Ted Danson, On Life (And 'Death') After 'Cheers' The TV star has been captivating audiences for over 20 years — ever since he ran a little bar called Cheers on the famous TV sitcom of the same name. This fall, the actor stars as an aging hotshot in need of a little spice in the new HBO series Bored to Death.

Ted Danson, On Life (And 'Death') After 'Cheers'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Happy New Year.

This week, we've been listening back to some of our memorable interviews from 2009. Today, we feature our conversation with actor Ted Danson, recorded in September.

In case you haven't noticed, he's been doing some really interesting work on television lately, playing characters very different from the shallow and vain bartender Sam Malone on the sitcom "Cheers."

On the FX series "Damages," he's played a corrupt billionaire CEO. On Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen play versions of themselves, friends of Larry David. And Danson co-stars in the new series "Bored to Death," which just concluded its first season on HBO. It was created by writer Jonathan Ames. The series stars Jason Schwartzman as a writer named Jonathan Ames who's stuck.

He's not getting anywhere with his writing, and his girlfriend has just walked out on him, accusing him of drinking too much and smoking too much marijuana. So he tries to emulate the life of the hard-broiled detectives in his favorite novels. He puts an ad on Craigslist, offering his services as an unlicensed private detective, and he starts getting responses.

Ted Danson plays his boss, a powerful magazine editor named George Christopher. In this scene from the first episode, they're at a gallery opening when George asks Jonathan if he has any pot. He does, and so they go into the men's room. George is surprised to see that Jonathan is carrying his marijuana in a prescription pill bottle.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Bored to Death")

Mr. TED DANSON (Actor): (As George Christopher) This is my Viagra bottle. What are you doing with marijuana in my Viagra bottle?

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN (Actor): (As Jonathan Ames) You gave me that bottle months ago. There were two pills left in it. You told me I should try them. Now I'm putting my pot in it.

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Are you insane? What if you got arrested for marijuana possession? Page 6 would have a field day. I can't have -hello? Hello? I can't have the world knowing that I use Viagra.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Do you really need to take so much?

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Yes, as a matter of fact I do. My heart medicine and heavy drinking have taken a toll. I'm not what I once was, but I accept that. It's called humility.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Then why are you back on pot?

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Because I'm bored. God, I'm bored. Death by a thousand dull conversations. I don't know what's going on, but almost everybody has bad wine breath tonight. It's like Chernobyl out there.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Do you think we drink too much?

Mr. DANSON: (As George) No, no, we don't drink too much. Men face reality, women don't. That's why men need to drink.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) That's a line from my novel.

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Yeah, well, you stole it from me.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) No, I didn't.

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Yeah, actually, you did.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Actually, no, I didn't.

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Fine, Jonathan.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Anyway, Suzanne moved out today because she says I drink too much.

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Oh, I'm not surprised.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jonathan) Why do you say that?

Mr. DANSON: (As George) Because you're like me, Jonathan. We enthrall, and then we disappoint.


Ted Danson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DANSON: That's a great line. I love that. We enthrall, and then we disappoint.

GROSS: Yeah. So Jonathan Ames created this series, "Bored to Death." What did he tell you about who he based your character on?

Mr. DANSON: I don't know that he said that he based it on anyone specific. It was a very small character in the beginning, and then when I came on board, they decided to make it bigger.

For me, it's - I kind of drew on my father's day, if not directly my father, that old-world gentleman - you know, very bright, well-spoken, kind of old-world-style person who always wears a tie.

GROSS: It's funny that you say you wanted to base a character on your father's kind of old-school ways, old-world ways, but this is a character who, like, smokes marijuana and, you know, drinks too much, and I mean, that's - your father wouldn't have been doing that, I don't think?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: No, no, he wasn't, but you know, there's the one side of him that is - he's very bright, very intelligent. He's the editor and publisher of a, you know, well-respected magazine. He rubs shoulders with, you know, very intelligent, bright, literary people in New York. So he is - he can play that game.

And then there's part of him that hasn't quite grown up and has had too many marriages, too many parties, and what he - I think what he really wants in life is to not be left out by youth. Let me do whatever Jason Schwartzman's character is doing. Let me - please don't leave me out. Are you smoking marijuana? Then I want some. Are you having a colonic? Oh, I want a colonic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: You know, it's whatever Jason is doing, please don't leave me out. I want to still be excited by life. So take me with you.

