First off, as I’m sure you know, I greatly admire Ted Danson, both as a person and an actor. So I’ll skip the two paragraphs of fawning that would otherwise go with this profile.
Some things you may know; some you may not.
Ted however, was so charming and there was such chemistry with Shelley Long that they decided to cast him instead. But Ted as a football bruiser is only slightly more believable than me as an NFL lineman so they made Sam a baseball player instead.
The supposed photo of Sam in uniform at the bar was really Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg.
To prepare for the role Ted went to bartending school.
Over the course of eleven years he must’ve cut up 18,000,000 lemons. Actors always like to have some “business;” something to do. The obvious thing for him would be to make drinks all the time, but then the waitresses would have to get them, deliver them to tables, etc. Cutting lemons was an activity that required no further logistics. (I jokingly used to say that Sam should sell the bar and become a sushi chef.)
Ted really struggled finding the character in the first season because in real life he’s so unlike Sam Malone. He’s not a womanizer, not a jock, not vain, and not a recovering alcoholic. The fact that he appears so convincing and so effortless is a real testament to just how excellent an actor he is. (Again, jokingly, I used say it was okay if he wanted to model the character after me.)
Over the course of the series Sam became dumber, a decision that offered more room for comedy, but I never liked it. Most characters grow and evolve over time. Personally, my favorite version of Sam Malone was the one in the pilot.
Ted was always protective of the other cast members, guest cast, and extras. Oh wait. I said I wouldn’t fawn.
Ted never watched the show when it was on the air. He felt he would be too self-critical and would tinker with his performance – possibly ruining it. Years after CHEERS ended Ted finally began watching, and guess what? He really liked it.
How accurate is testing? In one of the later seasons Sam’s arc was that he was trying to get Rebecca into bed. We had him do some of the most horrible deceitful things. Audience testing came back and Ted ranked the highest. He was most likeable – seen as a father figure to everyone at the bar. What show were they watching? (Meanwhile, Frasier tested the worst.)
Ted rarely complained about the material. And when he did, he was always respectful. And most always right.
CHEERS ended after eleven seasons because Ted decided he no longer wanted to do the show. Many blame Whoopi Goldberg (his girlfriend at the time). They felt she swayed his decision. I think he left for another reason. I’ve never discussed this with him, but my feeling is he knew that at a certain age the character would border on sad. The slick player might seem very charming in his 30’s but a little pathetic in his 40’s. I think he left because he was protecting Sam Malone.
A few years later, he reprised the character on FRASIER – an episode my partner David Isaacs and I wrote – and we tried to address that by getting him engaged. Ultimately, the wedding was called off, but we wanted to convey that Sam was aware of his situation and was actively trying to move on. Even with that, I still got the sense Ted was somewhat uncomfortable playing Sam Malone again.
BECKER was a spec script written by Dave Hackel. The main reasons why Ted responded to it was (a) it was very well written, and (b) the character was so unlike Sam. Ted wanted to distance himself from Sam and play something very different and age-appropriate. For that I give him so much credit. How many sitcom stars have you seen who continue to play essentially the same character in series after series, even after they’ve long since outgrown that character? (Who remembers LIFE WITH LUCY?)
And finally, Ted truly found his soulmate in Mary Steenburgen. If ever there was a perfect match it’s those two. Sam & Diane could only dream of such a marriage.
Happy May Day.