Ted Danson strolled along Santa Monica Beach, a bit overdressed among the sneaker-and-sandal crowd in his crisp button-down and dark blazer draped elegantly over one shoulder. As he studied the horizon, an incognito Dave Chappelle caught his eye and Danson deftly sidestepped a clutch of oncoming tourists to present himself before the comedian.
"How are you?" he asked, offering his hand and tilting that closely cropped snow-white head of his. "You are like a hero in my family."
Chappelle, dressed for a jog, looked braced for Ashton Kutcher and the "Punk'd" crew. It's not every day that "Cheers" bartender Sam Malone steps into your path with an "atta-boy."
For Danson, the encounter meant something else entirely. "Wow," he said, dryly, as they parted ways. "That was cool." He sensed an opportunity to self-deprecate. "That was my claim to hip right there," he added. "That's my only claim to hip."
Actually, Danson is hipper now than he's been in years. He's the chief scene-stealer on HBO's new Jonathan Ames-created comedy "Bored to Death," starring opposite Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis as a desperately hedonistic magazine editor based loosely on the late George Plimpton and writer Christopher Hitchens. The show landed a second season after just three episodes. He'll appear again as himself with wife Mary Steenburgen in two episodes of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And early next year, Danson returns for his third outing as the delightfully despicable billionaire Arthur Frobisher, Glenn Close's nemesis on FX's drama "Damages."
A few years ago, not many people would have guessed that Danson would be so positioned at this stage of his career. Sure, he's a TV stalwart, a bit of pop culture lore with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But that sitcom persona beckons from another era and doesn't share much affinity with TV's most fashionable paradigm, the Age of Moral Ambiguity.
Yet that's exactly why he's suddenly so popular with TV writers. There's something satisfying for them about casting one of America's sweethearts as a character choking on his own charisma, consumed by breathtaking ego and crippling self-loathing. Perhaps most surprising is Danson's own enthusiasm for these kinds of roles. He has taken to them with such ferocity that his co-stars, writers and producers describe his performances as if they've been left blinking in the afterglow of a rocket launch.
Larry David, a friend of Danson's for a decade, was gob-smacked by Danson's take on "Bored's" George Christopher. "You didn't know that guy was inside of him," he said. Ames was "just blown away" by Danson's "pathos" and "honesty" the first time he saw him in character. "Damages" co-creator Daniel Zelman recalls that Arthur Frobisher "just kind of exploded out of him." Perhaps these are the perks of being underestimated.
"I was trained that the play was the thing, that the writing, the writer, was the thing," Danson said, his patrician mien drawing glances as he meandered along the beach. "Attach yourself in any way you can to good writing. In my case it happened first with 'Body Heat' and 'Onion Field.' I'd say in life, in general, if I can't find the humor in the tragedy of life, I'd be in trouble. But at the same time, if the comedy doesn't have any nod to how sad life is, I'm not interested."
A character at first
Born Edward Bridge Danson III, he's the son of an archaeologist, the product of a Connecticut prep school and Stanford University who earned a graduate degree in acting from Carnegie-Mellon University. Early on, Danson was known as a character actor, playing the doomed L.A. detective in "The Onion Field" (1979) and the smarmy, soft-shoe-dancing D.A. in "Body Heat" (1981).
Then came "Cheers" in 1982 and suddenly Danson was on the cover of Playgirl. Sam Malone was an ex-relief pitcher, a ladies man whose breathtaking density was always good for a chuckle. Danson played him with an athletic grace, sleeves pushed up to the elbows, that prominent brow setting up the perfect deadpan. He was part of the hunky 1980s trio in "Three Men and a Baby." And for the two decades that followed, he became the handsome guy with the formidable hairline, a bounce in his step and the snappy one-liners. To this day, he signs autographs "Cheers, Ted Danson."
There were moments of fearlessness. Remember him in 1984, cast against type as the incestuous dad in ABC's Emmy-winning TV movie "Something About Amelia"? And what about when he stripped off his hairpiece for the "Cheers" finale in 1993? Then there was that unfortunate performance in blackface at the Friars Club roast of old flame Whoopi Goldberg, which Danson recently called "a graceless moment in my life."