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Ted Danson on Fargo, Damages, Cheers, and Leslie Nielsen’s fart machine

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Ted Danson followed a familiar route as a New York actor, working in the theater and doing time on soap operas like Somerset and The Doctors, but his TV and film roles diversified considerably when he made the move to Los Angeles. Danson’s profile skyrocketed when he scored the role of Sam Malone in Cheers, starting him on an 11-season ride that ended with him as one of the most famous faces on the small screen and led to several other high-profile comedic roles. In recent years, Danson has spent more of his time delivering dramatic performance, turning heads with his work as Arthur Frobisher on FX’s Damages, and he can currently be found on the network once again, playing Hank Larsson on season two of Fargo.


Fargo (2015)—“Hank Larsson”

Ted Danson: It was just one of those lovely phone calls. I don’t know who sent it my way, whether it was my agent at WME or my manager, Keith Addis, but I got a phone call saying, “Do you know Fargo? Would you be interested in taking a look at this role?” And I had not seen the first season. I had been told by all my kids, “You’re crazy! You have to watch it! It’s so good!” And I think part of me was going, “Well, I love the film. Why would I watch the series? I’m just going to be disappointed.” So when it came my way, I binge-watched it in two days, and I was, like, “Oh, okay, I get it. This is really good writing.” Yes, it honored the movie. It’s definitely Fargo. But it’s more than that. It takes off from there. And the acting performances, the directing, the writing—everything about it was delicious and was about the characters. It was very much like a 10-hour film.


So I had a conversation with [creator] Noah Hawley, and I think I had two scripts I could read, and I only saw about three scenes that Hank was in. Part of me wasn’t sure what to sink my teeth into, but by the end of the conversation… I’ve recently come to realize in life that the smartest thing I can do as an actor is find a writer that just has to write something. Find the most talented voice in the room and then ask them very nicely if you can be part of it, no matter how small the part is. It doesn’t matter. Just go be part of that creative process with a bunch of people who are trying to make something unusual. So I did. And it’s one of those times in life where I just kind of stumbled into something incredibly satisfying. I’m such a Noah Hawley fan.

The A.V. Club: Like most of the characters, Hank’s time on the screen is sporadic, but he’s certainly had his various moments to shine over the course of the season thus far.

TD: You know, it kind of felt like… Well, one of the things that Noah said about Hank—and I don’t think he even said it to me, I think I actually read it someplace—but he referred to him as a cowboy poet. And he asked me to grow a beard, and then I got to work with a dialect coach to get the Minnesota accent down. All of a sudden, trying on Noah Hawley’s words with the dialect, he felt like an old cowboy hero, someone who stands up against the odds and knows he’s not going to win, but you’re here to do the right thing in life, so that’s what he does. I’d never played that character before, and I really enjoyed it.

Somerset (1975-1976)—“Tom Conway”
The Doctors (1977-1982)—“Mitch Pierson”

AVC: Barring commercials, it looks like your first real TV job was on the soap opera Somerset.


TD: [Laughs.] Yes. Yes, it was. The scariest, hardest job I’ve ever had.

AVC: Actually, there’s a clip of you on Late Night With David Letterman where—almost 15 years after you did Somerset—you said that you still broke into a sweat whenever you heard the “five, four, three, two, one” countdown.


TD: Oh, lord, yes. I don’t know if I was 24 or 25, but I’d been doing a little off-Broadway, and it was basically my first time in front of a camera. And I had your basic 24-year-old nervous-breakdown anxiety attack, because I had been hired to do two soap operas the same day, and I took both of them… and they were both really mad at me! I guess it’s always hard on you when you step out into the world, but for me there was this terrifying moment of, “Oh, dear lord, here I go.”

At, like, 11 p.m. at night, I actually called… You know, I almost remember his name, but he was this psychologist down in the village, and most of my buddies from Carnegie Mellon who had come to New York to make their way ended up seeing this guy. So I called him and said, “Fuck it, I’m not going to go.” And he said, “Whoa, whoa, slow down. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Take a Valium and chill out and go. You don’t want to not go.” Well, I didn’t realize that me and Valium didn’t get along real well. [Laughs.]


