Thanks to the magic of syndication, it’s safe to say that Ted Danson is probably on some show, on some TV channel, somewhere, at any given time of the day. From his breakout role as Sam “Mayday” Malone on Cheers to his recent tenure on the beloved show The Good Place, Danson has been a fixture on the small screen—but behind the scenes, he’s seen more than his fair share of controversy and scandal. Pour yourself a frosty one for these 50 facts about Ted Danson.
While contemporary audiences may know him from CSI, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Good Place, Ted Danson’s breakout role was as Sam Malone in the sitcom Cheers. It was one of the most popular shows of its time, running for 11 seasons and 275 episodes. Throughout his career, Danson has been nominated for 17 Emmys, winning two, and 10 Golden Globes, winning three.
In the 90s, Ted Danson became famous for another reason—he was at the center of Hollywood’s most expensive divorce when he separated from his second wife, Cassandra Coates, after more than a decade of marriage. It reportedly cost Danson more than $30 million.
Ted Danson had a bizarre hobby as a kid—one that he and his friends called “billboarding.” One of his father’s colleagues at the Museum of North Arizona introduced a 12-year-old Danson and one of his friends to the “game,” where they’d go out with axes and saws and take down billboards. He estimates that they took down over 500 outdoor signs.
The destructive habit had noble intentions, at least—Danson counts it as his first brush with environmental activism, a cause that he’s been interested in ever since.
Ted Danson was born Edward Bridge Danson III in San Diego to Jessica MacMaster and Edward “Ned” Bridge Danson Jr.—yes, that makes him Ned Danson. His father was an archaeologist and acted as director of the Museum of North Arizona for a significant portion of Ted’s teen and adult years.
While his character on Cheers was a retired baseball player, Danson was more into basketball growing up. When he was 14 years old, he began attending a prep school in Connecticut to play on their basketball team, where he became the star player—and where he absolutely relished the crowd's positive reaction to his performance on the court.
It was that same love of a positive reaction from an audience that led Ted Danson into acting. While he was attending Stanford University, he asked out a coed who was working at the cafeteria there. She had plans to attend an audition for a play, so he tagged along and auditioned as well. When he improvised a joke and got a laugh, he remembered thinking that it wasn’t as good as basketball…but still enjoyable.
Danson got the part he was auditioning for—and it changed his life forever. From that moment on, he was in love with acting. He dropped all his non-theater classes at Stanford and spent all of his time working on productions there, but it still wasn’t enough. He found out that there was a stronger drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, so he transferred there.
While he was still at Carnegie Mellon, Danson met fellow actor Randall “Randy” Gosch. When they married in 1970, she was just 20 years old and he was 23—but their union was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Danson graduated in 1972, but didn’t find much work right away. Then in 1975, at the same time that his career began to look up, Danson and Gosch divorced.
After Cheers took off, Gosch began to use the name “Randy Danson” at auditions in order to profit from his fame.
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After Danson graduated, he got a number of guest spots on TV shows. With his tall frame and classic good looks, it’s unsurprising that his first regular spot on a TV show was on a soap opera. Danson appeared in 19 different episodes of the soap The Doctors between 1977 and 1982.
That towering height we mentioned? Danson stands 6’2” tall. In comparison, his The Good Place co-star Kristen Bell is 5’1” tall, and his Cheers love interest Shelley Long was 5’6”.
While TV work wasn’t steady for Danson at the beginning of his career, he was in two blockbuster movies in the early 80s. First, he appeared in the thriller Body Heat, which was both a financial and critical success. Then, he was in the anthology horror movie Creepshow, which was Warner Bros’ biggest horror film ever at the time and is now a cult classic.
In a strange coincidence, both feature plots where women cheat on their wealthy husbands.
As we mentioned earlier, Cheers was really Ted Danson’s breakout role—but he nearly didn’t get the part. In the original pilot, the character of Sam Malone was an ex-football player. Producers had picked former NFL star Fred Dryer for the lead, along with a different actress for Diane. However, when they saw the chemistry between Danson and Shelley Long, they cast the pair instead.
