- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

NEW YORK — Its been a while since Sam Malone pulled a draft on "Cheers," and Ted Danson, who for 11 seasons reigned as TVs barkeep Casanova, has put it all behind him.
But not as far back as the "Cheers" last call in 1993. Instead, it was with Mr. Dansons current sitcom, "Becker," that he finally laid Sam to rest.
"I was 50," Mr. Danson says, thinking back three years, "and I remember saying, 'The romantic thing is kind of wearing thin. Im tired of having to be charming and nice.
"And then," he recalls with a blossoming grin, "along came this amazing script which was so un-nice."
The script, written by Dave Hackel, executive producer of the series-to-be, gave rise to a new kind of character for Mr. Danson: a fussy, misanthropic Harvard research scientist who flees to the Bronx and a ragtag medical practice.
For Mr. Danson, Dr. John Becker was just what the doctor ordered.
"My favorite kind of comedy is one that comes out of pain and sadness," Mr. Danson says, "and this guy is in so much pain. So-o-o lonely."
Of course, Sam was lonely, too, and the very word "alone" was embedded in his surname. He and his fellow "Cheers" misfits embraced their loneliness communally. Becker, in contrast, guards his with selfish defiance.
The comedy comes from Beckers clashes with the world that surrounds and usually confounds him.
Whats with all these people getting tattoos? "You want to let some ex-biker with a rusty dentists drill use your body for a doodle pad, go ahead."
Good morning, Becker. "Oh, yeah. Just great. I got a toilet that wont stop, a car that wont go, I got neighbors that wont shut up and a breakfast that wont stay down."
His immediate world is populated by his take-charge nurse, Margaret (Hattie Winston), and by office airhead Linda (Shawnee Smith) as well as regulars at the diner where Becker seems to take every meal: Reggie (Terry Farrell), the woman who owns it; Jake (Alex Desert), the blind newsstand vendor; and Bob (Saverio Guerra), the wisecracking grifter.
"No one who bumps into Becker takes him seriously for two seconds," Mr. Danson says. "They think hes a jackass and a fool and a bit of a bore.
"His anger comes out of wanting to do the right thing, but he has no idea how to be with people, no idea how to be intimate. Its almost as if he buried himself in the Bronx because instinctively he knew, 'This is my last whack at not ending up a hermit."
Wrapping its third season Monday at 9:30 p.m. EDT, "Becker," is a solid Top 20 hit for CBS. Its also a triumph for Mr. Danson, proof that he can score as someone other than Sammy.
But even thriving as a middle-age grump, Mr. Danson is as rangy and square-jawed as ever. The main clue that time has passed is his gray skullcap do, quite a different look from the lush brown pompadour of Sam Malones day.
"Sam made me into this leading man that Im really not," Mr. Danson says. "Im a character actor, and thats what I love to do."
No doubt about it, John Becker is a character, but theres another reason Mr. Danson feels blessed with his new show: It followed his big TV flop.
With great fanfare in early 1996, Mr. Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen, signed to co-star in a CBS sitcom scheduled for that fall. Then the brainstorming began: What would it be about?
The agreed-upon concept — a divorced couple working, fighting and flirting at a New York newspaper — never clicked. After one season, "Ink" was axed.
"Mary and I had a great time working with each other," recalls Mr. Danson, moony at the very mention of her name, "and when the plug was pulled, it was — ahhh — so hard. But as far as the creative process goes, everything was done kind of backward.
"If youre Seinfeld or Cosby, sure, hire writers and call the shots. But if youre an actor, you cut out a big part of the creative process by having people develop something for you. Because then the material gets dragged down to your level, as opposed to you latching onto somebodys passionate, I-gotta-write-this energy."
That was the lesson of "Ink," borne out for Mr. Danson when he latched himself to "Becker" and dared to grow into it.
"Doing 'Becker is wonderful, because of the work, but I dont feel carefree and silly," he says. "Im a doctor who stays miffed most of the time. Im not a bartender hanging out with a bunch of goofballs."
Instead of Sams lady-killing swagger, Becker slouches and fidgets and shakes his shorn head. But whats this? Becker has retained one touch of youth: His hair is still brown.
"I wanted to do it gray," Mr. Danson says, "but that made the network nervous."
Suddenly, hes wearing a mischievous grin.
"I wish Becker would get caught in the rain," he says, "and his brown hair dye would stream down his face."
Mr. Dansons fingers brush his cheeks to trace an imaginary mess. Poor Becker. Mr. Danson, laughing, savors the scene.


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