So I take my Valium at 3:30 in the morning and I get a couple of hours sleep, and I show up, and… I think the first show of the day was The Doctors. Yeah, I think I was on The Doctors in the morning, and I was playing this doctor who had to tell these parents that their daughter had cancer. I was supposed to be the reassuring, calming doctor, and they were supposed to be the nervous bad parents. But they’d been on the show forever, and I was just pouring out Broadcast News sheets of sweat. [Laughs.] I wasn’t perspiring: I was literally a waterfall, I was so nervous. The reassuring doctor was just a mess!

And then I went off to do Somerset, where I was supposed to be the town cocksman. I was coming onto every woman in the village. And the scene I had was with an actress who had been there for a year or so, who was relaxed and calm and good, and I had the waterfall going. And the producer looked at me and went, “Okay, forget the leading-man part. We’ll make him the town sleaze who’s turning all his friends in to the Mafia!”


AVC: You must’ve gotten at least a little better on The Doctors if they gave you another role a few years later.

TD: Yeah, but it’s still true: If I hear “five, four, three, two, one” and someone points at me, I just start sweating!


Creepshow (1982)—“Harry Wentworth”

TD: Now, who were the players on that? It was Stephen King, George Romero was the director, and the makeup effects were by… oh, what’s his name? Tom Savini! So it was like the royalty of horror movies, and… [Suddenly starts laughing.] Hey, uh, what kind of article is this? I’m trying to think how much I should tell you here.


AVC: You have carte blanche. There’s not much that’s off limits around here.

TD: Okay, then: two memories. One is that my scenes were mostly with Leslie Nielsen, who—and you can Google him and see him doing this on talk shows—went through a phase where he had a handheld bellows-like thing that was a fart-noise maker.


AVC: Oh, yes. I am familiar.

TD: He was relentless! Most people would do something like that, get a few laughs, and put it away. He… would not. We literally got asked to get off an airplane because we were in first class, and when we sat down, he was on one side of the aisle and I was on the other side, and every third person who would walk by, he would do his fart machine. [Laughs.] Restaurants would ask us to leave. He was relentlessly in love with his machine, with no sense of shame.


And my other memory is of my last shot in the movie. My character has been buried in the sand on the beach below tide line, so that the tide comes up and slowly drowns him. Leslie Nielsen kills him, and then he comes back as a waterlogged zombie thing. So what they’ve done is, they do the outside scene on the beach, but then they want the close-ups, so they make a little aquarium tank. I got in a wetsuit and climbed in, and somebody would reach down with an oxygen tank ventilator thingy, and I’d breathe, and then they’d take that out. And there was a yoke made out of… I don’t know, wood and fake sand, so it looked like my head was buried in the sand, underwater.

Well, since I had no oxygen in the scene, I had no dialogue, so I figured, “Well, what the heck, it’s the last shot: I see no reason why I can’t go off with Tom and smoke a doobie and then do my shot.” [Laughs.] You know, I was so paranoid that I would be screaming, “You fucker!” in genuine paranoid fear that I was drowning, I was so looped on this marijuana. That was never to be repeated ever again, I will say. You can choose to use that story or not. Okay, next!


Pontiac Moon (1994)—“Washington Bellamy”

TD: [Sighs and chuckles.] Ah, Pontiac Moon is Mary Steenburgen. Pontiac Moon is Mary and I meeting and falling in love in Mendocino, California, on the Mendocino River, on a four-hour canoe trip. That’s what Pontiac Moon is: it’s where I met and fell in love at age 45 with Mary, and we’ve been married 20 years and together 22. So thank God for Pontiac Moon!


Gulliver’s Travels (1996)—“Lemuel Gulliver”
Ink (1996-1997)—“Mike Logan”

AVC: You and Mary worked together again immediately thereafter, first on Gulliver’s Travels and then you did Ink as well.


TD: Yes, we did. I think that was Mary being incredibly… I don’t know what. Smart? [Laughs.] Or whatever. But we did everything we could to be together and work together. Gulliver’s Travels was like working with English acting royalty. Every great English actor had a part in that, I think. Omar Sharif was in it, and… well, he’s not exactly an English actor, but Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Geraldine Chaplin were in it, and it was one of those amazing, “I can’t believe I’m here” experiences for four months.

AVC: In regards to Ink, it obviously didn’t last beyond its initial season, but did you personally feel that the series worked?

