Coffee Dates And Dropped Cue Cards: Ted Danson's Path To 'Cheers'

Coffee Dates And Dropped Cue Cards: Ted Danson's Path To 'Cheers'

3:57pm Aug 10, 2015
Danson starred in Cheers as bar owner Sam Malone. "Cheers was like being shot out of a cannon as far as celebrity, or attention from the public," he says.
Danson starred in Cheers as bar owner Sam Malone. "Cheers was like being shot out of a cannon as far as celebrity, or attention from the public," he says.
Herb Ball / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
  • Danson starred in Cheers as bar owner Sam Malone. "Cheers was like being shot out of a cannon as far as celebrity, or attention from the public," he says.

    Danson starred in Cheers as bar owner Sam Malone. "Cheers was like being shot out of a cannon as far as celebrity, or attention from the public," he says.

    Herb Ball / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

  • Danson credits his big break in Cheers to Shelley Long, who played his love interest, Diane Chambers. "She was really magnificent," Danson says.

    Danson credits his big break in Cheers to Shelley Long, who played his love interest, Diane Chambers. "She was really magnificent," Danson says.

    NBC Television / Getty Images

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

A young Ted Danson had just gotten the courage to ask his college crush out on a coffee date. The two hit it off until she abruptly told him she had to leave.

She said she was heading to an audition for a play on campus. So Danson asked if he could join. It's not like he had an interest in theater — he just wanted to keep the date going.

"And then to stay in the room with her, I had to actually audition," Danson says. "And I had nothing prepared, so I just kind of made something up. And I got the smallest part you could get. I was like the fourth rifle carrier on the left. But I was hooked."

From that point forward, acting was all Danson could think about. He took any role he could get his hands on and he moved to Los Angeles in search of his big break. He started with TV commercials and landed an Aramis cologne ad.

Ted Danson became "The Aramis Man."

From cologne, Danson graduated to soaps — shows like Somerset and The Doctors. Danson says it still haunts him to this day.

"It was the nightmare, you know. The actor's nightmare, doing a soap opera," he says. "You got the lines the night before, there was nothing natural about them, they were all kind of repetitive. And back then, you couldn't stop tape. A wall could fall, and you did not stop."

In The Doctors, Danson was cast as Mitch Pierson, a calm, cool doctor who breaks news to a family that its daughter has a terminal illness.

But Danson's first day on set was the opposite of calm and cool. Worried about the rigors of taping a soap opera, he had a nervous breakdown.

"I called a friend and he said, 'Take a Valium,' " Danson says. "So I took a Valium, and Valium and I don't work very well together. So I was pouring sheets of sweat, trying to be cool and reassure this family who's looking at me like, 'Dear God, I hope this actor makes it.' "

He wasn't remembering his lines so he was relying on the cue cards. That is, until the guy holding his cue card dropped it.

"It wafted like a paper airplane right onto my lap," Danson says.

It was out of frame, so they kept rolling. Danson, drenched in sweat and looking straight down at his lines, just kept going.

"Really scary stuff," he says. "Clearly I was not a huge success. Thumb through the soap opera magazines, you will not find me."

Danson lasted two episodes on The Doctors. But soaps launched him into film; he starred in the 1979 movie The Onion Field and Body Heat two years later.

Then, there was Cheers.

"Cheers is the big break," Danson says. "Cheers was like being shot out of a cannon as far as celebrity, or attention from the public."

He played bar owner Sam Malone, who has an on-and-off relationship with Diane Chambers, played by Shelley Long.

"I still say that I got hired for Cheers because I was paired with Shelley Long," Danson says. "She was really magnificent."

The show lasted 11 seasons and, according to Nielsen figures, an estimated 93.9 million viewers watched the final episode on May 20, 1993.

Now, Danson stars in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fargo, and he played George Christopher in HBO's Bored to Death.

"I'm 67, about to be 68, and I get the same kick out of being hired and going to work," Danson says. "And being in New York as an actor, looking for work, getting work, studying, I mean — I couldn't recommend it more highly. And then being in front of a camera is pretty much as good as it gets."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A young Ted Danson had just gotten the courage to ask his college crush out on a coffee date. The two were hitting it off. Then, midway through their coffee...

TED DANSON: ...She said I have go. Where are you going? I have to go audition for this play. Oh, can I come - just to be with her. And then to stay in the room with her I had to actually audition. And I had nothing prepared, so I just kind of made something up. And I got the smallest part you could get. And I was like the fourth rifle carrier on the left, but I was hooked.

RATH: Acting was all Danson could think about. He took any role he could get his hands on and moved to L.A. in search of his big break. He started with TV commercials and landed an Aramis cologne ad. Ted Danson became the Aramis man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARAMIS AD)

KIM TERRY MASTERS: Tom, what are you doing here?

DANSON: Meetings - you are more beautiful than ever.

MASTERS: You still say the right thing.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Aramis - the impact never fades.

DANSON: This is cruel. OK, this just went to someplace else this whole interview. I'm out of here.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Danson graduated from cologne commercials to soap operas. He was on shows like "Somerset" and "The Doctors." He says it was horrible.

DANSON: It was the nightmare - you know, the actor's nightmare, doing a soap opera. You got the lines the night before. There was nothing natural about them. They were all kind of repetitive. And back then, you couldn't stop tape. A wall could fall, and you did not stop. So it was - you know, it was terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANSON: Some of the shows still had cue cards - big white sheets. And this time I was a doctor reassuring the family whose daughter has cancer, and I have to break the bad news, but I am a reassuring, great bed-side manner doctor. And the first day I was having a nervous breakdown. And I called a friend; he said take a Valium.

So I took a Valium, and Valium and I don't work very well together. So I was pouring sheets of sweat, trying to be cool and reassure this family who's looking at me like, dear God, I hope this actor makes it.

And one of the cue cards from the guy who was holding it dropped and it wafted like a paper airplane right onto my lap. Those words that I was looking for all of a sudden now were in my lap - it - really scary stuff. (Unintelligible) I was not a huge success. Thumb through the soap opera magazines; you will not find me (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANSON: "Cheers" is the big break. "Cheers" was lightning shot out of the canon as far as celebrity or attention from the public. And I got introduced into the mainstream of television getting to play Sam Malone. I still say that I got hired for "Cheers" because I was paired with Shelley Long. She was really magnificent.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")

SHELLEY LONG: (As Diane Chambers) You, Sam Malone, are the most arrogant, self-centered son...

DANSON: Well, there's that kind of famous scene in "Cheers" where we have resisted each other. We're in the middle of a fight. And insults - this is in my office - are flying back and forth, and we're just yelling at each other. At one point, I think I say are you as turned on as I am?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")

DANSON: (As Sam Malone) Are you as turned on as I am?

LONG: (As Diane Chambers) More.

(LAUGHTER)

DANSON: And we have our first kiss, but it came out of this raging fight. It was like theater.

I'm 67, about to be 68, and I get the same kick out of being hired and going to work. I really do. And being in New York as an actor, looking for work, getting work, studying, I mean, it was - I couldn't recommend it more highly. And then being in front of a camera is pretty much as good as it gets.

RATH: That's actor Ted Danson. You don't have to be the star of "Cheers" to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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