With 11 consecutive Emmy nominations — including two wins — for his work as bartender Sam Malone on the long-running hit Cheers, Ted Danson would have been a television icon even if he’d never played another role. But the past three years have seen Danson take on two roles that arguably constitute the best work of his career. He earned another three Emmy nods for his work as corporate crook Arthur Frobisher on the legal mystery series Damages, also starring Glen Close. Then last year, Danson was cast on HBO’s detective comedy Bored to Death — which kicks off its second season Sunday night — as George Christopher, a veteran magazine editor who defies age in pursuit of adventure and a good time.
Danson spoke to AARP about his latest roles, how to be a good stepfather and why it's so much fun to play a bad guy.
Q: When you first got the part on Bored to Death, how did the show’s creator, novelist Jonathan Ames, describe the character to you?
A: The thing we both hit on, which resonated with my life, was being 62 and still wanting to be relevant — still feeling your prowess and yet, at the same time, slightly mourning the loss of youth, and wanting to hang out with younger people. All of that stuff I can totally identify with, and that’s what I love about George. He’s seen and done it all, and yet there’s an innocence, a kind of childlike, “Oh, I wanna do that. Don’t leave me out.”
Q: In playing George, do you get to burn off certain things that a lot of men bring to their actual midlife crises?
A: I probably stepped into every trap known to mankind, so I don’t know if I successfully burned them off. I like exploring it, because, as an actor, it’s always more gratifying to connect to a part because it resonates with your life.
Q: George’s nonjaded innocence can be tough to maintain as you get older.
A: The battle we all fight — that and gravity — is staying excited by life. For me — for most people — it’s when you’re connected to that which brings you joy. For me, it’s working on projects that have some sort of meaning so you’re around that creative force. If you’re around truly creative people, that’s kind of an ageless energy. As long as you’re connected to creativity, you’ve found the fountain of youth.
Q: George is a bit like Arthur Frobisher, your character on Damages, except he’s darker in a different way. Did you intend to make these characters yin and yang versions of each other?
A: No. They both have these huge blind spots and they’re both narcissistic, but there’s such a sweet innocence about George, whereas Arthur Frobisher is always trying to scam the system. Having those two come together by chance at the same time, then to have a dash of Curb Your Enthusiasm thrown in, [have made these] some of my favorite acting years.
Q: When you were approached for Damages, were you surprised you were offered a villain role?
A: I didn’t know he was such a villain. In the first episode, he was someone who had created his own company from scratch, and through no fault of his own, his stock was going down, and he needed to get out. We see headlines of people we know doing that all the time. So part of me was, “Well, he made a bad decision, but he’s not a bad guy.” Then I got the second script, and [Arthur] was in the back of an Escalade with a hooker, snorting cocaine and telling someone on the phone to go ahead and kill somebody. That kind of changed my mind about my character.
Q: How’d you feel about that?
A: I loved it. It was great. Are you kidding? At a certain age, if you can’t get the girl, then it’s more fun to blow up buildings and do bad things.
Q: You’ve been married to actress Mary Steenburgen for about 15 years, and this is your third marriage. What lessons did you learn in the first two that have helped make this marriage a success?
A: I learned that I needed to severely grow up, and become more familiar and more honest with myself. It took me about 45 years to walk through that door, but I did.
Q: What did you find were the biggest challenges in occupying the stepfather role for Mary’s two kids?
A: First off, I got a lot of support from Malcolm McDowell, who is their father. So it was never a bumpy road that way. It was incredibly open and supportive. Then, during our wedding ceremony, before we said our vows to ourselves, we said vows to our children: Mary said vows to mine, and I said vows to Mary’s kids. Basically, I promised to love and care for them, and to be the best friend I can for the rest of my life, and I think that “best friend I can” is the clue, because I’m not their father. I’m their stepdad. That, to me, has been a guiding rule for me in my relationship with them — to be the best friend I can, and not to confuse ... I definitely do parental duties, but I’m not their father. I’m the best friend I can be.
Q: Is that the advice you’d give to a man about to step into that role?
A: Yeah. Your job is to take care of your marriage. That’s priority number one. Priority number two is to be the best friend you can be to your stepkids, and the best father you can be to your own kids. Your primary job is to be a husband.