“I have a manager and agent but I prefer to depend on angels”
Comedy star Ted Danson didn’t really expect to end up solving murders in a show like CSI. But, he tells Shereen Low, he’s certainly glad it happened — cheers!
Considering CSI: Crime Scene Investigation focuses on murders, you might think Ted Danson, the show's lead actor, would be quite accustomed to all the grisly and gruesome stuff on set. But that's not the case.
“Do I feel more familiar around dead bodies? No. And I hope I'm not tested any time soon,” the 66-year-old says with a chuckle.
The show's returning for a 14th series and has already been renewed for a 15th. Danson only joined in 2011, though, as lead crime scene investigator D.B. Russell, taking over from previous team leads William Petersen (Gil Grissom) and Laurence Fishburne (Raymond Langston).
Solving gruesome crimes is a far cry from his Cheers persona Sam Malone. It may be more than two decades since he last played the cheeky ladies' man, but the well-loved comedy, which ran from 1982-1993, made Danson a very familiar face — and he's happy to embrace the show's legacy.
“I never would have thought that CSI would be something I would be doing. My standard joke is that I basically play Sam Malone over and over again. I'm just now doing Sam Malone sees dead people,” he quips.
Humour is a natural state for Danson, it seems, who's also starred in films like 3 Men And A Baby and other TV shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm and Damages.
Murder scenes may have been a big change, but he's “thrilled” to be doing it, and it's given the actor a new perspective on the work of real-life crime scene investigators.
“Clearly, I am a Southern Californian actor, pampered beyond belief, but there are people that have to deal with that side of life that we hire to do these jobs. It [the show] gave me a huge amount of respect,” he says.
“One of the first days I was at work, I came up to a man named Larry Mitchell who is a real CSI. I said, ‘How can I look at life through rose-tinted glasses, how can I identify with this kind of work, this character?' And he said he had seen so much death that he realised how delicate life is, and how easily that strand of life can break. He said it taught him to enjoy and value every second, and he learned to cherish life in a very real way.”
For Danson, perhaps a part of cherishing life is trying to be open to new directions and possibilities. He's admitted that he had doubts before signing up to CSI and, ultimately, when it came to making the decision, the process was somewhat spiritual.
“I have a manager and an agent, but really I think I depend on angels. I have really great angels who seem to take care of this decision process for me,” he says.
“I hadn't worked on a network show for about three or four years. I'd been doing cable, which doesn't pay quite as much, so I was looking at the prospect of maybe having to sell this lovely home we have in Martha's Vineyard. I was going, ‘Wow, I don't know. I'm going to trust that something happens'.”
And soon after, it did: “We went to the movie theatre, lights are going down and my manager calls, [saying] ‘Do you want to do CSI?' ‘Yes'. That was the decision process. Some things work, some things don't, but by and large, you just have faith.”
Thankfully, it did work.
Everybody involved has been “very supportive”, and the San Diego-born actor has enjoyed his characters' storylines.
“In the first season, he [my character] was introduced as this kind of Zen master who could juggle his family life, kids and wife, and yet could still manage the dark side of his job, and keep them separate,” he explains. “Then, the second year got muddied by his granddaughter being kidnapped, and his bringing his job into the house in a dangerous way. This year, I think they're going to work with, ‘Has he burned out?”'
He was signed up on a three-season contract, so the next series — the 15th — could potentially be his last.
“This is an amazing job and they pay me very well — I'm one very lucky 66-year-old man. So yes, I have no intention of departing until we're kicked off the lot or something. I enjoy going to work very much,” Danson reflects. “I have never been so welcomed in a cast as I have with CSI. They went out of their way to teach me the little things that need to happen and really took me under their wing.”
The original series, set in Las Vegas, has spawned two now-cancelled spin-offs: Miami and New York, and Danson reckons the show's “constant” is the key to its success. “I think CSI has stuck to its guns. It's very stylishly shot; [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer came in and wanted television to look like films, and it has stuck every week to presenting a forensic mystery you can play along with,” he notes.
The new series reunite him with his former Cheers co-star John Ratzenberger (he played Cliff Clavin). “When I start to tell a Cheers story, everybody on the CSI set goes, ‘Here we go, old guy telling stories from his past'. But when John came, they actually let us reminisce,” Danson recalls, smiling. “It was really fun.
“Usually our whole thing was about making each other laugh, and here we were doing this very serious stuff for the first time ever, but I thought he was just wonderful.”
It's easy to imagine, Danson, who's also a keen environmentalist, is full of stories. But despite his easy nature, he doesn't enjoy watching himself on screen.
“I have trouble looking at anything I'm in, watching it, until about 10 years have gone by,” he says. “I'm just now catching up with Cheers episodes. When I watch myself, I become this horrible, judgemental person. I don't like going to work the next day and having to do a character that I've just torn to shreds the night before, so it's better for me not to [watch myself].”
CSI may indulge his serious side, but he's still keen to switch back to comedy.
“Maybe the last year of CSI, we can do CSI: The Comedy, because there must be something,” he teases. “There is a script being written for HBO on Bored To Death [a series he stars in], so hopefully there'll be a film, which would satisfy my desire to do something funny.”
The 14th series of CSI: Crime Scene|Investigation begins on Channel 5 on Tuesday, 9pm
From wisecracking bartender to CSI sleuth
- Cheers (1982-1993) — Danson won awards for his performance as the bar’s owner and chief bartender Sam Malone in the hit US sitcom.
- Becker (1998-2004) — The American comedy, which ran for six years, stars Danson as misanthropic Dr John Becker.
- Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2009) — Danson appears as an exaggerated version of himself in 13 episodes of Larry David’s hilarious improvised comedy show.
- Damages (2007-2010) — He plays Arthur Frobisher in 23 episodes of the legal drama, which also stars Glenn Close as ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes.
- Bored To Death (2009-2011) — He plays a libertine editor of fictitious New York magazine in the sleuth comedy.