To accommodate Danson’s frame, the show's producers rewrote the part of Sam as a former baseball player—but they didn’t totally leave Dryer out in the cold once they picked Danson. He appeared on Cheers as a sportscaster and former teammate of Sam’s named Dave Richards in four different episodes.
Who better than a famous TV bartender to become the face of a booze brand? Well, probably a lot of other people. In 2017, Danson became the spokesperson for the vodka brand Smirnoff—but was quick to point out that he knew very little about most alcohol during his press tour, despite having gone to bartending school pre-Cheers.
However, he did share his go-to cocktail, saying that it used to be a vodka-cranberry juice, but that he now prefers a “filthy” martini when the occasion calls for it.
Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen play fictionalized versions of themselves on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but a recent plotline had Danson more than a little ticked off. In the last couple of seasons, their “characters” have separated, with Danson occasionally dating Larry David’s ex-wife Cheryl. Danson has said that since the plotline was introduced, he’s had friends call him who actually believe that the couple split, and that he thinks David wrote it in just to mess with him.
When your face is on TV every night of the week thanks to syndication, you’re bound to have some creepy run-ins with fans—and Danson remembers one in particular that he thought might end in catastrophe. He was on the street in New York City when a man sidled up to him and whispered, “Hey Ted, you remember that time I watched you on TV?” Luckily, he was able to answer politely and walk away quickly, but the encounter still left him shaken.
Before blockbuster sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, there was Cheers, which was on the air from September 1982 to May 1993. Ted Danson played the main character, Sam Malone, a bar owner who had a classic will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with a snooty waitress named Diane Chambers. While Cheers became one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, it nearly ended before it had even gotten started.
The first season of Cheers got absolutely dismal—and we mean dismal—ratings. It finished 74th out of 77 shows in its first year. It’s safe to say that if the same thing occurred in 2020, it never even would’ve made it past the first few episodes. But, back then, TV had a different landscape. Luckily for Cheers (and Danson), the show was beloved by both critics and an equally important figure: Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC’s entertainment division.
Without the support of Tartikoff and acclaim from TV critics, we wouldn’t have Cheers, Frasier, The Good Place, or who knows how many other sitcoms.
Despite its low ratings, Cheers also did well at the Emmys in its first season. Like, unbelievably well. It won Best Comedy Series, Shelley Long won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and Ted Danson netted his first of many nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Cheers still holds the record for the most nominations for a comedy series, with 117 nominations over its 11-year run.
The humor of Cheers may seem vanilla to audiences today, but during its time on air, it could be quite dark and racy at different turns. For example, Danson’s character was a recovering alcoholic who owned a bar—and who had more than a few relapses over the years. The first season also featured an episode where one of Malone’s former teammates comes out the closest.
The writers of the episode ended up winning an award from GLAAD for the way they handled the subject.
In 1988, Cheers' writers had a plan for Danson’s character that was way more risqué than anything else they’d ever done before. They had an idea for a cliffhanger season finale where Sam Malone finds out that one of his ex-girlfriends is HIV-positive and has to consider the fact that he may also be affected. However, because of a strike by the Writer’s Guild of America, these episodes never went beyond the ideas stage.
It’s rare we saw him do more than pour a beer or a neat whiskey at Cheers, but in real life, Ted Danson had the skills to pay the bills—that is, he attended bartending school in Burbank, California, while preparing for the role of Sam Malone.
For every single season that Cheers was on the air, Ted Danson was nominated for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, winning twice. Every. Single. Year. Danson is in a league of his own, with one small exception: Kelsey Grammer, of course. Grammer was nominated 10 times in the same category and won four awards—but without Danson and the success of Cheers, would he even have been there?
To play the heartthrob character of Sam Malone, Danson, who had thinning hair IRL, wore a hairpiece. When he attended the Emmys in 1990, he chose to go au naturel at the ceremony and leave the piece at home. It probably wouldn’t have gotten so much attention if it hadn’t been the first time in seven years that he won the award he was nominated for!
