season the night before our podcast and won’t start production on a new season of Curb until October, so he’s enjoying a little down time and feeling reflective. As he puts it, “It’s not that I don’t want to keep acting — I do. And it’s not that I’m not ambitious — I am. But I’m very content and very blessed, so I’ll keep showing up and trying to be better at what I do and who I am.”