TD: You know, I think the lesson learned about that—because it didn’t quite work, although I think there are wonderful things about it—is that we made the mistake of having something written for us. You know, we were both well-known, Mary’s an Academy Award-winning movie star and I had come off of Cheers, so [Diane English wrote] two wonderful parts and created a show around these two actors. I think that was a really big mistake. I think as an actor… Well, it’s a little bit like what I was saying about Fargo.

I think the process was kind of perverted on Ink, because what should come first is the writing. A writer needs to write something that they just have to write because this is what they want to do for the next five years. They want to write these characters and this story every hour of every day. And then you come along as an actor and say, “Wow, what an amazing writer! Can I be part of this, please?” And if you do it the other way around, where a writer is trying to specifically guess what you might want, I think you short-circuit part of the creative process. I think that’s not true if you’re a Seinfeld or some other stand-up, somebody who knows their voice so well that they can express it and hire people to write their story. Otherwise, if you’re an actor—and just an actor—I think you need to go to the writer first. Let the process begin with the writer.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2009)—“Ted Danson”

AVC: Speaking of Seinfeld, you were actually referenced on the series. Did you know Larry David yet at that point?


TD: No, I didn’t. I think I hadn’t yet begun to catch up with the rest of the world at that point, so I hadn’t seen any Seinfeld. I wasn’t in on the joke until later. [Laughs.]

But, no, I didn’t meet Larry until shortly after he had shot the pilot of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I met him on a place that we both go to—we both live in Martha’s Vineyard when we’re not in California—and we met through mutual friends. We sat there looking at his pilot up in this attic room that was the only room that had a TV in it. It was boiling hot, it was after dinner, and… a couple of folks watching fell asleep. [Emphatically.] Please quote me.


AVC: Done.

TD: [Laughs.] I think—and I’ll speak for myself, I don’t know if Mary felt this way—I felt a little sorry for him. I thought, “You know, it’s a nice idea, but…” [Trails off.] But I said, “Well, let’s be supportive and say, ‘Hey, Larry, if you ever need anybody, please call us. We’d love to take part in it in any way, shape, or form.’” And a year later or something, we got a call.


It turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me, career-wise, because I think I’d just gotten to the point where I had thought that I had stayed too long at the half-hour comedy party, and I didn’t have anything to offer, I didn’t find myself funny, other people were doing more interesting work, and I just felt kind of demoralized. And going and working with him was so casual and fun. I mean, literally, you’d get a call: “What are you doing tomorrow? Bring your clothes and sit in your car and put your own makeup on.” It was almost that kind of thing in the first year of Curb. But it was just fun. We went to our friend’s place, and it was no stress or anything. You just played with your friend on camera. And I think I kind of fell in love with acting again, in a way. [Hesitates.] Ah, that’s overly dramatic. But I had fun.

I had fun being funny with Larry again, so I really do owe him a lot, because I think… I mean, obviously Cheers was a big moment, and I loved doing Becker, but then I think the next kind of game-changer for me—and perhaps for the way I was perceived—was Curb Your Enthusiasm. And then maybe Damages after that. So Larry, who I love to mock as much as possible—I actually owe him a great deal. He’s kind of one of my heroes, besides being a friend.


Beastie Boys, “Make Some Noise(2011)—“Maitre D’”

AVC: This may be a very short story, given that it’s a very small role, but how did you end up in the video for the Beastie Boys’ “Make Some Noise”?

TD: It’s a weird connection for somebody who literally could not even quote you a Beatles lyric. With music, if it’s good, it immediately transports me into a fantasy world, just daydreaming, so I am literally the most uneducated when it comes to music. I don’t know how I ended up in it. I think… maybe “Danson” is a great rhyme? I have no fucking idea. [Laughs.] I really don’t. I don’t quite get it. But I did play the triangle with Beck on one of his performances!

Oh! I know how I got in that video: I met Adam [Horovitz], I think it was, at Woody Harrelson’s. Somebody was giving Woody a pre-Oscar party when he was nominated [for The Messenger], and Adam was there, and we talked. And then the next thing I know, he asked both Mary and I to be in the video. It was wonderfully bizarre, because I’m probably the last person on the planet who you’d connect to music!


Damages (2007-2010)—“Arthur Frobisher”

TD: Yeah! The Kessler brothers—Glenn and Todd—and Daniel Zelman. Boy, yeah, that’s another thing where there was one scene in the pilot… I knew that Glenn Close was involved, so I knew that she saw something remarkable in these guys, and Todd Kessler comes from The Sopranos, so the pedigree was there, but there was really very little to know about the character except this one scene. It was another one of those moments where… I think that’s where I was beginning to learn to go hang out with really creative people and ask them nicely if you can be part of whatever it is they’re doing. That was one of those moments, and then the part kind of took off from there.


