Sunday, May 01, 2016

May Day (Malone)

With this being May Day, I thought I’d focus today’s post on Sam “Mayday” Malone (not that I haven’t mentioned him 46 times already this year).

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.

As originally conceived by the Charles Brothers, Sam Malone was a former football player for the Patriots. Fred Dryer was more who they had in mind. And he was a finalist for the role (along with William Devane).

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 never threw his weight around as the star. One day the Charles Brothers, Jimmy Burrows, David and I, our line producer and editor were in Les’ office going over a roughcut. Ted wandered in and sat down. Glen hit pause, Les politely told Ted that actors were not allowed to sit in on editing, and Ted apologized and ducked out. I can think of ten other stars who would have reacted quite differently.

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. 
This is a re-post from a few years ago.


Richard said...

Sam Malone is the best tv character of all time.

Jeff Alexander said...

Good piece on Ted Danson, Ken. I am wondering one thing (which isn't really all that important) -- if he did cut 18,000,000 (which I know is a 'guestimate'), how many times did he cut a finger??? And was it the same finger? Inquiring minds with nothing better on their mind wanna know!!!

MikeK.Pa. said...

Usually, you write these - BTW, always well written and touching - when the actor, writer or director has departed. Nice that you did one when the person is still alive to appreciate it; which I'm sure Ted Danson will.

BA said...

Anyone else here still reeling from Bob Uecker's sports coat from last night's 1976 TONIGHT SHOW on AntennaTV?

Eric J said...

Recently saw Mary Steenburgen in the silly A Walk in the Woods. Nolte stole the show (petty larceny). I miss her in movies. Any time you can't find a Natalie Wood photo, you can use one of her.

DrBOP said...

Not so Off-Topic Kid with a Scully Checks In update:

And I'm thinkin' that no matter who is playing, we should start a movement for Scully to call some of this year's World Series. Let the Nation know what they'll be missing. ;^)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Eric J: While you're missing her in movies, you could catch Steenburgen in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH.

I loved BECKER, but really began to appreciate Danson's chops as an actor in DAMAGES.


John Hammes said...

Watch any Tonight Show from the mid to late '70s - from the guest's blazers to the sofa, there will be no shortage of bright plaid to reel from. Nobody was spared.

VP81955 said...

To BA and John Hammes: It wasn't just a Carson thing. Check video footage from any N.C. State basketball game in the '70s to see coach Norm Sloan, the king of plaid sportscoats.

Peter said...

Yo Ken. Friday question. If you could bring back to life three celebrities who died prematurely, who would you bring back and why? I don't mean celebrities who lived a full life and passed at a grand old age, I mean those who went before their time. I know Natalie Wood is a given, so what three OTHER celebrities?

I find it difficult to just pick three, and they keep changing all the time, but my current three I'd bring back are Robin Williams, Heath Ledger and Dominique Dunne.

J Lee said...

Ken --

You said that dumbing down Sam was a mistake, and that Ted rarely complained about the material, but when he did, it was an improvement.

Was there ever an instance where he had a problem with Sam being portrayed as too dumb that caused the script to be changed? (I personally don't remember any episode where Sam's dumbness passed the line from allowable for story purposes to just plain annoying, but it may have helped that "Cheers" always had Coach or Woody to toss the easier dumb/clueless jokes to in the scripts).

Kosmo13 said...

For a gaudy 70's suit that looks ridiculous, check out the one worn by Jack Kelly in "The Becker Connection" episode of The Rockford Files. Jack Carter plays one of Kelly's minions and I always want him to make a wisecrack about it: "Hey, boss, did you whack a circus clown and steal his costume?"

Johnny Walker said...

Fairly certain I've read this before, but it's still a nice read. Earl Pomerantz says that the CHEERS cast were only second to TAXI in terms of how nice they were to work with. (How nice must THEY have been?) Clearly the Charles Brothers were good judges of character.

KLA 83 said...

We need a Levine review of the Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday night

Anonymous said...

We need a Ken Levine review of the Washington Correspondents' Dinner, please.

Mark Cuttz said...

More recently, Danson's comedic range as a mature character was wonderfully shown in the HBO series "Bored to Death".

Steve said...

