This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 7, 2009. Ted Danson is currently starring in Bored to Death on HBO and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS.
After an 11-year stint as the owner of the bar that gave the classic TV series Cheers its name, Ted Danson moved on to other TV-land pastures. In the 18 years since that hit sitcom went off the air, his work has taken him to different places, but perhaps none of his characters has been as interesting and complicated as the ones he's been playing lately.
In the legal drama Damages, Danson portrayed an egomaniac billionaire battling the tough-as-nails litigator played by series star Glenn Close. Danson tells Terry Gross that it was time for a change.
"I have to admit, I think part of me thought I'd stayed at the half-hour-comedy dance a bit too long, and I think part of me was going, 'Wow, I'm not as funny as these other people who are coming up,' " he confesses.
"And I was kind of boring myself in a way. Then Damages came along and really kind of turned things around for me."
In the HBO series Bored To Death, Danson plays George Christopher, a powerful Manhattan magazine editor who's at home among the city's best and brightest but simultaneously battling the urge, as he ages, to keep running with the Young Turks.
Though he has expanded his range, Danson hasn't left comedy behind. In 2004, he wrapped a run on the CBS sitcom Becker. And for a time he was a regular on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he and wife Mary Steenburgen played themselves — more or less.
Deciphering how to play that Curb version of Ted Danson was an interesting process.
"I can't look at a suit on a rack and go, 'Ooh, I'd like that suit.' I have to try it on," Danson explains. "So [in acting,] I try on words. ... It's the same thing, even though you're playing yourself. You go, 'All right, what is my function here?' "
On Curb, Danson explains, his function was to be Larry David's foil, setting up roadblocks so David could overcome them, punching up the comedy in various ways. The two men are close friends in real life — and occasionally neighbors.
"He's lived in our guesthouse for two summers in a row," Danson says. "Mary calls him Larry the Lodger. He just won't leave."