Ted Danson surprised just about everyone—including himself—when he signed on to play the lead on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He’d already shed the persona of network sitcom star, earning a cult following for his supporting roles on edgier cable comedies like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death, as well as for his darker work on FX’s Damages, where he played a corrupt billionaire.
But, once again, his instincts have served him well. A few episodes in, Danson’s CSI character—Portland family man D.B. Russell—has infused CBS’s moribund procedural with some much-needed levity. And with Bored to Death’s third season having just premiered on Monday, we thought it would be a great time to catch up with Danson to talk about his well-deserved career renaissance.
TV.com: What was your first reaction when you were approached to take over the lead on CSI?
Ted Danson: I immediately thought that it was the last thing on my mind, and what a great idea. For several reasons. I’d never done anything like that before, a procedural. I’ve never done an hour drama really—I did Damages, but not a network drama. I really liked the writers and the cast. They immediately threw me into the kind of real world life of Vegas, the coroner’s office and [real] CSI.
I’ve always tried to shy away from the dark side of life, the real life/death stuff, and I was kind of fascinated by the people who were willing to put themselves in that position and still have a good outlook on life. So everything about it just fascinated me, plus I got to be home and not on the road making movies. One of our daughters is about to have a child, so we’re going to be grandparents. Everything about it was just like, wow, what a great fit.
Had producers already conceived your character, and the new colors you’d bring to the show? Or was it a collaborative thing?
They may have gone back and tailored it a little bit, but they had already decided that they wanted a character who was a family man who was good at managing chaos and kids and a wife, someone who had a normal life and a little bit of a lighter touch. More of a sense of humor, because he was surrounded by the chaos of family anyway. My understanding is that the character already had those qualities before I got there.
He also brings a kind of hippie-ish quality to the show that it’s never had before.
Right. [Laughs] According to the character’s back story, his parents were these aging hippies who drove around in a van. They were musicians and I tagged along until I got tired of it, and went off to college. My character wanted to be a novelist; he loved mysteries and wanted to write them. He’d hang out at police bars and try to soak up the ambiance. Evidently he wasn’t that great a writer, but he became fascinated by the different aspects of what he was learning about crimes, and kind of got into it that way, and went and got educated.
Now, to shift gears to your other series, Bored to Death—could you talk a bit about the camaraderie between yourself and the two other leads on that show?
[Laughs] I actually adore them. They are two—well, I should say three—of my favorite men, because Jonathan Ames, the writer/creator, really is the one who brings this all together. Jason Schwartzman I met through my kids years ago. He was in one of my favorite all-time films, Rushmore. I absolutely love his sense of humor and I think I was in slight awe of his work. When I first saw the script, my character was barely in it, but I just found the writing so interesting, and I called Jason and we had a long conversation about it. He was just going on and on about this writer, Jonathan, who was just the most interesting character he’d ever met. And so I sat down with Jonathan, and away we went.
Jason is one of these incredibly bright, incredibly fast, multi-talented—I mean, he has his own music label. The opening title song is his songwriting and singing. Now he has a little baby and is married, and he’s just one of my favorite people. I remember walking onto the set where I’m not the captain of the ship, the lead. And usually if you’re the lead of the show, you kind of host the party. You set the tone for the crew and everybody. And I sat there and watched Jason just knock it out of the ballpark. He is such a great, natural, effortless leader, and the tone was so wonderful. It was just kind of perfect. I could go along for the ride and just enjoy how well he was running the show. So, love him, hugely.
Zach [Galifianakis] I got to know from working on the show, and he’s one of my favorite new people on the planet. He makes me laugh, so hard, so much. He is wont to come up to me right before a take and whisper in my ear, “I smell mothballs.” He will dig up every old-person joke on the planet to try and insult me. Everyone probably says they love the cast they’re in, and by and large it’s true, but we really, really do get along.
I wanted to talk a bit about Cheers and Sam Malone—obviously the character you’re most associated with. Was there ever a point that you wanted to escape his shadow?
No, not really. Everything I am, everything I’ve been allowed to do, career-wise, has come out of the opportunity I had with Cheers. I think it’s one of the funniest shows ever. They are some of my best friends. [Cheers creators] Les and Glen Charles and [executive producer and director] James Burrows are like my fathers in this business. I would never do anything but celebrate Sam Malone and Cheers. And it’s funny to this day. I think it’s the actor’s job—when you think of being typecast or getting out of the shadow of whatever you’ve had success in—it’s up to you as an actor. The industry will always want to hire you for what you were successful in last, and what made money. But you can say no to that, and look for other parts.
For me, that’s kind of what happened with Damages on FX. Both Damages and Bored to Death kind of helped spring me loose from that half-hour Cheers/Becker imprint. It’s up to the actor. If you look for parts that are different and yet you have some connection to, and it’s beautifully written, then audiences will accept you.
Do you think playing yourself on Curb Your Enthusiasm helped change viewers' perceptions of you?
I think it probably did. And plus I was a little bit disenchanted with what I was doing. For me it felt like I had stayed at the half-hour comedy too long. And I wasn’t really amusing myself. I think going off and doing something with Larry David, something that had a real different flavor to it, felt kind of effortless and fun. It sparked my interest in acting and working again. So yeah, I would have to credit Larry David and his crazy genius for helping turn my career around.
That’s how it struck me—that Curb marked a turning point in your career, and you’ve been making really interesting and risky choices since. Choices that have really paid off.
Well, Larry kind of turned half-hour comedy on its ear. It was like half-hour on acid all of a sudden. The way he shot it, his style, the improvisational quality to it. I hate to give him credit for anything, but I do. He’s like this genius in my life.
Do you think the three-camera sitcom will ever return to the heights of the Cheers era?
Jimmy Burrows said that was the question before Cheers came along. I think the answer is yes, it will always come back. It’s a really interesting format. But you need that special writing, and something that tickles the audience’s funny bone. I mean, look at Two and a Half Men. I think that’s one of the highest-rated shows at the moment, and I believe that’s three-camera.
It’s three-camera, yeah, but it’s not Cheers.
[Laughs] I refuse to comment. We did have amazing writers. Absolutely amazing.