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Ted Danson in the mood for miracles with new TV show

By Luaine Lee | Tribune News Service Published: September 18, 2016 4:00 AM

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Actor Ted Danson stretches his long legs beyond the coffee table in front of him and wonders how he got so lucky. Ever since he played the swinging Sam Malone on "Cheers," Danson has been a shape-shifter, portraying everything from a forensic botanist to an Enron-type financier.

So how at 68 does he manage that? "It's a miracle," says Danson who's in the mood for miracles. He's starring in NBC's comedy, "The Good Place," in which he plays the curator of a sort of quasi-Heaven. Because of a technical glitch, Kristen Bell finds herself mistakenly transported to the good place, when she should've gone the other way.

It's up to Danson to ameliorate the situation when the show premieres next Monday and slides into its regular slot on Sept. 22.

"It's always kind of poking fun at belief systems a little bit," he says. "But it's really about what does it mean to be good or bad? What does it mean to be a good person, and the impact you have on those around you."

Deciding on the right thing is something we all ponder late at night, says Danson. "I do think you probably do know in every moment what the right thing is. There's some part of you that does. Then there's the other part that will argue for practicality or money or fame -- or something will be seductive. But there is a core inside of you most likely that knows what the right thing is and it probably has something to do with being nurturing or kind or something on that side," he says.

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"It's also kind of all miraculous. Who knows? You do have to have a lot of faith and it is a mystery, and that's why we're all here. You may know what the right thing is but you don't DO the right thing all the time, constantly. But you learn from your mistakes. So you go, 'OK, I didn't listen to that part of me.'"

It's a good thing he didn't listen after his show "Becker" was canceled because Danson was convinced he'd outstayed his welcome. He'd tried another 30-minute sitcom only to have that fail.

"I wasn't amusing myself. I thought other people were doing it funnier and better. And my feelings had been hurt because the show I'd been on had been canceled. So it was a combination of things."

He decided he needed to get back into film. "It was during that time I called my friend Jeffrey Katzenberg and said, 'Can you please just get me into anything. I don't care how small. I just need to be working in films.' So that conversation was: I got to fly to England and be part of 'Saving Private Ryan' and work with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for two or three days. And it was just the most wonderful experience.

"But then what happened to me was Larry David said, 'Come on and let's be silly.' And ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") it was so casual and off-hand and fun that I started to laugh again."

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After that came "Damages," which began as a very tiny role, But Danson was aware of the fine reputation of the executive producers, and he agreed to do it. "And that's when I started to go, 'Ah-h-h-h, let's go find people you respect hugely, the work they've done up to this point, and be part of it. And don't think that you have to have the biggest part or the most money, just be part of it.' I think that kind of rehabilitated me and 'Bored to Death' came along when I had the most delicious fun. That's why I'm still around."

Another reason he's still around is his wife, actress Mary Steenburgen. "Meeting Mary and somehow having her see through all the stuff around me," he laughs, "and be able to find ME, and to be together for 23 years," he shakes his head.

They actually met casually several times. "I auditioned for 'Cross Creek' where I was to play her husband, but I didn't get it. But I had a little photograph of that moment in my mind. We said 'hello' to each other with our respective husbands and wives at a Henry Winkler barbeque birthday party years ago in his back yard. We also said 'hi' to each other at a party at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in '92. But then we did a film together called 'Pontiac Moon' where we fell in love."

Together they reared four kids, two of his and two of hers. He says, "I had no glimmering idea what it would mean to have these now grown-up people in my life. Having my children in the midst of me thinking about career and who I am and will I make it? That moment of having a child had an impact that was godlike."

His dream now is just to continue. "I want to see grandkids get married. I want to be with Mary when we're really, really old. I'd love to squeeze every little ounce out of life.

"It's a miracle, I don't know why we're here. I don't know why I've been so blessed in life. But just say, 'Thank you.' Make sure to be grateful and do as much as you can for those around you. I don't live my life like that every second, but when I do, my life is heaven on earth."

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