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He Who Laughs Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suddenly, here is Ted Danson, back in our sitcom lives. Only this time he came in through the back door--on “Becker,” a midseason replacement on CBS.

Keeping “Becker” off the new fall lineup in favor of the since-canceled “Brian Benben Show” has turned out to be a canny piece of Monday night strategy by CBS. For not only does “Becker” deservedly draw better ratings than its dead-on-arrival predecessor, but the midseason launch gave Danson’s image a few more months of distance from the gaudy failure of “Ink.”

“Ink,” you may remember, was the 1996-97 sitcom starring Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen, which drew attention for all the wrong reasons--principally because CBS made a costly, 22-episode commitment to the stars before there was even a script and then watched as the show limped through a season of expensive creative changes and critical flogging.

“After ‘Ink,’ I thought, all right, that’s it, no more half-hours,” Danson says. “All I can do is Sam Malone, and I don’t want to be Sam Malone, [but] that’s all people want me to do or be, and I sure as hell am not going back to CBS, so I’m outta here.”

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It’s Wednesday, a day of lazy rehearsal on the set, the cast and crew still aglow over last night’s taping, in which Dick Van Dyke did a guest-starring role as Becker’s estranged father. Danson, in blazer, jeans and sneakers, is sitting in the office of the title character he plays, a cranky doctor with more pet peeves than Andy Rooney on a therapist’s couch. Twice-divorced, middle-aged, Becker has given up a high-paying research job at Harvard to open a general practice for low-income patients in the Bronx. But his heart of gold is constantly canceled out by his rants about everyday life.

There’s a discernible bit of Becker in Dave Hackel, the 49-year-old show creator and executive producer. After decades spent on sitcoms such as “Wings,” “Dear John” and “Frasier,” Hackel wanted to do a show in which the lead character could be, well, not nice.

“If you’ve been doing this for a while you realize how long you’ve been censoring yourself,” Hackel says. With this show, Hackel wanted to experiment with “letting a guy say what’s on his mind.”

True to the don’t-make-this-look-like-a-Ted-Danson-vehicle approach, press releases for the show pitched not the star but the character. (Becker on tattoos: “Give me a break. You want to let some ex-biker with a rusty dentist’s drill use your body for a doodle pad, go ahead.”)

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With patients, Becker is gruff, at times reactionary, but at bottom he always cares. In an earlier episode this season, he tells a single mother of four who is thinking about having a fifth to put a piece of Velcro on each knee, so when she hears that tearing sound she’ll know to stop what she’s doing.

“Too rough?” he later asks the woman, chastened by his own cruelty.

The Risk He Took May Be Paying Off

Becker is hardly a revolutionary sitcom character, but he’s at least a breath of hot air in a field crowded with either smug urban yuppies or endearing blue-collar losers. Indeed, even the slightly seedy diner/newsstand where Becker hangs out feels like a throwback to a previous sitcom era. “I used to think he was this angry guy,” Danson says of a character who, very much like Sam Malone, hides his pain with a false front--this time as a cynic. “Now I think what he is is this intensely lonely guy. . . . What I love is how lonely he is, how awkward he is, how he doesn’t want to be touched.”

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For Danson, “Becker” was a calculated risk. Now that risk appears to be paying off. Last week “Becker” held onto the entire “Everybody Loves Raymond” 18-to-49-year-old lead-in audience, scoring very well among women 25-54.

Danson, meanwhile, speaks like a convert to the script-first process.

“This came into being the right way,” he says. “Dave Hackel had a passion for this script. He didn’t write it for anybody. Then CBS said, ‘We like this script.’ I came along and asked, ‘Can I be in this?’ And then we went and made deals. I think that’s how shows stand a chance. If you create something around Ted Danson, you’ve watered down the process already.”

“In ‘Ink,’ we were trying to reproduce Sam Malone,” says a somewhat less contrite Leslie Moonves, CBS Television president. “The same sort of bigger-than-life character. John Becker is very far away from Sam Malone.”

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Trying to Put the Emphasis on Ensemble

Though CBS has faced criticism of late for the multimillion-dollar star deals they’ve handed out (deals that resulted in failed shows like “Ink” and Tom Selleck’s “The Closer”), Moonves says he didn’t hesitate signing Danson to another 13-episode commitment. This despite the conventional wisdom that sitcom lead characters need to be closer in age to Will and Grace than Becker.

“At heart, Ted Danson is a television star,” Moonves says. “He loves the medium. I truly believe if the right piece of material had not come along for two more years, he would have waited two more years.”

For his part, Danson is trying to resist career analysis.

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“I swore to myself not to overthink this, to show up one day at a time,” he says. ". . . I’m trying to be your basic 12-step actor. Thank you for this day.”

At 50, Danson comes off in person as soft-spoken, almost retiring, less vigorous than the broad-shouldered machismo he can still project on TV. Later, over lunch on the set, the discussion turns to the impeachment hearings in Washington.

You can sense him projecting the difficult times in his own past onto the Clinton scandal, when rumors of womanizing and various other PR nightmares threatened to define Danson’s public image.

In part, this is why “Becker” is developing as something of a comeback for him. Danson, not surprisingly, would like this not to be an article about Ted Danson returning to prime time. But he knows that such spin is inevitable.

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“This is all fine and dandy to do Ted Danson for a while, but it better be ensemble in our publicity pretty soon,” he says. “First of all, we deserve to be. And ensemble doesn’t get old as quickly as Ted gets old.”

Danson isn’t as reticent when it comes to fielding questions about “Cheers” and Sam Malone, and whether audiences will ever accept him as anybody else after the 11-year run of that show. To that end, he’s gravitating toward small roles in “my friends’ movies,” including Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Lawrence Kasdan’s forthcoming “Mumford.”

Nevertheless, Danson concedes that “Cheers” has become a kind of albatross. It stands to reason, not least because “Cheers” still airs five nights a week in syndication.

“If ‘Becker’s’ going to really work, and be a strong enough voice to counteract people’s memory of Sam Malone and ‘Cheers,’ then what a great test,” he says. “It’ll have to be so good, the characters will have to be so interesting, that people will go along with it.”

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The Quickest Way to Get on the Air

Creator and executive producer Hackel admits to feeling some trepidation when he was shopping the “Becker” pilot and heard Danson had read the script and loved it. In television, the quickest way to get your show on the air is to have a star attached, but Hackel wasn’t sure Danson was the right person for “Becker.”

“You don’t think of Ted as this edgy guy,” he says.

But a conversation with James Burrows, the co-creator and longtime director on “Cheers,” helped allay his doubts--in Danson, Hackel would have a built-in likability factor.

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Hackel has also peopled Becker’s world with a blind newsstand owner (Alex Desert) and an attractive diner proprietor (Terry Farrell), among others. Regardless, they’re all on the receiving end of Becker’s constant litanies.

Danson’s only beginning to grow into his curmudgeonly role.

“I don’t think Sam really got delicious, didn’t really fill out until about three years into [‘Cheers’],” he says. “And I would hope the same thing would be true with this.

“After doing a show and being out of the limelight and having yourself be judged, you’re devastated for a little while and then you go, ‘You know what? I’m still alive and [you can] kiss my butt,” he says a short time later. “What am I going to do, roll over?”

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* “Becker” airs Monday nights at 9:30 on CBS.


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