‘The Good Place’s’ Ted Danson likes to play characters who ‘are not standing straight up’

Ted Danson
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

“You just keep looking for material,” Ted Danson says of being an actor. “You keep looking for really creative people to associate yourself with. I don’t have a plan. It’s just about keeping my eyes open for the most creative people in the room and then asking them very nicely if I can be involved in whatever they’re doing. That’s my motto.”

He adds, “And I’ve been very blessed.”

The 70-year-old actor, who stars in the NBC comedy “The Good Place,” is best known for his television roles, particularly his 11-year stint as Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Danson’s latest project is an independent film called “Hearts Beat Loud,” opening June 8 in Los Angeles, which he shot over two days simply because he wanted to work with Nick Offerman, who was a cast mate in the second season of “Fargo” on FX.

Looking back, Danson can see a congruency in the roles he’s taken.

“Most of the characters I take are not standing straight up,” he notes. “They’re kind of tilted to one side or the other. They’re either a little silly or a little weird or a little demonic. It’s rare that I can stand up straight and play the ‘follow me, ma’am’ hero. I usually play the guy who will make you laugh because he’s silly or he’s weird. I don’t know what that is – maybe my massive insecurities as a person make it easier for me to play somebody left of center.”


Here, Danson discusses his new film and some of his best-known projects:

Hearts Beat Loud,” Dave (2018)

“My friend Nick Offerman, who we all know is a brilliant character actor, is the reason why I did this film. And then I fell in love with everybody, including Brett [Haley], the writer-director. But for some reason it absolutely terrifies me to get behind a bar and act. I get nervous. I start to sweat. You’d think I’d be good at – I’m terrible at it. So that was something I had to confront.”

“The Good Place,” Michael (2016-present)

“Mike Schur, the creator, is an amazing, bright, interesting writer. The show follows that rule of thumb where if you have a really talented writer with something they really want to say and put out into the world it attracts really interesting people. I came onboard knowing Kristen Bell was involved. We listened to this hour-long pitch from Mike about what he wanted to do and it was so interesting and so different. I had to say yes. We both signed on without even reading a script. It’s wonderful to be on a show that’s talking about decency without lecturing anybody.”


“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Ted Danson (2000-2017)

“My wife and I met Larry [David] 12 or 13 years ago. We were on the same island and he had just shot the pilot for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and he wanted to show everybody. We went over to his house and watched it and I was like ‘I guess this is good.’ I wanted to be supportive so Mary and I said, ‘Any time you want us to come play on it we’d love to.’ It turned out, for me, to be one of the big game-changing moments in my career. I had just come to the conclusion that I’d stayed too long at the half-hour sitcom party and I wasn’t finding myself funny anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Then this came along and I started to have fun again. It made a huge difference in my career.”

“Bored to Death,” George Christopher (2009-2011)

“Oh man, Jonathan Ames – one of the most astounding, quirky, loving writers I’ve ever met. This all came from his wonderfully bizarre mind. And working with Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis was like a dream come true. It was really a great experience. At the time I certainly wished it had gone on longer.”

Becker,” Dr. John Becker (1998-2004)

Ted Danson, star of "Becker," on the show's set at Paramount studios in Hollywood.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times )

“After doing ‘Cheers’ it was a distinctly different voice for me, which I think is why it succeeded. I still get people in the service industry who have to deal with the public coming up to me and going ‘Oh, I loved Becker because he got to say things I can only think.’ Being politically correct takes a lot of energy, so it’s fun to shoot your mouth off.”

Saving Private Ryan,” Capt. Hamill (1998)

“This was at the time when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do TV anymore so I called my friend Jeffrey Katzenberg and I said, ‘If there’s anything that comes along you don’t have to pay me.’ I just wanted to be in a movie. And this came along. I did only two or three days on set. But to me the pleasure of being in a scene with Tom Hanks and watching him work and then watching Steven [Spielberg] work was worth it. I think I did get paid for it because of SAG rules.”

“Cheers,” Sam Malone (1982-1993)

“It is the reason why I get to do anything in this business. It’s because of the success and people’s endearing memories of ‘Cheers’ that I get to work. So for me it’s pretty much everything. And I loved watching it. I haven’t seen it for a while, but it’s still funny. My friends still make me laugh. It is astounding that I got to play Sam Malone. I’m forever grateful.”

“3 Men and a Baby,” Jack Holden (1987)

“It’s pretty interesting casting – this was thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg again. Putting me, Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg in a movie was really interesting at the time. But what made it outstanding was that Leonard Nimoy directed us. He came in at the last moment because the director they had wasn’t able to do it. One of the favorite things of my life was that I got to be friends with Leonard Nimoy. And having all those personalities in the film, including 3-month-old babies, took a Leonard Nimoy. We all had so much respect for him and he did an amazing job.”

The Doctors,” Dr. Chuck Weldon (1975)

“It was terrifying. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not going. I’m not going to do it.’ There was this wise psychologist that all of my college friends were somehow going to at the same time, who went ‘Now Ted, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Just show up. Take a Valium tonight.’ Valium and I don’t get along. So off I went to work the next day like a cartoon joke, perspiring in sheets, heart pounding. I was horrible. I did not last long on that show, needless to say.”