Welcome to Cheers Month, where we’ll be writing about Cheers throughout October to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its premiere.
At first glance, praising Ted Danson for his work on Cheers might seem like heralding the 1927 Yankees or pointing out that Citizen Kane is pretty great. It’s an obvious tack to take given that Cheers is one of the most well-regarded sitcoms ever and that Danson played its lead character. But I would argue that Danson is actually one of the most underrated comedic actors of all time and that his performance on Cheers is the standard-bearer for leads on half-hour television shows.
Two phenomena hurt Danson’s reputation and prevent from being considered a Pantheon-level comedic actor: his typecasting as Sam Malone and the era in which he rose to prominence.
There are few popular actors more closely tied to one character than Danson — at least not actors who have subsequently gone on to reasonably successful careers. Danson has even branched out into drama with his roles on Damages and CSI, but he’s still Sam Malone to all of us. And for good reason.
Danson gives such a natural performance as Sam that it’s all too easy to believe that the actor and character are so similar that he’s not acting at all. He doesn’t just inhabit Sam; he becomes Sam. Just think for a minute how much cognitive dissonance it causes to imagine another actor playing Sam, particularly the actors who were actually considered for the role like Fred Dryer, William Devane and Ed O’Neill. (Dryer eventually showed up on Cheers in multiple guest spots playing Sam’s sports broadcaster buddy Dave, and it offered viewers a nightmarish alternate reality imagining the show with Hunter as the smarmy lead.*)
* When you Google “Fred Dryer,” the first autofill suggestion that pops up is “Fred Dryer net worth.” That’s a pretty weird thing to be Googling, right?
Danson was so perfectly cast as Sam, and so good in the role, that it seems like when the director yelled “Cut,” he’d walk off set, keep the same clothes on, and go hit the town scamming on babes and drinking club soda. But Danson has shown in interviews and in his personal life that he’s not very much like Sam at all. The actor and character certainly share certain qualities, but Danson is much more thoughtful, political and cerebral than Malone — and more insecure too. Meanwhile, his post-Cheers roles have shown that he has more in his bag of tricks than what he used for Ol’ Sammy.
Still, when you think of Danson, you think of Sam and you think of Cheers.
And a big factor in that mental process is the fact that Cheers happened largely in the 1980s. The ’80s was such a bizarre time in our popular culture that almost anything that was created during that decade is tainted with the smell of hairspray and the afterglow of neon.
When we reminisce about ’80s sitcoms, the ridiculous comes to mind before the sublime. We think about ALF and Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains. Resultingly, the truly great work that appeared on television during that time gets a little bit lost. Even Michael J. Fox never got enough credit for what he brought to Family Ties, perhaps because he was blocked from view by Tina Yother’s hair mountain.
The ’80s as a whole is so drenched in sickeningly sweet nostalgia that it’s hard to differentiate a great show like Cheers from a garbage show like Who’s the Boss? because we remember them both with a fond, cuddly feeling in our stomach. At least those of us from a certain generation do.
Moreover, Danson was representative of a classic ’80s celebrity. Along with Tom Selleck, Dryer, David Hasselhoff and others, he got pinned down as a “hunk” and that was all she wrote. His star power outshone his considerable acting chops. He became a persona instead of an actor, a famous person instead of a craftsman.
Danson didn’t exactly help his own cause with his film career either: pairing with Selleck and Steven Guttenberg in Three Men and a Baby and its sequel went a long way toward cementing his status as a commodity by, for and of the ’80s. He then closed out the decade with the eminently forgettable Cousins and Dad in 1989, neither of which was likely to make anyone forget Sam Malone.
All of which is a shame, because Danson as Sam Malone is a revelation and a consistent delight. Rewatching the show with fresh eyes all these years on, with considerable distance even from the days when Cheers appeared in syndication on multiple channels every evening, my biggest takeaway is the extent to which Danson carries the show, and the almost insulting ease with which he does it.
Cheers’ supporting players always received a lot of attention, and rightly so in most cases, and when called for Danson played a perfect pole around which the Norms and Cliffs and Carlas could revolve. But while a gifted straight man, Danson showed he was capable of so much more. That’s what made him such an ideal leading man: he could play “normal” when others with being wacky but he could also lose his shit with aplomb.
He handled the comedic and dramtaic elements of the scripts with equal finesse, maintained chemistry not just with Shelley Long in the romantic sense but with all the other characters in a more universal sense. When Sam was big-dogging around the bar about his latest conquest, with the barflies following him around like worshipful ducklings, Danson always seemed comfortable in the role. Everything fit.
He was also a great physical actor. Just watch him hop over the bar when he was excited or slump against it after a disappointment. Or watch his performance in the season two episode “Sumner’s Return,” playing exhausted and haggard from staying awake all week to read War and Peace. Or watch this justifiably famous scene with Long:
Slapstick and nuance: whatever the writers threw Danson’s way, he handled.
Danson made every aspect of Malone believable: his horndoggery, his alcoholism (both recovering and resurgent), his ballplaying, and most of all the fine line he had to walk between playing dumb and playing smart. Cheers always had at least one character who was supposed to be dumber than Sam — the classic sitcom dumb guy, if you will — so Danson needed to play stupid enough to allow for a juxtaposition with Diane’s intellect (and to make us buy him as an ex-jock) but smart enough that he wasn’t as much of a caricature as Coach, Woody or Kelly.
And, my God, this scene. This fucking scene:
Danson just rips your fucking heart out there. It’s fitting that the show’s finale ended with Sam in the bar rather than with Diane, because Sam and Cheers (the bar) was the true grand romance of the series, and that would never have worked without Ted Danson making us believe in it.