At this point in his acting career, Ted Danson would be a good candidate for one of those Disneyland commercials.
Hey, Ted Danson. You've just signed to do two more years of one of the most beloved shows on television. After co-starring last year in one of the top - grossing films of the decade, your new movie is about to become another box - office smash. You're fabulously rich, terribly famous, happily married, the proud parent of two healthy girls. What are you going to do next?
Only Danson wouldn't be going to Disneyland.
I'm going to save the oceans, he'd say.
Like many television stars these days, TV's most famous bartender is strutting his stuff on the silver screen, hoping to carve out a film career that will sustain him when "Cheers" closes down two years from now. And though talking about his "career" is not his favorite topic, Danson, 41, hesitatingly admits to harboring some rather lofty ambitions.
"I'm a respect freak," he said. "One day I would like to walk into a room full of Robert Duvalls and not feel squeamish."
Career talk does make Danson a bit squeamish. He becomes much more animated as soon as he is encouraged to talk about the American Oceans Campaign, an environmental organization he personally founded and funded two years ago to help clean up and protect this country's oceans.
While he concedes that sticking around two more years for an eighth and ninth season as the cocky, girl-chasing, airhead ex-baseball player Sam Malone might not be the absolute best move for his blossoming movie career, the financial security of his seven-figure annual TV salary makes the rest of his life--including his work as an environmentalist--possible.
Besides, Danson said, the box-office success of "Three Men and a Baby" and the generally good reviews he's had for the current "Cousins," makes him more inclined to stick with "Cheers" rather than rush out and make movies full time.
"If the last two movies I made were poorly received and didn't do any box office, then I would want to get out of 'Cheers' as fast as possible and get out there and raise my batting average," Danson said, disputing some industry theories that say the longer an actor stays with a character on TV, the more difficult it is for the audience and movie directors to see him as anything else. (See accompanying story).
"Besides," he added, "I'm trying to be nominated for more Emmys without ever winning than anyone alive."
Danson has been nominated by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences six consecutive years as best actor in a sitcom but has never gone home with the trophy. He has, however, won a Golden Globe Award for his performance as an incestuous father in the TV film "Something About Amelia."
James Burrows, one of the creators and executive producers of "Cheers," believes Danson has a big future in movies, both as a leading man and as a character actor. He said that Danson has grown into his role as Sam--at first, the producers had to teach Danson about baseball and how jocks were supposed to act--and Burrows said that the security and success of "Cheers" has enabled Danson to take on different kinds of roles.
"His appeal is that he's funny and he's good looking," Burrows said, "which is a hard combination to find. That's the most sought after kind of actor both on television and in the movies. Everyone is always looking for that kind of guy."
But Danson admits that playing Sam Malone week after week does hold him back from tackling meatier, Duvall-like roles. He says it will take a few years away from "Cheers" before he will be able to escape the wisecracking, narrow-minded character completely.
"After nine months of doing Sam, it's hard to shake the glibness," Danson said. "I mean, I had to learn what it meant to be a relief pitcher, the crazy guy who comes in when the game is going to hell and gets one shot at saving it. And, by the end of a season of that guy, my mind is always looking for the joke, the ba bum bum. It's unrealistic to think that after scratching only so deep, I could turn around and do 'Hamlet.'
"But I feel I'm a late bloomer anyway. I've always felt that when I'm 45, I'd finally have the weight to start doing interesting work. I think I'm just now starting to worry less about being interesting and more about being interested, more willing and confident to stand still and do nothing rather than always having to dance around real quick for someone's attention. All those things that are more leading-mannish are just now coming to the plate in my own life."
The movie roles he wants are also coming to his plate. While Danson had supporting roles in "Body Heat," "The Onion Field" and "Creepshow" before landing "Cheers" and co-starred in Blake Edwards' forgettable 1986 film "A Fine Mess," a respectable film career became much more than a dream when "Three Men and a Baby" took in nearly $170 million at the box office. Even though "Three Men" was more Tom Selleck's movie than Danson's, the jinx that the audience would not pay to see TV stars they could see each week for free suddenly vanished.
Despite the commercial potential of that film, Danson said he didn't want to do it because his character seemed a bit too close to the "aging adolescent cutup" that is Sam Malone. But Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted.
"I think he's a giant star," Katzenberg said of what he saw and still sees in Danson. "He's charming and likable and romantic and sexy--all the things that we all look for in any leading man. And he's a very gifted actor. He will be around working in films for a long time to come. If you look at what he did in ('Three Men') and in his new movie, his stardom and celebrity clearly translated from television to the movies."
"I probably did have qualms about his being identified so strongly with that TV character until I met him," said Joel Schumacher, director of "Cousins." "Then I knew he was the right person for the part. There was just something about Ted's sweet, all-American guyness that I thought would be sexy and romantic with (co-star) Isabella Rossellini's European sexuality."
The audience apparently agreed. In its first 10 days in limited release, "Cousins," a romantic fairy tale that has been equally praised and panned by the nation's film critics, has earned nearly $8 million. And Danson believes that his performance and the audience's acceptance of him and the film mark his first baby step toward growing into the kind of leading man, the kind of actor, he wants to be.
"Playing a leading man is great, and it was good for me to discover that I could do it," Danson said. "But it was also good to play a character that is not a cutup, that isn't required to try to make people laugh. I'm 41. It should be OK not to have to play the aging adolescent anymore.
"It feels great that people seem to like this movie. It's the first time that I really stuck my neck out as a leading man, so it's gratifying that people accept me in that way. I think this movie will really help me in terms of doing more than Sam Malone. People are already starting to see me differently."
Because he liked his performance in "Cousins," Danson said, there is a temptation to play it safe and do something similar next time out. "But that would probably be a huge mistake," he added. "Five years from now, I want to be doing weightier parts, and that will take some growing, some chances. But now, thanks to 'Cousins,' from an industry standpoint, it looks like I have a shot."
Which is all those crazy, cocky relief pitchers ever really need.