WASHINGTON — Ted Danson modestly likes to pretend he’s just some actor who uses his fame to call attention to issues — namely, the plight of the globe’s oceans. But get the guy talking about, say, fishery management or habitat destruction, and it’s clear he knows his stuff — and, hello, he’s been working on it for decades and is now the vice chair of the board of advocacy organization Oceana.
The “Good Place” actor was in Washington last week for a board meeting at the group’s airy Connecticut Avenue offices, but before he got down to business, we sat down with him to talk about his evolution as an activist, his #goals marriage to actress Mary Steenburgen, and his super-morbid yet strangely helpful life philosophy.
You founded your first oceans campaign in 1987, which means you’ve been an activist on this issue for more than 30 years. Has your approach changed in those decades?
I need to say “co-founded” along with my friend Robert Sulnick, who is an environmental lawyer. We came together fighting Occidental Petroleum in the Santa Monica Bay — they wanted to slap 60 oil wells in there — and that went on for about 12 years until we merged with Oceana. So it went from a celebrity boutique organization where I was kind of a chief fundraiser into this incredibly sophisticated, worldwide — the biggest in the world — organization dealing just with oceans.
What about for you personally?
Typical of people who become new converts to an issue, (at first) you think “Oh, this is very satisfying to throw a brick!” and then you learn actually the issue is way more complicated and nuanced than that, and then you learn to not throw bricks and you learn to work with the people who don’t agree with you to find some sort of compromise that makes a difference.
So many people are reminiscing about former President George H.W. Bush. Do you have a story?
I do, but it’s an embarrassing one to tell. In my brick-throwing phase, I was so stupid. I mean, it really makes me kind of queasy. I was invited to the White House, and I, in my righteous brick-throwing stage, said no.
Because I disagreed so much with what was going on environmentally, or so I thought. It turns out, he was an environmentalist. I’ve grown since then.
Would you meet with President Donald Trump or his administration?
Well, you can’t give up. But clearly now with this administration it’s a defensive, rear-guard kind of action. You’re trying to protect all these amazing environmental acts that have been put into place over the years — mostly by Republican administrations — that are now being attacked in the name of “all regulations are bad.”
Like the Endangered Species Act — this not warm and fuzzy tree-hugging. It’s about making sure that your natural resources survive so you can keep making money and create jobs. It’s so stupid. So short-term stupid.
Are you a proselytizer on environmental issues? Like are you the guy in the grocery aisle talking about them?
No, I have this amazing organization that I get to be part of. I don’t want to make films about it. I’m happy to talk about it, but I’m the guy who can say, “Thank you for watching ‘Cheers,’ and now I’d love for you to meet this marine biologist who has something important to say.” I’ve always used my celebrity to do that.
You and your wife are close friends of the Clintons. What was (2016) election night and the aftermath like for you?
It’s difficult to put distance and spin on my emotions. We were there that night and it was a slow-motion — from my perspective — car wreck. It was beyond belief.
I will put spin on it: It is what it is, and here we are. A lot of what I believe in is not what this administration believes in. That being said, a lot of people woke up, and that’s good. A lot of people, a generation where I thought, “Hey, where are you guys?” are here now.
You’ve been married for 23 years, which your wife joked in a recent Instagram post is like 714 years by Hollywood standards. What’s your secret?
It’s part divine, and it’s part that I’m married to Mary Steenburgen. It’s part that Mary’s impeccable about the truth and not letting things go unsaid. We laugh nonstop. There’s nothing that makes us happier than to make each other laugh. But you’ve got to sprinkle some of the divine in there, because we both met each other when we thought we were incapable of being in a relationship without messing it up, and we mysteriously, magically found each other.
OK, but that’s not exactly replicable. Give me something actionable!
Find someone who is playing the same game. Find somebody who wants to grow and look at themselves and take responsibility for themselves. If you don’t find somebody who’s willing to do the same thing, it’s going to be bumpy.