GROSS: You're getting to play much more varied characters than you did when you were younger and famous, originally, because people got so used to you as Sam Malone, the bartender on "Cheers," who was the opposite of intellectual, and the power that he had was, like, the power in the bar, but now you're playing people who have, like, you know, real power, who are kind of successful and also often, like, self-delusional and sometimes with a little bit of an evil streak.

And it's been really fun for me as a viewer to discover that side of you as an actor.

Mr. DANSON: Fun for me, too. I have to admit, I think part of me thought I'd stayed at the half-hour-comedy dance a bit too long, and I think part of me was going, wow, I'm not as funny as these other people who are coming up, and I was kind of boring myself in a way. Then "Damages" came along and really kind of turned things around for me.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned "Damages," so this is a perfect opportunity to play a scene from it, and "Damages" is an FX series starring Glenn Close as a lawyer, and in this you play Arthur Frobisher, a billionaire CEO who cashed in his stocks, and then the company went under, leaving the employees without jobs or pensions.

So they hired a lawyer, the Glenn Close character, to file a class action suit against you. You really want to save your reputation. So one of the things you have done is get a writer to write a book about you, but the writer has his own idea, and you know, he wants to do some investigation, find out who you really are, what you've really done in your life, some of the bad things you've done in your life.

You see this book as an opportunity to just, like, burnish your reputation and talk about, like, your ladder to success and overcoming the odds. So you show up, very inappropriately, at midnight, unannounced, at the writer's house.

Mr. DANSON: And slightly drunk.

GROSS: Slightly drunk, with a whole box of, like, your trophies and your ribbons and memorabilia that's designed to show him what each of these things represent in your life and what you had to go through to achieve the success that each of these objects represent. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Damages")

Mr. DANSON: (As Arthur Frobisher) Now see, look. This stuff, all - this is my integrity. Here, look, look. Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Third prize, middle school spelling bee.

Mr. PETER RIEGERT (Actor): (As George Moore) Great.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) No, I'm dyslexic. Remember I told you that? So that's determination. Here, look, look. Yeah, all right, varsity. This is interesting. Varsity. That's the first time I realized that I was a natural leader.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Yeah, you know, all the stuff that you're giving me is great, but this book�

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) All right, look, look, look. Here, come here. This shirt, right? The shirt you're wearing, you own other shirts, right? So you know, if I come along and say, you know, define you as the guy who wears this shirt, I'd be wrong, right? Because you're not just one thing. See, that's what I'm trying to say. You're not just one thing. Hey, I told you, right, that I started off dirt poor?

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) You told me yesterday about that.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Well, why don't you write - hey, listen, 17. I came this close to joining the Army.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Look, look, Mr. Frobisher. I haven't seen Indira for two weeks. She's just been traveling, understand, and this is our night together. So we'll just cut it short.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) All right, let's back up here. Tell me about your book.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) My novel?

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Sorry, your novel.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) It's hard to describe.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Just tell me what it's about, will you?

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) On the face of it, it's a love story. It's about nostalgia and how that affects our core relationships.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Jesus, George, I mean, that sounds like crap. Are you kidding me? Look what you're doing here. I mean, you're living on - you're sleeping on a futon. Come on, you know, of course you're writing about my life. You don't have one, you know? And you're (bleep) immigrant because, what, you appreciate their culture?

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Excuse me?

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) The truth is, you're just trying to feel superior. Try running a $40 billion industry. See how that makes you feel.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Get out.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Yeah, try managing 11,000 employees.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Just leave.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) You want to know why they're suing me, you invisible piece of (bleep)? Because I'm worth it.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) I hope that you lose everything.

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Now, you be careful.

Mr. RIEGERT: (As Moore) Because you are an arrogant (bleep).

(Soundbite of scream)

Mr. DANSON: (As Frobisher) Hey, guess what? You're fired.

GROSS: And that punch was the sound of the Ted Danson character hitting the ghost writer really hard, maybe breaking his nose. That's such a great scene�

Mr. DANSON: With my little toy car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right. I love the way you play that scene. There's a lot of words that you only, like, half-say, and it's almost like - it was partly because you're drunk, but it's partly because like time is -you're so important, and you have so little time, you don't even have to say the whole word, you know�

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You've said that you worked with an acting coach before doing "Damages," and I guess I'm wondering why. You've acted for decades. Why did you feel the need to do that?

