Ted Danson on Getting Older, ‘The Good Place’ and Stalking Dick Van Dyke

Ted Danson, star of The Good Place
 Anthony Behar/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

What advice would you give your younger self?
Wake the fuck up! I was very slow to mature emotionally. But the day I walked into an audition for a play, a lightbulb finally turned on. I even slept in my car for two or three months behind the theater. It was a spark, and to this day, I get thrilled when I go through the gates of a studio.

If you hadn’t discovered acting, what would you have done?
I really don’t know. I mean, good lord, I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, and my friends were children of ranchers. I could have become a cowboy! My father was an archaeologist, so I grew up on his dig sites, finding bones and skulls. He would always emphasize the importance of the past and what has been given to you.

How should a person handle getting older?
Stay optimistic.

You were on Cheers for more than a decade. How did you know it was time to move on?
We were always looking for an end. My life then was such a tumultuous, 100 percent disaster, but I was working really hard on myself and I needed to move on. Perhaps it was selfish on my part. You couldn’t ask for anything better in your 30s than to be on Cheers, but it just felt like it was time.

What’s a lesson you’ve learned from having a long, successful career?
I think it’s important to make sure that those people around you are happy to come to work. You have to set a tone of lightheartedness and appreciation of those around you.

How do you avoid getting an inflated ego?
The point of acting is to work together and not to focus on being the star. It’s a lot like basketball: You’re on a team. Sometimes in the pros, you’ll see certain players become more important than the team itself. Those teams end up losing.

How do you handle criticism?
What the fuck does that mean? What criticism? This interview’s over. OK…ultimately, you’ve got to read the bad reviews. Your job is to ask yourself, “Is there any truth in what that person said?” If there’s truth in it, then you self-correct. A little humility—looking at your flaws, having a sense of humor about yourself—can make you more apt to move on in spite of criticism. Eating shit is nutritious for the soul.

Have you ever wanted to quit?
Yes, when I considered that I was no longer funny and I was burned out. I felt I had stayed too long at the half-hour sitcom party. Then I did Curb Your Enthusiasm, and there was no pressure to do anything except have fun with Larry [David]. That and my role on Damages kind of rehabilitated my desire to act.

What are your favorite roles to perform?
On The Good Place I really love playing this perverted-mentor role. I pretend to be sweet, nice, and harmless, but I am made of pure evil.

What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
Marry Mary Steenburgen—that’s definitely my secret. Tough on the rest of you, I know. Marriage is work, but you have to laugh more than work at it.

What drives you now?

Being creative. My wife and I once had Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Diane Keaton over to our house for dinner. I was just sitting there going, “Man, every one of these women is so devoted.” They have so much energy and focus and drive and creativity. I recognized the importance of surrounding yourself with the smartest, most creative people in the room. I love people who make other people. laugh.

Is there a secret to making people laugh?
Yes: really good writing.

What do you want your legacy to be?
To do the right thing in life is your job when you get up every morning. Legacy is something you think about when you’re in your rocking chair with a little shawl up around your shoulders and maybe just a little drool coming out. For now, thinking about it is premature.

Who has been your biggest influence?
Dick Van Dyke has always been one of my heroes. I grew up without a television, but when I was a freshman in college, I bought this old black-and-white console. I crawled up on the roof, patched into a teacher’s antenna, and snuck back into my room. What came on was one of the first reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1967—I was hooked. The poor guy ended up playing my father on Becker. He runs from me when he sees me because I almost tackle and hug him to death. I’m like Dick Van Dyke’s stalker.