Danson handled the attention well, and the show even went on to poke fun of it in 1993, in an episode where Malone takes off his hairpiece, much to the surprise of his colleague Carla.
After Cheers took off, Danson appeared in a handful of movies and other TV shows—but in 1984, he took on a role that was so disturbing, it’s unforgettable. He appeared in a TV movie called Something About Amelia. The film centers around the character of Amelia Bennett, who begins to realize that she had been abused throughout her childhood by her father Steven—played by Danson.
The film wound up getting Danson his very first Golden Globe award.
As you’ve heard us say a dozen times already, Cheers gave Danson his breakout role, and in a way, Danson’s charisma and talent made the show a hit—but where he giveth, and he also taketh away. When Danson did eventually decide to leave the show after 11 years, producers weren’t about to let their cash cow go, so they came up with a plan.
Danson’s character Sam Malone was a charismatic heartthrob. Woody Harrelson’s character Woody was charismatic, and also pretty good-looking, if a bit dense. Producers decided that after Danson left, Woody would be the center of the show—but there was just one problem. Harrelson had no interest in continuing the show without Danson.
And so, that’s how it was decided that the 1992-1993 season would be Cheers’ final one on air.
In the early 90s, Ted Danson was on top of the world. He was the star of the biggest sitcom on TV, married with two children, and in demand for both film and TV roles— but through it all, the Dansons were hiding a secret pain. The stroke that Cassandra had suffered while giving birth to their first daughter and its aftermath had left its mark on the couple.
The trauma of it all had not only changed them both, but had also changed their relationship.
Ted Danson met comedian Whoopi Goldberg while both were guests on an episode of The Arsenio Hall Show in 1988. The pair quickly struck up a friendship and worked on multiple projects together. In 1992, they were both cast in the comedy Made in America, in which their characters became romantically involved. The movie brought the friends closer together than they had ever been before—but it would also turn both of their lives into a tabloid circus.
While filming Made in America, Danson and Goldberg began an affair that would make them the subject of unrelenting tabloid scrutiny. They were both at the top of their careers, and Danson seemed unapologetic about it, appearing with Goldberg on a Rock the Vote TV special and planning to star in a film adaptation of the novel Pink Vodka Blues with her. The attention intensified when it became clear that Danson would leave his wife and kids for Goldberg—but the worst was yet to come.
When Cheers aired its final episode in 1993, it was the end of an era. The cast and crew watched the finale at the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston, the bar that had provided the exterior shots for the show, while fans gathered outside. Afterward, they were all slated to appear on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to send the show off into the sunset—but there was just one problem.
They'd all gotten rip-roaring drunk at the Bull & Finch!
Danson says he remembers the exact moment that Leno looked up at the cast before the show went on air, and says he could see Leno realize he was in deep trouble. A slew of inappropriate jokes followed—including one where Woody Harrelson suggested that he’d performed certain—umm—favors for Danson. That’s one way to go out!
Somehow, they all made it through the 90-minute show.
Fresh from his divorce from second wife Cassandra Coates and his 11-year run with Cheers, and Danson was the very definition of a free man. He started by appearing in a few films, among them one called Pontiac Moon. When the film was first in production, Danson’s wife was supposed to be played by Whoopi Goldberg. She dropped out, and Mary Steenburgen stepped into her role—in more ways than one.
Danson immediately got along with Steenburgen, and soon enough, they fell in love. As Danson tells it, they realized they were more than friends while filming a long scene where their two characters were canoeing together. Steenburgen, however, has a different story. She thought he was a vain womanizer like his character on Cheers, so she didn’t take him entirely seriously at first—but when she got to know him, she fell too.
It can be difficult to transition into a different role when you become famous playing one character, but after Cheers ended, Ted Danson dove right into the deep end. After a few false starts, he spent six seasons as the lead on the show Becker, before beginning a recurring role as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm. More recently, he’s appeared as director D.B. Russell on over 100 episodes across three different series in the CSI franchise—but one of his best roles was yet to come.