Mr. DANSON: I did work with an acting coach right beforehand. His name's Harold Guskin(ph), and he's worked with a lot of people. Glenn Close actually has worked with him, James Gandolfini, and the producers, Glenn and the writers, Glenn and Todd Kessler, knew him for years and actually pulled me aside about two days before we started shooting the pilot and said we'd love you to go see our acting coach, and it was like, uh-oh, you know, they hate my work. They want me to do some, you know, something that they don't think I'm capable of.

But it was fantastic because what he told me was - we just talked, you know, read the scene once and kind of talked about it, and what he said to me was actually kind of exciting for me just as an actor because I had been doing comedy, half-hour, for so long, which has this rhythm to it.

It's almost like doing a musical. There is a rhythm you need to adhere to. It was very nice to come and do this drama, and what he said to me was, you know, don't - you have four lines you're about to do. You have a paragraph in the script. Well, maybe you're going to say one line. Maybe you'll say two. Maybe you won't feel like saying the other lines, and maybe you won't.

You're Arthur Frobisher. You'll do what you want when you want, and if you don't feel like, you know, don't be the nice actor. Don't give them what you want. Do whatever you want. And he instilled this kind of creative arrogance in me that was the same arrogance of the character, the billionaire who doesn't really have to answer to anyone and can do whatever he wants because people love him because he's a billionaire.

BIANCULLI: Ted Danson, speaking to Terry Gross last September. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview, recorded in September, with actor Ted Danson, whose TV career was launched with the hit sitcom "Cheers."

GROSS: On HBO, on the Larry David series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," you've played yourself, Ted Danson. And your wife, Mary Steenburgen, plays your wife and plays herself. So when you started on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," how did you figure out who the "Curb" version of Ted Danson was going to be?

Mr. DANSON: You know, it's probably the same way that I figure out all parts. I'm very bad at doing homework. I have to - I can't look at a suit on a rack and go ooh, I'd like that suit. I have to try it on. So I try on words. I read the board. If it's a well-thought-out, very creative writer, you know, that you respect, then you try on the words, and you go, you know, when I say these words, it makes me feel this way, or I feel like doing this.

I think it's the same thing, even though you're playing yourself, you go, all right, what is my function here? My function is to be a foil for Larry David. My function is to set up road blocks or do something that heighten what he's really funny - you know, funny at. So it becomes -you shape yourself. Even though you're name's Ted Danson, and you're married to Mary Steenburgen, but the truth is you are trying to do what's best in each scene to highlight Larry, which is why I hate Larry. I don't really like him. I'm tired of highlighting Larry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Are you�?

Mr. DANSON: I'm glad you laughed because he's one of our best friends, and we, you know, see him all the time socially, and he's lived in our guest house for two summers in a row. Mary calls him Larry the Lodger. He just won't leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So is this why you're in the series, because you're already friends?

Mr. DANSON: Yeah, probably.

GROSS: So are there scenes in episodes of "Curb" that actually came out of your life or came out of your real relationship with Larry David?

Mr. DANSON: Not necessarily, although when you go out to dinner with him, it's way scarier than acting with him because he's always pulling out his notebook; or you don't know whether or not he's doing a scene in a restaurant and being a little louder than he should be because he's practicing something for next week or whether this is truly Larry. It's a very scary kind of proposition, hanging out with Larry David.

GROSS: I can imagine it would be a little embarrassing when he's talking too loud or doing something inappropriate, and you don't know whether he's testing a performance or just being weird.

Mr. DANSON: Oh yeah, we've sat in a restaurant, a very sweet, quiet inn, you know, New England inn with a lot of people with kind of blue-gray hair. And he came in late, and his back was to the entire restaurant, but we were looking at the entire restaurant over his shoulder, and he was whispering this story in a kind of stage whisper that had the F-word in it a lot. And he basically cleared the restaurant. And then as he's walking out, he went: Nice restaurant. A little too quiet for a Jew, but it's a nice restaurant - and he walked out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: And it was like - you kind of had to walk in his wake, going sorry, sorry, sorry, you know, it's Larry, sorry.

