Ted Danson on ‘Devouring’ ‘Fargo’ and Bringing Comic Relief to ‘CSI: Cyber’
The history of television is loaded with one-hit wonders. Then there are those rare stars who stay in the game for life. There’s Shatner. There’s Selleck. And there’s Ted Danson, who can currently be seen in two top series—FX’s Fargo, where he fights small-time mobsters as salt-of-the-earth sheriff Hank Larsson, and CBS’s CSI: Cyber, the new home for his trippy CSI character, forensics whiz D.B. Russell. After 15 Emmy nominations and two wins—both for his breakout role as Sam Malone on Cheers—this silver fox has moved into his golden years with ease and grace and no sign of the neurotic insecurities that plague so many people in showbiz. Or has he? The 67-year-old Danson opens up to us about job panic, fear of aging and why his wife of 20 years, Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, doesn’t think he’s quite as amazing as we do!
What’s with you and law enforcement these days?
It’s my life! I don’t know how it happened that I have two jobs on the right side of the law, but I’m into it in a big way. It’s funny because I originally dismissed the idea of a Fargo series and didn’t watch it. I thought, “Why would anyone want to make that brilliant, wonderful Coen brothers movie into a TV show?”
What changed your mind?
When [showrunner] Noah Hawley expressed interest in me, I binged the first season—I devoured it—and saw that it not only captured the movie’s spirit beautifully but was also amazing in its own right. [Laughs] Suddenly, I was feeling very lucky and grateful they wanted me! Actors have agents and managers. But we also have angels.
The great cable dramas tend to spin on wildly complex characters with twisty secrets—your corrupt, coke-snorting CEO Arthur Frobisher on Damages is a supreme example of that—but Sheriff Larsson is simple, grounded, earnest. What’s the allure there?
Decency isn’t flashy, but it sure is fun to act! Hank’s words are so thoughtful, direct and honest, and then you add that Minnesota dialect that says, “Life is hard. Life is cold. But, by golly, I’m gonna put on a happy face and show up!” and it’s just the most thrilling thing. Hank is like one of those heroes in the old Hollywood Westerns. One day hell descends on him and he’s thrust into the middle of this crime war. There’s something so poignant, sad and sweet about a man who can go up against 10 bad guys and knows he’s not going to win.
On CSI, D.B. brought the gravitas. On CSI: Cyber, he’s the comic relief. Why the switch?
By the end of CSI, D.B. had lost his best friend, gotten divorced and was burned out on dead people. Enough with the autopsies! It was time for him to do something fresh, something that excites him, so now he’s in the world of Wi-Fi gizmos and gadgets and is surrounded by new energy and young people who give him tips about online dating. They are both amused and bemused by how old-fashioned D.B. is. I can relate. In real life, I don’t go anywhere near this cyber stuff and plan to stay that way because…well, so far so good.
Do you actually grow as an actor on a CSI show? They don’t seem to require much heavy lifting.
I totally disagree. In fact, it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. Not only is it heavy on science jargon, but that jargon is what we call, in comedy, “laying pipe.” You set up the boring stuff so someone else can deliver the joke.If you’re a regular in a crime procedural, pretty much all you do is lay pipe, and it’s your job to make that interesting and believable and entertaining. And I don’t always succeed.
You seriously think that?
My success rate is 50-50. Some days I nail it; some days I miss entirely. Trust me, it’s easier to do Shakespeare. Before CSI, I was always playing the guy slightly tilted to the left, slightly bizarre, the silly man, the screwed-up man. I never really stood up straight to play a hero. I don’t know that I could have done Fargo without doing CSI first.
So übercool, always-in-demand Ted Danson worries if he’s good enough?
People think acting is all ego, but it’s really about checking your ego at the door. And that’s scary. With each new role, I go back to that fearful place: “I don’t know what the hell to do with this character! I’m totally blank! I’m such a phony!” [Laughs] I just look like I know what I’m doing because I’m tall.
Well, at least you handle aging awesomely. Will you give yourself that?
Nope. Can’t. I am very fearful of growing older and as vain and prone to panic as anyone, and no one knows that better than my poor wife. If Mary were here, she’d be laughing hysterically and rolling her eyes at your observation. [Laughs] I cannot wait for her to read this!
CSI: Cyber, Sundays, 10/9c, CBS
Fargo, Mondays, 10/9c, FX