In 2016, Danson was cast in the fantasy-comedy series The Good Place as Michael, the “architect.” The hit show aired for four seasons—but not without getting a sly reference to Danson’s days as Sam Malone in. In one episode, Danson’s character appears as a bartender. However, his character’s favorite TV show is actually the sitcom Friends.
After all the turmoil of divorce and a public affair, Ted Danson really found his person when he met Mary Steenburgen. The couple is still together, and will celebrate their 25-year wedding anniversary in October 2020.
Since Pontiac Moon, Danson and Steenburgen have continued to appear on screen together. They both starred in the hit miniseries Gulliver’s Travels, appeared in the sitcom Ink in the 90s, and Steenburgen even popped up in the series finale of The Good Place.
Danson has been interested in environmentalism since he was a teen—but while he was a vandal then, he’s been a much more constructive member of the cause since then. In the 80s, he helped create the American Oceans Campaigns charity, now known as Oceana. He published a book in 2011 titled Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do To Save Them.
Journalist Michael D’Orso co-wrote the book with him—but when it comes to his passion for the environment, Danson didn’t stop there.
In 2019, actress Jane Fonda made headlines when she was repeatedly arrested outside of the US Capitol Building as part of a protest against climate change. On October 25, Danson joined her protest, and was also promptly arrested on charges of “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding.”
With many 80s and 90s hit shows coming back to cash in the nostalgia of their audiences like Full House, Mad About You, and Murphy Brown, many Cheers fans have clamored for the return of their favorite crew of bar staff and patrons. But just as Danson was the one to decide when the show ended, he’s also decided that it won’t be returning to screens.
He says that the cast is too old, as many are in their 70s (himself included).
While Danson was still playing small parts on classic 70s TV shows, he met a producer named Cassandra “Casey” Coates, and she had more in store for him than just acting roles. The pair fell in love and got married in 1977. A few years later, Coates got pregnant. The pair was ecstatic, but a dark tragedy lurked around the corner.
Their daughter Kate was born on Christmas Eve, 1979—but Coates almost didn’t live to see her grow up. Coates suffered a stroke while giving birth. Doctors rushed to save her, and while they succeeded, the stroke took its toll. She would end up needing medical care and rehabilitation for years afterward.
Danson was the one to step up and care for Coates, helping his wife recuperate while raising an infant daughter.
While the stroke and its aftermath must have been a terrifying moment for Danson and Coates, it didn’t diminish their love of parenting. A few years after Kate was born, they adopted another girl and named her Alexis.
In 1993, Whoopi Goldberg was being honored at a Friars Club comedy roast. When Danson came onstage to perform his monologue as part of the roast, the audience was shocked and appalled. Not only was the actor in blackface, he proceeded to perform a bit that where he aped multiple racial stereotypes and made liberal use of the N-word.
The incident immediately made tabloid headlines, and it did not look good for Danson.
Goldberg jumped to Danson’s defense, claiming that she’d not only written his monologue with him, but that she had been the one to suggest he appear in blackface. She claimed that the Friars Club roasts had a long history of shocking humor and that Danson’s bit was just continuing that tradition. Whether or not her statement temporarily appeased critics, the controversy was just too much for their relationship to weather.
The roast took place in October 1993. Less than a month later, Danson and Goldberg released a statement saying that they had decided to end their relationship, blaming the attention from the press for the split. It had lasted about a year and a half, and had cost Danson his marriage—but that wasn’t the only thing that he lost.
Danson’s affair with Goldberg sparked one of the most notorious divorces in Hollywood history. After all, by 1993, Danson was earning $450,000 per episode on the final season of Cheers. Danson’s $30 million split from Coates was reported to be one of the most expensive divorces that Hollywood had ever seen.
While Danson and Goldberg remained mostly mum after announcing their split in 1993, Goldberg recently revealed the pain and regret she feels over their failed relationship. After the blackface controversy, Goldberg tried to take the heat for it all and regretted all the pain that she caused Danson. He was the one to end the relationship, and Goldberg said: “It was real painful, and it was very public. And the loss of his friendship hurts a great deal.”
She says that she’s friends with every man that she’s ever dated, except for Danson.
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