GROSS: That sounds so much like it should be on "Curb" and maybe will be.

Mr. DANSON: It is, yeah, and will be, right.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and this is an episode in which you and your wife, Mary Steenburgen, have invited Larry David and his wife to a party, and he doesn't like parties. He doesn't want to go, so�

Mr. DANSON: This is real.

GROSS: This is real? Oh great, great, great.

Mr. DANSON: This is totally real. This summer, he would not go to people's homes for dinner. I'll go to a restaurant because then I can leave when I want, but at a home, I'm stuck. I don't want to come. And he made this a rule of thumb. Anyway, please go on.

GROSS: Okay, okay, so in this scene, he doesn't want to go to your party. So he comes up with his scheme. He'll pretend he thought your party was really the next day. So the day after the party, he shows up at your door, and you know, saying okay, we're here for the party. And he expects that you'll say oh, it was last night, and then he can just go home, but that's not what happens. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of television program, "Curb Your Enthusiasm")

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Hey.

Ms. CHERYL HINES: (As Cheryl David) Hey.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) What you guys doing?

Mr. LARRY DAVID: (As himself) What's going on?

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) What do you mean?

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Where's everybody?

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) We thought there was a party.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Oh my God, you thought the party was tonight?

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) Yeah.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Last night. The party was last night.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Are you kidding me?

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) No, man. I can't believe it.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) It's unbelievable. What? We got the wrong night?

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Yeah, you did. I'm actually glad to hear this. I was a little pissed off that you didn't call.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Well, now you know why we didn't call.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Mary.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Of course we didn't call because we're coming tonight.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Come on in.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Oh no, no, no, we're not going to come in.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No, we got the wrong night. It's our fault.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) It doesn't matter.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) Hey, Mary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARY STEENBURGEN: (As herself) You're kidding.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) Can you believe how stupid we are?

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) All right. It's good to see you guys. We'll call you later.

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As herself) No way you're leaving. This is fantastic. We have so much leftover food. You're going to come in and help us eat it.

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) No, you know what? I'll call you tomorrow. We'll get together. We'll do�

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As herself) Why?

Mr. DAVID: (As himself) I'll take you out to dinner. I'm paying, I'm paying.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Hey, Larry, you don't have any plans. You're supposed to be here, you're here. Come on in. Come on, Cheryl. It'll be fun.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) This'll be fun. Hey, we've got leftovers. I'll make you an omelet or something.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) You guys, we can't, we can't.

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As herself) It'll be great. Come on.

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) This is like pulling teeth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (As himself) Come on in, you guys.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with my guest Ted Danson. So let's look at the scene that we just heard. Did you get a script for that scene? Did Larry David tell you what it was about and then ask you to just improv your lines? How did it work?

Mr. DANSON: Yeah, that's something everybody should know about Larry David. He's the laziest writer on the planet. You know, if he ever wins a writing award, I'll picket - I'm semi-joking. He - what he does is he works for months on setting up the season, the arc of the season. Then each show is broken down into scenes, and this is pretty typical of a writing room for comedies.

You break everything down, beat by beat, so that the last thing you do is you send a writer off to write the actual dialogue. He takes it right up to the dialogue part. So it's very intricate. It's been worked out. You know what he needs, but the words that come out of your mouth have not been written.

GROSS: Now, you got your start on the TV series "Cheers," which is one of the more famous TV series in TV history. How did you get the audition for that?

Mr. DANSON: You know, I think several things that I heard later, you know, came out later. Jimmy Burrows, who along with Glen and Les Charles created "Cheers." He was the director, they were the two writers, and they had been teamed up for a few years.

And I had auditioned for Jimmy Burrows maybe a year or two beforehand, for a show that I did not get, and he remembered me. And then when we actually auditioned for it in front of the network and everything, they had three actors and three actresses to play Sam and Diane and they had a little stage set up, and it was this little act-off, you know, where each couple would come out and do a scene and then leave, then the other couple would come out, and that - I think I got the part because Shelley and I were good together. Shelley was remarkable, and I think I got the part because Shelley was so good, and I worked well with Shelley, to be honest. I think that's how that happened.

BIANCULLI: Ted Danson, speaking to Terry Gross in September. More about the TV show "Cheers" and our interview with Ted Danson in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

We're back with Ted Danson. He co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death." He plays himself on Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And on the FX series "Damages," he played a corrupt billionaire CEO.

