CHICAGO — Few actors make it look as easy as Ted Danson, whether he is playing Boston’s favorite bartender on “Cheers” or an afterlife master of ceremonies on the comedy “The Good Place,” now in its second season on NBC. He also occasionally turns up as a version of himself on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” back after a years-long hiatus.
Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen remain happily married, despite a scene in “Curb’s” season premiere this month that had his character announcing the couple had split.
Here’s how Danson drolly explained the fictional storyline: “That’s that (jerk) Larry David spreading his perverse sense of humor out into the world.”
During a stop in Chicago last week promoting Smirnoff vodka, Danson offered this observation about his profession: “If you want to be an actor, check your ego at the door — ironically, because we all seem totally egocentric and probably are. But the truth is, it’s such a bumpy ride.”
One memorable bump occurred in 2010, when he was asked to perform in a one-act festival of plays at New York’s off-Broadway Atlantic Theater.
The play assigned to Danson was an 18-minute monologue delivered by a man “trying to recollect something he can’t quite put his finger on,” he said. “So he starts describing his day and by the end he becomes more fearful and full of anxiety, and he goes home and realizes that in his basement is hell — literal hell. And he’s horrified. But by the time he gets up the next morning for breakfast, he’s forgotten. And each day he wakes up and has to go through the whole thing again.”
For Danson, it became an experience of life imitating art.
• My worst moment …
“The week before, I saw another actor performing in the festival go up on a line (forget a line) and had to ask for it — and instead of it being whispered from the wings, it came from the back of the theater over a loudspeaker. And I thought, ‘Oh Lord, if this happens to me I better think of some casual way to ask for my line.’
“And I totally psyched myself out.
“On opening night I walked on stage, sat down and probably 12 seconds in I went totally blank. It was as if I stuck my finger into a light socket — my entire body zapped with adrenaline and electricity! And in that second I’m thinking, ‘Do I burst into tears? Do I run from the stage? My daughter is in the audience and she’s just looking at me! What is the audience thinking?’ I can’t believe this was all going through my mind in that one second.
“So I say to our stage manager, whose name was Darcy, I say, ‘Darcy! What happens next?’ thinking that was a clever way out of this. And poor Darcy had just sat down with her coffee in the light booth and hadn’t even opened her script yet because we were only 12 seconds in. And you could hear the panic on the other end as she flips through the script — but then she gives me the line that I just said! So I had to say, ‘Actually, it’s the next line!’
“All that anxiety, it kind of fit the piece because this man is reliving hell, you know? And he’s panicked about what he’s about to discover. So half the audience thought it was part of the play; the other half realized I had gone up on my lines. Afterward my poor daughter had to walk me around the block for over a half an hour! I was just vibrating.”
• The next night …
“My sweet friend Neil Pepe, who runs the theater company, said, ‘Why don’t we go in early and we’ll just practice?’ And every time I got to that line I froze. My entire body went into panic. He just drilled me over and over again for hour on that one section.
“That night, when I got to that line, my body freaked out — but my mouth kept flapping! So I guess what I would say is, practice, practice, practice, practice — so that when the nerves do hit you, because sometimes they will, your mouth will keep flapping anyway.”
• The takeaway …
“I have not done theater since, that’s my takeaway!”
• Learning lines in general …
“On ‘The Good Place’ it’s a very precise, elevated language. So it’s not that it’s hard, but you really do have to work on it because it’s not your everyday colloquial conversational kind of dialogue.
“But with ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ you’ll go, ‘Yeah sorry, I have to work — no, wait a minute, no I don’t! Sure, I’ll go out and have a drink with you!’ Because it doesn’t matter with ‘Curb’ — literally you just show up and have fun.”