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How Ted Danson Found His Balance

When he closed down the bar at 'Cheers,' character Sam Malone had to find a new way forward

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. 

Ted Danson photographed on Friday, July 28th in Los Angeles, CA.

Robert Trachtenberg

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.” 

Ted Danson photographed on Friday, July 28th in Los Angeles, CA.

Robert Trachtenberg

Balancing Trick 2: As You Grow Older, Work Harder

Near the end on Cheers, Danson pulled a stunt that left audiences flabbergasted: The actor popped off a theretofore unmentioned toupee and waved it at costar Rhea Perlman. It was as if Danson was signaling to the world there was more to him than brainless brawn. Remember: This was the guy who rose to fame as the manly Aramis man. Yet under that man-mane was a thoughtful, expressive and, yes, aging mortal, and one who was done, he says, hiding his bald spot and “sitting in a salon full of ladies with tinfoil in their hair every other Sunday.”

“Age is a marker, but it’s not everything,” he says. “What we’re capable of has a lot more to do with our determination, our creativity and our passion than the number of candles on the cake. While you’re living your life, it really doesn’t mean that much unless you allow it to.”

Not that Danson has always been successful at embracing his journey into his eighth decade. “When you’re getting older, you definitely bump into ‘I’m diminishing,’ but that’s usually what you think about when you’re in the middle of a passage, not when you’ve landed into whatever the new age is. When you’re 37, you go, ‘Oh my God, I’m not 25 anymore. How horrible.’ Then you’re 55, and you go, ‘I hope I’m still relevant. I hope I can still run with the bulls.’ Then you get past that, and you start to really enjoy being around younger people. You’re not competitive anymore. You just kind of marvel.”

Ted Danson

Robert Trachtenberg

For Danson, coping with age is a simple matter of applying himself. To keep his remarkably trim form, the 6-foot-2 Danson hikes, bikes and works out with a personal trainer named Flavio at Gold’s Gym. “These are my professional-athlete years,” he reasons. “Professional athletes are always in rehab and playing hurt. That’s me at 70.

“I have to work harder to memorize lines now. Same with my body — I have to work a little harder, but so what? It’s like, the coach still puts you in the game, but you have to stay up later and work harder. That’s cool.” Indeed, ­Danson’s openness to the natural changes in life has given him an enormous level of optimism about the future: “I want to be 90 and feel what that is. Because I don’t think anybody knows what it’ll be like for us. It’s all changing. I recently had my knee replaced, and it’s like the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says, slapping a leg.

Ted Danson photographed on Friday, July 28th in Los Angeles, CA.

Robert Trachtenberg

Balancing Trick 3: Know What’s Important, Be Kind

Danson grew up outside Flagstaff, Ariz.; his father was an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and ran a Native American history museum. 

“People don’t really know this about Ted,” Steenburgen says, “but he grew up with friends who were either Hopi, Navajo or the sons and daughters of ranchers, and he had enormous freedom to just explore and appreciate the vast, idyllic landscape around him.” 

To this day, Steenburgen says, “He’s got a very strong sense that life means more than the number of roles you’ve played or how much money you’ve made, and I think that comes from experiencing the world a certain way when he was very young.”  

Emotion rises in Danson when he talks about his upbringing. His family may have dressed him in hand-me-downs, but “there wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t told that I was loved in one form or another,” he says, tearing up. Of his parents, he says, “they both had the deaths they absolutely wanted. My dad was watching This Old House in his comfortable chair. He’d had a steak, probably fibbed about his second drink, and my mother called out, ‘Ned, are you enjoying your TV show?’ She was able to come pull up a chair, sit next to him, hold his hand, feel his pulse. That was it.” 

His mother’s passing took longer. A devout Catholic all her life, Jessica Danson was open to spirituality in all forms, and when, at 89, a bout of pneumonia took hold, she opted to remain at home rather than suffer indignity in the hospital. 

“We had the most amazing two weeks,” he says. “People came to say goodbye. She didn’t want any morphine or drugs. She wanted to be there every second. 