Terry Gross spoke with him in September. When we left off, they were talking about Danson's work on the TV series "Cheers" in which he played the shallow and vain bartender, Sam Malone.

GROSS: Did you feel like you knew this character?

Mr. DANSON: No. Lord no. I didn't. I had no idea how unintelligent he was. At first I thought he was making these - because Sam would come out with these things that were funny, and I thought, well, maybe he's being ironic. You know, maybe he's smart enough to know that he's saying stupid things in the beginning. I think it took me about a year and a half before, maybe a season and a half before I had an inkling on how to play Sam Malone, because he was a relief pitcher, which comes with a certain amount of arrogance.

You know, you only get called in when you're in trouble and you're there to save the day, and that takes a special kind of arrogance, I think. And Sam Malone had that arrogance. And I, Ted Danson, did not. I was nervous, scared, excited about, you know, grateful about my new job.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a scene from season one and we'll hear the kind of arrogance that you're talking about that your character...

Mr. DANSON: Or lack of.

GROSS: Or lack of, that your character Sam Malone had. So here's a scene with you and Shelley Long.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Cheers")

Ms. SHELLEY LONG (Actress): (as Diane Chambers) Why are you so upset?

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) You know, this week I have gone out with all the women I know. I mean all the women I really enjoy. And all of a sudden, all I can think about is how stupid they are. I mean my life isn't fun anymore, and it's because of you.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) Because of me?

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Yeah. You're a snob.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) A snob?

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Yeah. That's right.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) Well, you're a rapidly aging adolescent.

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Well, I would rather be that than a snob.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) And I would rather be a snob.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Well, good, because you are.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) Sam, do yourself a favor, go back to your tootsies and your ramparts. I'd hate to see the bowling alleys close on my account.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Hey, hey, wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you saying that I'm too dumb to date smart women?

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) I'm saying that it would be very difficult for you. A really intelligent woman would see your line of BS a mile a way.

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) You think so, huh?

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Mr. DANSON: (as Sam Malone) Yeah. Well, you know, I've never met an intelligent woman that I'd want to date.

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) On behalf of the intelligent women around the world...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LONG: (as Diane Chambers) ...may I just say, whew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Ted Danson and Shelley Long. So Ted Danson, you said before you felt like you could pull off the arrogance of your character?

Mr. DANSON: Yeah. Actually, it was. I can actually hear it my voice, you know? I really, you know, I want to sing Shelley Long's praises. I think the first couple of years, "Cheers" became the hit that it was because I, I mean everyone was good in it and everyone went on to become brilliant in it. But I think Shelley and that character hadn't been seen for a while on TV, and I think she just did an absolute brilliant, brilliant job.

GROSS: You know, I remember when I, in one of my interviews with the late actor Spalding Gray, he said he always had trouble acting on TV because he's so interior and always so caught up in his thoughts, so whenever he was on TV he said he'd look like really worried and preoccupied and that you needed the certain kind of like Zen TV face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I'm wondering, you know, I mean you went to Stanford, you went to prep school, you're obviously like very well educated. Was it hard to get that kind of blankness or that lack of introspection that Sam had?

Mr. DANSON: I just, once again, I think it was, Kelsey Grammer had this great phrase. It probably has been said before, but I heard it from him, that you need, an actor needs a requisite disrespect for the material. Instead of holding it up as the Holy Grail, you know, you need to have a kind of requisite disrespect for it, because then you're not eager, too eager. You're not too leaning forward.

And when I first started "Cheers," I think I was very eager, and if this makes any sense, I was tilting too far forward, and it took me that year and a half, that season and a half, to get that more relaxed, leaning back, slightly arrogant, you know, let people vote, who cares, here I am, I'm going to have fun.

GROSS: Was it hard to create a new life after "Cheers?"

Mr. DANSON: Well, I had this great solution. I blew my private life up in such a, you know, a disastrous way that leaving "Cheers" became secondary to kind of putting my private life back together. So to answer your question, not really. Not really. I mean it was hard because I missed my friends. But after 11 years - I think we all had been looking for an ending.

