The happiest years of Ted Danson’s life came after he let his hair go gray. You can see the white emerging at the temples in that final episode of Cheers, which was less a night of television than a national group hug. On May 20, 1993, with farewell parties underway coast to coast, an astounding 80.4 million viewers watched proprietor Sam Malone shut the lights on a place where — sing it, now — everybody kno -o- ows your name. Danson played a shallow philanderer among a group of boozy, relatable regulars at a watering hole that somehow served all of us.
His career may have been at a peak, but Danson’s life was approaching a nadir. Sure, he had international fame and a couple of Emmys. He had also suffered through a costly divorce, his highly publicized 18-month relationship with Whoopi Goldberg was ending, and he found himself at the center of an unwanted controversy over his notorious appearance in blackface at a Friars Club roast. At 45, he was tired of being considered a carousing lightweight. (In fact, it was Danson who first pushed to end Cheers after 11 seasons, telling interviewers it was “kind of sad” for a character that old to be chasing women around a bar.) But until then his only hugely successful role outside of Cheers was in the movie Three Men and a Baby, where he played yet another vapid playboy.
Something had to change. A lot had to change, in fact.
Today, at 69, Ted Danson is back starring in a hit comedy, The Good Place, but he has spent the past quarter century redefining himself: as a serious actor in dramatic roles in Damages and CSI, as an author and leading environmental activist, and as a family man with a 22-year-strong marriage to actress Mary Steenburgen. Over a recent breakfast near his home in Santa Monica, Danson opened up about the ways he has found to keep his life in balance.
Balancing Trick 1: Fight Fear With Gratitude
When they met on the set of the road movie Pontiac Moon in 1993, Steenburgen was a single mother of two children. Though she had an Oscar for the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, the actress hadn’t quite shaken the anguish of an Arkansas childhood spent in the shadow of serious illness — her father suffered multiple heart attacks. Hollywood legend has it that Danson helped Steenburgen find happiness after her traumatic youth.
But it was Danson who needed a rescue.
“I was a mess-and-a-half,” he admits, crediting therapy with getting him through that time. “I thought, I’m incapable of being in a relationship. But I was working on myself. Ironic how life works in those moments. Once you throw your arms up and surrender, a lot of times things come your way.”
Danson credits Steenburgen with helping him quiet an undercurrent of anxiety that no level of fame or success can quite squelch.
“There’s always fear, and it’s all the human stuff,” he says. “Jobs, work, money, kids, health. Usually, when I have a fearful thought, I flip it into gratitude. Like, if I think, Oh dear, where’s Mary? She’s not home. Something must have happened, I tell myself, Thank God I have the opportunity to be married to a woman whom I love so much. Because that love is what makes me afraid that she might be hurt or something. I tell myself, 'Aren’t you lucky?'”
Having an attitude of gratitude has helped Danson overcome his history of financial fears, as well, an anxiety fed by a childhood where money was always tight. “The unspoken message I got as a child was that we had nothing,” he says. “We didn’t have TVs. I looked like a ragamuffin. My clothes were all hand-me-downs. My dad worked, and there was enough money for the necessities, but getting more and more money was never a goal.
“My philosophy is that you are a tube for money,” he says. “It just comes through you, and as long as you don’t panic, stay happy and grateful, appreciate what you have and know what you want to do, it’ll come.”
Still, the actor’s natural anxiety surfaces from time to time. Danson is “a bit of a hypochondriac but in the most charming way,” says Steenburgen, who says her husband invariably gets an injury or ailment whenever he’s starting a job — or close to finishing one, as he is today. That’s probably why his back is acting up. (“It’s too freaky that I can tell you exactly,” he says, reaching behind him, “but it’s the right SI pelvic joint on the L5 vertebra. I’m guessing it just means I’m panicked I’ll never work again.”)
Steenburgen chuckles later when she hears that Danson’s been fretting about work again. “In all the years I’ve known him,” she says, “the longest Ted’s gone without a job was maybe 20 minutes.”