“When my mother died, I was 57, highly successful and content, but when I would take time to grieve, I was like a 9-year-old sobbing. I really didn’t know how I could go on without her. All my philosophical and religious thoughts went out the window. Death is so intensely real. When someone close to you dies, it shines a light on life’s basics: love, family, relationships, what’s important. And what is important? Do the right thing in this moment, and be happy, healthy, joyful. That’s about it. Be kind, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Ted Danson photographed on Friday, July 28th in Los Angeles, CA.

Robert Trachtenberg

Balancing Trick 4: Surround Yourself With Passionate People

Danson says that his secret to late-career success is simple: He stopped thinking of himself as a star. 

“My philosophy is, don’t hang on to whatever degree of success or celebrity you have,” he explains. “Find the smartest people you can and work with them, even if it means taking a smaller role. Get lost in something that inspires you. Find the people who can make you a better person. That’s how you stay fresh. 

“In my case, I’m working with the most creative people in the world, and they have a project they just have to do, come hell or high water. I want to be part of that. If some writer gets hired to make something for Ted Danson, they won’t have the same degree of creative passion. If you’re Seinfeld or somebody like that, you can do it, but if you’re just an actor for hire like me, you need to go find the best play to be in.”

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen, at the premiere of Netflix's "The Discovery" in March.

“Creative passion” might be the best way to describe Danson’s relationship with his wife. “I like the way Mary laughs and smiles,” he says. “I like her willingness to say yes to leap off tall buildings of life. I love her sense of fairness and right and wrong. And I don’t think you’re supposed to say this when you’re almost 70, but she’s very sexy.” 

“It’s almost intimidating spending time with Ted and Mary because of how solid and loving and connected they are,” says Kristen Bell, Danson’s costar in The Good Place. “Honestly, it’s beautiful how they obsess over each other.” 

Complete each other is more like it. “Mary and I can do absolutely nothing together and do it really well, which is why the empty nest did not hit us hard,” Danson says. Yet doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to the pair. At 64, Steenburgen juggles movie and TV roles and packs her free time with side projects. “Look at her,” says Danson. “In her late 50s, music came crashing into her head, and today she has a publishing deal at Universal in Nashville and is writing with some of the best writers in the world. Me, I’m very happy to go act and take a nap.”  

In fact, Danson doesn’t have much time for napping, either. He’s an active board member at Oceana, where he raises money each year to support marine causes, and coauthored a book, Oceana, on what he sees as a looming global catastrophe. His organization has protected more than 1 million square miles of open sea, fighting bottom trawling in sensitive habitat areas and working to keep sea turtles out of commercial fishing gear. It helps having friends in high places. The guest list at Danson and Steenburgen’s 1995 wedding on Martha’s Vineyard included Tom Hanks, Woody Harrelson, James Taylor and Laura Dern, and a pair of old Arkansas pals of Steenburgen’s named Bill and Hillary. Ted and Mary and the Clintons frequently see each other, but it’s rarely to discuss politics. “We talk about anything and everything,” Danson says, “but mainly it’s Mary and Hillary talking about movies and books and now mostly grandchildren.” 

Balancing Trick 5:  Accept That Life Will Be Messy

For all his thoughtfulness toward life, it’s self-deprecation that has long been Danson’s calling card. He plays a caricature of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm and in a series of ads for Smirnoff vodka. Not taking himself too seriously helps him avoid fixating on the tough times.

“If I had made one step differently or corrected my mistakes — which are cringers — would I take that away if it were to alter anything about where I am now? No. Life is just messy. The older I get, the more I see it’s OK to be imperfect. Because you can still grow and make changes in your life. It’s not like you’re finished at 70 or 75.”

Our breakfast over, Danson can’t help but let his inner hypochondriac poke through. “The trouble with these kinds of interviews,” he says, “is that you answer all these deep questions, and then you walk out the door and step in a big pile of dog s---, slip and break your hip because you pontificated way too much.”

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in 'The Good Place'

Justin Lubin/NBC/Getty Images

Ted Danson stars as Michael in "The Good Place." Costar Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife.

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