GROSS: And let me just say, I think what you were alluding to before when you said that after "Cheers" your life became public in a big way, I think you were referring to the relationship with Whoopi Goldberg and the whole Friars Club thing, where there was a roast of Whoopi Goldberg and you worked out a sketch with her in which you appeared in blackface and, like, boy, there were just like movie stars and politicians and columnists who just were so upset and publicly spoke out against you for having done that. It must've been a horrible...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...a horrible moment.

Mr. DANSON: It was. But I mean it was of my making so, you know, it was all on my head. It was definitely a graceless moment in my life. But I kept thinking, well, I have to go roast Whoopi Goldberg. We were no longer actually going together at that moment and we had tried to back out of, you know, of doing this, and they said no, no, no, you have to contractually, you have to. And I thought, well, how am I going to roast Whoopi when all the tapes and videos I see of people - a Jewish person will be saying horrible things about the Jewish person they're roasting. But it's okay because the Jewish person being roasted is being roasted by Jewish people?

Or, you know, the African-American is being roasted by an African-American. So how's, you know, the white kid going to be roasting and doing a, you know, an outrageous job for this amazingly outrageous woman? So I thought, I know, I'm not a standup comic but I'll do, I am an actor, so I'll do a little performance theater. So that was my rationale and it was clearly a non-press event, we were told, and within seconds I realized, ooh, wow. It was like sticking my finger in a light socket. It was like - it went very still in my head and I went, okay, 50 percent of the people get this and think it's funny. By the way, Whoopi knew about it and had kind of signed off on it and thought it was funny, so I thought, okay, I'm going to go for it.

Fifty percent got it, liked it. Thirty percent got it, hated it. Twenty percent didn't get it and hated it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: So it was this very, you know, graceless and courageous moment of, okay, here I go, and it did offend some people, and sometimes I'd have to rightfully so, other times, it was theater and it was done with love.

GROSS: Do you feel like you walked away learning anything either about comedy or about race in America from that experience?

Mr. DANSON: Well, yeah, the stupidity on my part. The lack of thought, to stand up and go, I'm now going to do race material and think that it would not draw a lot of heat was stupid on my part. So what did I learn? You know, I learned that I was at a very adolescent point in my life where I thought, you know what, I can do whatever I want. It's okay, you know. I did naively think, because I was told that there would be no press, so I thought, okay, this is a room full of people who get this kind of humor, I'll be all right, and that was stupid on my part. Everything is open to the press now.

GROSS: You know what I found really interesting about what you just said? You were saying that, you know, that you think you were arrogant then, and you were telling us before that you didn't' know how to be arrogant. Like you were, you didn't have that arrogance and you had to learn it to play Sam on "Cheers" and you were telling us about the kind of arrogance that you needed to have for the part that you play on "Damages," is this like billionaire CEO who's like very arrogant.

And it's interesting. You're talking about this moment in your life where you were arrogant for real, you think, and you got really burned.

Mr. DANSON: Yeah. You know, actually what followed, a week later I had a replay, because evidently I hadn't learned my lesson, where I was driving in a car up a hill and it was rainy and I was late and I was driving a little faster than I should and I could feel my tires start to skid a little bit and I almost had this literal thought, maybe not quite, but it was like, Ted, you better slow down, the roads are wet. And I went, no, I'm all right. I can handle this. And I spun out and got hit by a pickup coming the other way and slammed into the side of a cliff. Luckily didn't go off the other end, you know, the other side, which was a cliff. And I was taken out of my car on a board and it was all very dramatic, and I was fine. The next day I had a stiff neck and that was it. But it was - and that was like the moment where I went, whoo. Wake up.

GROSS: So what did you do after that like wake up moment? What did you change?

Mr. DANSON: Then it was kind of personal, so I won't go into that.

GROSS: No, it's fine.

GROSS: But it was ending things that I should've ended. It was, yeah, I really did actually take care of business. And about a month later I met Mary, and I don't think that I would've even seen her or she would've even seen me if I hadn't, you know, woken up.

GROSS: Well, Ted Danson, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. DANSON: Thank you.


Ted Danson speaking to Terry Gross in September. His HBO series "Bored to Death" just ended its first season.

We'll continue our series of memorable moments from 2009 with an excerpt from our concert by singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist Dave Frishberg. It was in honor of the centennial of the birth of songwriter Johnny Mercer.

This is FRESH AIR.

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