When I re-watch first season Cheers episodes I am always struck by how Sam isn't just not-that-dumb, he's clearly very intelligent, based on his ability to quickly fire off witty responses and to read people. You really get why Dianne would fall for him, evn if she doesn't really understand it herself. And when she puts him down as some kind of dumb ape just because he doesn't have her level of education, you can really see how self-centred and narrow-minded she is in some ways.

John said...

One thing I always felt happened to the character of Sam over time was that he became much more of a cad and a more relentless womanizer. It seemed to define his existence in the much later seasons, which I always kind of disliked (though not to the extent I thought the show was ruined by it or anything). The Sam Malone of the earlier Cheers seasons was the one I liked best: he was a womanizer for sure, maybe a little dumb, but he was also a guy that you really liked and certainly would've liked in the real world, much like all the Cheers characters. I think that - along with the phenomenal writing - was a huge secret to Cheers' success: the likeability of its characters. They were all people you could care for, you pulled for them when they were struggling and felt their pain when they were down. That is a rarity on tv, especially in a sitcom.

I'm so glad they were wise enough to go with Ted and Shelley for the roles of Sam and Diane. I don't know if the show would've made it otherwise: they were magic together onscreen. Their chemistry was undeniable. Ted's acting really stuck out to me in the episode we just watched with his lucky bottle cap. His acting was so convincing, you really could believe he was a recovering alcoholic. And the fight between Sam and Diane in "Let Me Count The Ways" from Season 1 that we watched last night was brilliant. So funny and so well acted. Both of them could go from dramatic to hysterically funny in a split second. Cheers to Sam, and to Ted Danson. With him the show would never have been the same. He's great on Curb Your Enthusiasm, too, by the way!

Barry Traylor said...

I also think he was fantastic as Hank Larsson in the second season of FARGO.

Cat said...

Not to mention the fantastic "Fargo." The entire cast was stellar, but my favorite was Ted, he was wonderful in it.

Cat said...

It seems Barry and I were fangirling Fargo at the same time.

Scott said...

I realize this may be a fairly stupid question, but why wasn't Ted allowed in the editing session? Is it a union thing? Or just a personal/show rule that you didn't want anyone involved in what you were editing to be present, so that he would't (consciously or subconsciously) affect what you were doing?

Diane D. said...

Although the context implies what is meant more or less, I wondered what a real definition of "fangirling" would be, so I went to the Urban Dictionary and found this hilarious definition that I thought I would share:

The art of obsessing over fandoms, the characters in the fandoms, the actors who play the character ( if the fandom is a film/show ) etc.......
Just saying something to do with a fangirls fandom will usually lead to them frantically crashing into the room youre in making high pitched sounds that to you might sound meaningless, but to other fangirls will make total sense
Person : Dean Winchest-
*loud crashing noises*
*sound of footsteps*
Person: fangirling again?
Fangirl: *nods while spasming on the floor*

Anonymous said...

In regards to Sam dumbing overtime and characters evolving in general: Barry Kemp made an interesting observation in an interview. They asked him why left Taxi, and he said after three seasons, he felt there wasn't any deeper to go with the characters. The only place to go was to go more broad, which is esentially what happened and happens to a lot of shows.

thirteen said...

One thing that's always stuck in my mind is something Ted Danson said when he hosted a Paramount tribute to Star Trek on the occasion of some anniversary or other. There he was, center stage, explaining to the audience his connection to Trek and why he'd been chosen to host the special. There was an exquisitely timed pause, and then he said, "I'm here because my wife's ex-husband killed Captain Kirk."

Garrett said...


I believe I heard that Ted would have appeared in Frasier's "Cheerful Goodbyes" episode if it wasn't for his commitment to "Becker."

Do you think he would have been amenable to appearing as Sam one last time?

Andrew said...

Friday question: Ken, since you've been writing a lot about Sam and Diane... Could you tell us more about Shelley Long's decision to leave the show? Was it primarily about beginning a movie career? And why do you think her career never measured up after Cheers, when she is clearly an incredible talent?

Unknown said...

Two things, 1) I hated Becker. Never could watch it. 2) "dumbing" down of characters seems to be a common plot point. I saw it a lot in Frazier, Golden Girls, MTM, Seinfeld, and others. One episode Frazier would be acting like a goof, then the next episode he is a trained physiatrist, who is above it all. Same thing with the father. One episode he is a intelligent father figure, then next he is screaming about his cheese spread.
Great great write up of Mr. Danson, wish you knew me better so you could write me up like that.