By Peter Hummers on February 18, 2021
TV viewers who missed Ted Danson on soap operas Somerset and The Doctors in 1975-’76 saw him in author Joseph Wambaugh’s 1979 film of his own book, The Onion Field, and in director Lawrence Kasdan’s first film, Body Heat, in small parts. Danson was boosted from minor celebrity to A-list prominence, however, when he signed on to the groundbreaking TV sitcom Cheers in 1982. His charisma was on full display as womanizing bar owner Sam Malone, especially when paired with Shelley Long, who played the waitress who changed his life.
A long résumé of successes followed; Ted has just begun Mr. Mayor [streaming here] for NBC, which dropped its eighth episode today. Here are three notable shows that he’s completed.
Screenwriters and producers Glen and Les Charles (Taxi) and director James Burroughs [The Bob Newhart Show] considered producing an American take on [Fawlty Towers], placing the series in a bar. When their concept began to resemble the radio show Duffy’s Tavern (written by Burroughs’ father Abe), they settled on what we saw: Most of the action takes place in one room (the bar) with a very few secondary sets (the owner’s office, a few apartments), among a group of regulars and rotating visitors.
Ted Danson played Sam Malone, a womanizing ex-baseball player and recovering alcoholic who owns a Boston bar. In the films The Onion Field and Body Heat, Danson seemed ephemeral, almost blending into the scenery, but on Cheers, he owned the camera: tall, lanky, ruggedly handsome and charismatic. Movie veteran Shelley Long (Night Shift, Losin’ It) played Diane Chambers, a blue-blooded Bennington graduate who finds herself stranded in Boston after being stood up at the altar and agrees to work at Sam’s bar, Cheers, where the two begin an on-again off-again romance that provides the backbone of the show.
The writing is terrific, incorporating some serious subjects such as adultery, loneliness and alcoholism, but potentially mauldlin situations surrender to brilliant comedy with perfect timing. It’s never not entertaining. Cheers’ first season was slow to find an audience, but when it took off it became a cultural phenomenon, attracting A-list guest stars (such as Fawlty Towers’ John Cleese), talented newcomers (including Harry Anderson; [Newhart’s] Julia Duffy, who had also auditioned for the part of Diane; and Seinfeld’s Michael Richards) and growing the careers of Danson, Long, Kelsey Grammer, Rhea Perlman, Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson and others. Cheers won 28 Primetime Emmy Awards, from a record 117 nominations, and ran for 275 very funny and sometimes touching episodes.
If one were to look for Sam Malone’s opposite, John Becker would appear. A crotchety physician who wears drab clothing and seems slightly hunched over, John Becker runs a small practice in the Bronx with a habitual frown. The main sets are his office and examing room, and the dingy diner where he eats, presided over by ex-beauty queen Reggie (Terry Farrell, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and blind newsstand operator Jake (Alex Désert, Boy Meets World). Trying to quit smoking, he keeps a pack of cigarettes in Reggie’s cash register, and is known for his rants, such as this one about the evening news, delivered while going for a cigarette on entering the diner:
“They’re doing a story about violence in America. And while they are interviewing a bloated senator from one of our great trailer park states, instead of making guns harder to get, he blames the violence on television. What about all the violence that happened before television? I suppose the Spanish Inquisition came off a bad episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island?’ Oh great, no cigarettes, the perfect cherry on this crap sundae of a morning!”
Jake is Becker’s pal, while Reggie and Becker tolerate each other, and in the office, Becker has to deal with an officious but good-hearted office manager/nurse Margaret (Hattie Winston, The Electric Company), her air-headed aide Linda, and a parade of annoying patients.
Becker debuted as part of CBS’ highly rated Monday night lineup as a midseason replacement, taking over the timeslot at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. The show performed well for its first four seasons, piggybacking off the ratings of its lead-in, Everybody Loves Raymond; in its first four seasons, Becker ranked in the top 20 and peaked at #13. It’s a well-worn, comfortable sitcom.
If not for Danson’s fine work in Season 2 of [Fargo][trailer], in which he plays the protagonist’s father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson, I might not have checked out The Good Place, which from its print advertising seemed a bit precious. I’m glad I took the plunge, though, as its concept and writing made me realize that its fey presentation is part of the joke.
The Good Place stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Eleanor Shelstrop, an amoral pharmaceutical saleswoman who, upon her death, finds herself in “the good place,” apparently being mistaken for a namesake, a selfless death-row advocate. She gradually realizes that if she doesn’t want to be relocated to the horrifying “bad place,” she must learn at least to be nice. Ted Danson plays Michael, the architect of the neighborhood in “the good place” in which Eleanor finds herself, and who might be an angel. Michael is enthusistic and a little feckless, and worries about his neighborhood’s weird phenomena, such as garbage occasionally raining from the skies, not knowing that it’s due to Eleanor’s presence.
The dialogue is knowing and sharp; one running gag concern’s Eleanor’s inability to swear (not possible in the good place): “Somebody’s royally forked up—why can’t I say ‘fork?’”
“If you’re trying to swear, you can’t, here.”
Next time, he played “Frasier Crane” for twenty years: Kelsey Grammer.
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