In nearly 100 years of television, no actor has been nominated for more Emmy awards than Ted Danson. He is often best remembered for a 20-year-old role: the greatest fictional bartender of all time, Sam Malone on “Cheers.” It’s likely that lasting association that led Smirnoff to tap him for a series of spots pushing the world’s best-selling vodka brand. The series of ads set Danson up as a Hollywood elite, struggling to connect with the everyman.
In reality, Danson is remarkably down to earth. After touring the Smirnoff processing plant just outside Chicago last month, Danson sat down with VinePair (and bonded with a few factory workers) to talk about cocktails — and dish on the real Larry David.
What did you know about Smirnoff before you started this campaign?
Very little. Next to nothing. I would have probably told you that it was a Russian company. A Russian vodka. Not so! Pretty cool. Made in America.
Do you have any go-to cocktails?
I’m trying to think, because I don’t drink a huge amount. I think I did do a lot of cranberry and vodka. And Martinis. They used to be called dirty, now they’re “filthy,” with extra olive juice.
Who are some of your favorite celebrity drinking buddies?
I’m trying to think. My life is so … wonderfully blessed that I’m working a lot. So going out and drinking when you have four kids, three grandkids and you’re working, going out and drinking is like this luxury that we don’t do that much. [“Cheers” co-stars] George Wendt and Woody Harrelson were obviously fun. Actually the entire crew on “Cheers” was fun to go out and drink with.
Was that real beer you were drinking on set?
When the audience was there [for live taping] it was near-beer [low alcohol], because it looks great and it foams. As soon as the audience left, Georgie [Wendt] would move over to real beer.
You must get recognized a lot. Have you had any particularly odd encounters throughout the years?
One of the most bizarre was when I was in New York. I came out of this restaurant and some guy was like [in a slow, creepy voice], “Hey Ted, do you remember that time I watched you on TV?” I made hasty tracks.
Drinking culture has evolved quite a bit since the heyday of “Cheers” in the early ’90s. How do you suppose Sam Malone would react to the scene today?
He would be shaking his head saying, “Gollllllly, look at those kids!”
It seems like you’re really diving head first into this scene, yourself.
This is new to me, it really is. I did not come up through the mixologist phase of bartending.
Are there some places where you really like to drink nowadays?
In L.A., I usually go to a restaurant that may have a bar attached to it, but I’m going for food, and for dinner. I just shot a film with a friend of mine, Nick Offerman, that they used Sonny’s in Red Hook. It’s kind of a famous old dockside Brooklyn spot. I would have to say, for me, if I go someplace — I’m a happily married grandfather and all that stuff — I want to go listen to good music and have good drinks. If you add music to a bar, now I’m interested.
So New Orleans is probably your place?
That would be great. Except me walking down the streets of New Orleans is not that much fun. Having played Sam Malone, and people who are highly intoxicated is not a good match.
Does Nick Offerman have you drinking some of his peaty whiskies that he really enjoys?
Isn’t that funny that we’re working for the same parent company [Diageo]? He’s doing a Scotch, right? I only do made-in-America stuff. None of that foreign crap [laughs].
You were just in the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Knowing Larry David personally, what percentage of the actual man is portrayed in his television alter ego?
He has a huge heart. He’s one of the most generous people I know. He’s generous with his laughter. A lot of comedy people are a little bit, “I’m the funny person,” and they don’t laugh at other people. He just enjoys the hell out of anybody who’s funny around him, which — to me — is kind of wonderful.
My wife, Mary Steenburgen, once said to him, ‘If I ever got into real trouble, you’d be one of the first people I’d call,’ and it really touched him and moved him. So he is that Larry that you see on TV and then you add somebody who’s actually an amazing friend, with a big heart.
And I hate him. I hate him. Love-hate.
So there’s obviously a very improvisational nature to that show. Does that make it more stressful to work on?
Oh no, less. You can show up hung over. Tired. Woke up five minutes before you start shooting. It doesn’t matter. I mean, he works very hard on it. He and a bunch of writers to prepare it to get it to that point. But then everyone else just shows up and they start playing. And my job, basically, is to drive him — to push him into a corner, verbally, so he finally explodes and gets to be more and more “Larry.” Because the more Larry he becomes the funnier it is.
In the premiere, a storyline is introduced wherein you are fictionally separated from your real-life wife, Mary Steenburgen. Was that weird at all?
Yes, it was weird! We have friends [who are calling us]. And the other night I started to get a little pissed off. I think [Larry] did that on purpose just to mess with me. You have enough people going, “What? You guys, I’m so sorry.” Make believe. Make believe. We’re very happy.
We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.
It was fun talking to you. You actually really know a lot about [the bar scene]. I’m kinda faking some of this. Not the product part, but the bars part. Not really my forte. I was genuinely interested in [observing] the process [of making vodka] today, because I don’t know anything about it. It’s neat. Thank you.