Ted Danson Teas Up at Vito's, Talks Oceans, Vandalism, and His New Book

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Even with the silvery mane, thick-rimmed glasses, and hot tea, Ted Danson walking through Vito's last night still gave off visions of the great Cheers barman Sam Malone. To have placed him merely a few feet over behind a beer tap would have likely seemed to those in attendance like reintroducing a rare species back into the wild. Danson, of course, wasn't there to sell beers, but books--his books, to be exact. But before he could get down to business, I managed to steal him from his publicist and fire off a few questions.

Danson's book is called Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. And as anyone who's followed Danson beyond his acting life will tell you, this topic is nothing surprising, as he's been a dedicated ocean conservationist for decades.

Since we both grew up in the same strange mountain town of Flagstaff, Ariz., I was eager to find out if all the rumors I'd heard as a teen were true--namely, that he and the old curator at the Museum of Northern Arizona used to go out and saw down dozens of billboards all over town, because they saw them as an affront to nature.

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"Yeah it's true," he said in that old familiar over-enunciated cadence and to my great delight. "It was vandalism, you know? I mean, I just hope the statute of limitations has run out on stuff like that."

Of course the "vandalism" Danson confirmed was a precursor to what brought him here last night, though the earth-work he does now is far more legal and mundane.

"It was all just kids' stuff back then," he continued. "It was later when I was 30 that I sort of fell into real environmental work."

It also wasn't until his 30s that Danson fell into acting--or at least fell into acting success. He made the rounds in the mid-to-late-'70s on shows like Somerset, Laverne and Shirley, Taxi, and Magnum, P.I., typically playing the cool, charming masculine guy whom everyone wanted to hang out with.

Then came Cheers in 1982, a year after I was born in the town that by then he'd left far behind.

The rest--the two Emmys, three Golden Globes, 33 film roles, and 28 TV roles--is history.

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Jennifer MacDonald poses with her freshly inked Danson book.
But with the five minutes I had to talk with him, Danson wasn't going to spend it talking about Cheers, Becker, Bored to Death, or, my personal favorite, "Little Danson Man." He was there to talk about the ocean and/or his book about the ocean--and on those things, he can talk all day.

"I used to visit my cousins on the beach in Southern California, and it was like this great pilgrimage," he said. "Eventually I moved out there and my friend [environmental lawyer Bob Sulnick] and I defeated this plan to drill a bunch of oil wells and we ended up starting a group called American Oceans Campaign."

That group eventually morphed into what's now called Oceana--one of the premier ocean-conservancy groups in the country and obviously the namesake of his new book.

Also at Vito's last night was Chip Giller, editor and founder of the environmental uberblog Grist.org, which is helping promote Danson's book.

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"Ted is a true-blue environmentalist," Giller told me, surrounded by decidedly less-adoring fans than Danson. "He's been organizing environmental efforts for over 25 years. As for the book, first off, it's nearly as handsome as Ted is. It's like a cheat-sheet to the history of the oceans. If you're going to read one book about the subject, this would be the one."

So after the book-plugging and brief shit-shooting with me, Danson was hauled off by his publicist to go sign some covers, but not before making me promise to help him get the word out about a fund-raiser he was planning back in our old hometown.

"I'll be there," I lied (unless he wants to buy me a plane ticket).

So the event was more of a press/fan clusterfuck than the 45-minute intimate sit-down I'd hoped for. But really, from a purely fanboy perspective, just watching Danson move through a bar, charming everyone in sight (even if he did have a hot tea instead of a beer), was worth the time.

I might even buy his book too.

Hell, I might even saw down a billboard or two.

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