It was also one of the first times where a writer made use of my…baggage that I bring. “Oh, that’s Ted Danson from Cheers!” People smile and go, “Oh, I remember laughing at that!” Or they think, “How nice, it’s good ol’ sweet Ted…” They used that perception and turned it on its ear to see how horrible and how far down the path to hell you’ll go with Ted. [Laughs.]

In the first episode, I was a Fortune 500 CEO, pushing the envelope, doing something that was kind of gray. I mean, illegal, but you read about people doing not quite the right thing all the time in the business world. He had created this company, so… You know, I get it: he’s pushing the envelope, and then he’s panicking because he’s starting to get caught. I get that guy. That’s fine. He still seems like he could be a nice guy. And then the next script came my way, for the second episode, in one-eighth of a page, I’m snorting cocaine in the back of an Escalade, having sex with a prostitute, and telling somebody on the phone to go ahead and kill somebody. [Laughs.] It was, like, “Oh, okay, scratch that!”


Cheers (1982-1993)—“Sam Malone”

TD: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s why you and I are talking. That’s why I get to work, you know? At age 67, I’m still working off of what I was lucky enough to be part of 30 years ago. Les and Glen Charles, Jimmy Burrows, they really are the reason I have a career: because of Cheers. They were the cream of the crop. They had come out of that whole Mary Tyler Moore family of shows, and they were the best of the best. So right out of the bag, I got to work with really great writers and a really great director and to be part of something that just happened to hit a chord.


It was huge. I don’t think I had any idea how huge it was at the time. I think it was maybe five or 10 years after the fact. I sat there one day and had the thought, “Oh, my: I got to play Sam Malone!” [Laughs.] What an amazing thing I got to do. And it was my favorite kind of comedy: it comes out of pain and sadness and woe and all of that.

I can’t say enough about the people I got to work with, the actors that I got to laugh with every day. When I watch episodes now, I can barely remember what’s going to happen next, but seeing my friends making me laugh so hard… It’s just a real treat, a real blessing. As Sam Malone said—his last line on the show, I think it was—“I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.” I kind of feel that way around the clock, being able to be in Cheers.


Frasier (1995)—“Sam Malone”

AVC: Did you enjoy the opportunity to reprise the role of Sam Malone for Frasier, or would you have rather just left it alone in retrospect?


TD: Well, you know, I did that mostly because of Kelsey [Grammer]. I remember having a thought… In my insanity, I probably thought I would be the returning hero, the fabulous movie star coming back to be on my friend’s show. And I wasn’t. And I remember that being a slightly humbling kind of experience for me. You know, for Ted’s actor ego. [Laughs.] But, hey, I got to work with Téa Leoni! She was in that episode. And Kelsey is Kelsey. He’s so good. He’s such a good actor. So it was a mixed bag: part of it was fun to do, but part of it was bittersweet.

Bored To Death (2009-2011)—“George Christopher”
Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2010)—“Little Danson Man”

AVC: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about “Little Danson Man,” from Tim And Eric.

TD: [Laughs.] Oh, I’m so glad you did. And let me also put Bored To Death in there. Bored To Death, with Jonathan Ames, Zach Galifianakis, and Jason Schwartzman, is probably one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had as an actor. It was just delicious. I got to have a conversation around what was going on in my life. “Am I still valid? Do I have any worth? Let me hang out with my young friends. Don’t go without me! Take me with you! I want to be part of you and your youthfulness and your funniness!” I was literally like that around Zach, so the words were kind of perfect. At the age of… whatever I was—62, maybe?—I got to smoke dope, hang out with people half my age, and still be active sexually. Pretty cool. [Laughs.]

AVC: So did the Tim And Eric appearance grow out of working with Zach on Bored To Death?


TD: Yeah, it did. You know, when Zach calls me, I don’t even ask, “What?” [Laughs.] I mean, literally, I don’t ask. He calls and off I go, and I get to have some little mischief in my life as a result of saying “yes” to whatever Zach asks me. I did a Between Two Ferns with him the other day, an unrecorded live thing for some event. Yeah, he’s right up there in my all-time list of astounding people.