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Ted Danson: ‘No One Has Ever Hired Me to Take My Clothes Off and Be Sexy. No One.’

We are deep into the second golden age of Ted Danson, one marked by his embrace of pompous, egotistical characters undone by their own vanity, such as Damages's corrupt businessman Arthur Frobischer and Bored to Death's hedonist publisher George Christopher. (Studied Dansonites had noticed the germs of the transformation when he played a brilliant but selfish therapist in 2006's underappreciated sitcom Help Me Help You.) But is the prolific and re-hallowed Danson content just basking in TV fame again? No! He's branching out, and has just co-written a book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, a nonfiction study based on his long-standing interest and concern for our oceans. (It is not a comic romp about a divorced oceanographer who beds interns on the boat he inherited from Jacques Cousteau, though a network may be pitching that to him soon.) We talked to Danson about the dangers of celebrities taking on serious topics, but also about his resurgence and why nobody wants to see a full-out Danson sex scene.

Damages and Bored to Death have really started a Ted Danson renaissance.
I’m really happy right now. I realized perhaps four or five years ago that I had stayed for too long in one form of television. They would pay me a huge amount of money to go and do a half-hour situation comedy, because that is where I’d spent most of my career. But I was not exciting myself — I was actually boring myself. I had always loved acting, I have always loved going to work, and then I realized I wasn’t all that happy anymore. I was getting sad, because I realized I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. Then I did Damages. It was just a teeny little part, but it was with wonderful writers and a brilliant cast, including Glenn Close, who I knew already. That was what really changed the course of my career. I wasn’t looking for it — it just came along and happened to me, and only in hindsight did I realize how good it was for me. I wanted to work with really creative people, who really have something to say. And I decided I would take a teeny part over here, or a bigger part over here, just as long as I could be part of that authentic, creative process of making something different. Then Bored to Death came along and all at once, I was doing Damages, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Bored to Death, working with amazing writers and amazing actors, and suddenly, I was in heaven.

So would it be fair to say that for too many years you went after the money, and now you are going after fulfillment?
Absolutely. I loved Cheers, and I’m really glad I did Becker. But then I started hanging around for too long on things after that. But you do get used to the money, and you think you’re so enlightened and so wise and on top of it all, and that you won’t fall into all the traps that other people fall into. I have fallen into every trap known to man, including getting used to the money, and basing my lifestyle and my choices on it. I think the only reason people pay too much money is to get other people to do things they don’t really want to do.

Do you feel that you lived through a golden age of television, in which money was no object?
Yes, absolutely. As far as being overpaid goes, I was definitely in the golden era. I was at the tail end of it, but I was there nonetheless.

Are you are anything like George in Bored to Death?
Yes! Absolutely. I’m 63 years old and I definitely have that fear of being left behind. We all want to be relevant. And when you get older, you see younger legs being more easily relevant. You still want to be a player though, you want to show up and be part of the team. And that’s my character all over — my character does not want to be left behind. He has seen everything. George Christopher is incredibly intelligent, he is wealthy, debauched — he’s slept with way too many women, he drinks, smokes — and should be completely cynical and jaded, but he’s not. He’s like a little kid who still doesn’t want to be left out — and I totally get that.

How debauched would you like to go? Would you be keen to play someone like David Duchovny is playing in Californication?
No one has ever hired me to take my clothes off and be sexy. No one. Not even when I was 25. But I’m funnier than I am sexy, so I’m hired to make jokes about sex; I’m not hired to do sex.

How long do you think Bored to Death can continue? Can you see yourself playing George for another five years?
Easily, yes. It works perfectly in our lives — everyone runs off and does what they want to do with the other eight or nine months of the year. And I think I could still be funny in a walker.

What can you tell me about your forthcoming book?
For 25 years, I have talked about oceans. I started an American Oceans campaign 25 years ago, with a friend of mine who is an environmental lawyer, and it became a really respected small oceans advocacy group. Then it merged with Oceana, which is now the largest single marine issue group in the world. I have taken my experiences, and the science and knowledge of Oceana, to co-write a book about oceans, what is happening to them, what you can do about it, and what countries need to do about it. I don’t think of myself as an expert, but I travel around talking about oceans all the time, and every time I do, scientists brief me for a week beforehand, so I can be intelligent about it. And this is my accumulated knowledge of it.

Do you think celebrity endorsements are necessary to bring attention to such issues?
Celebrity endorsements are tricky, I think. Even if you do know what you are talking about, you can turn people off. When there is a serious problem, you don’t want to hear the emotional voice, and the actor is usually the emotional voice. You want to hear the lawyers, the scientists — the logical, informed voice, because that is the voice that calms us down and comforts us. You want to hear daddy. But my job has always been to bring people into the tent. My job has been to say: "Oh, you liked Cheers, you’re here because of Cheers. Thank you, that’s wonderful, now I’d love you to listen to this scientist, to this lawyer, who have spent their lives working on ocean issues, because I think you will want to hear this."

Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images