As Sam “Mayday” Malone, the affable proprietor of a Boston bar in NBC’s new comedy series Cheers, Ted Danson plays a recovering alcoholic whose boozing washed up his career as a Red Sox relief pitcher. That story may sound sad enough to make Tug McGraw cry in his, uh, Uncola, but Dan-son might well turn up as prime time’s rookie of the year. Most critics have agreed with the Washington Post‘s Tom Shales, who hailed Cheers and its barful of oddballs as “the best new series of the season…with the potential to enter the ranks of the all-time greats.” Such praise early in the season helped keep the show (created by former producers of Taxi) alive, since it ran considerably farther back in the Nielsens than did the third-place Red Sox in the American League East.
Such a come-from-behind situation is not unfamiliar to Danson, 34, whose noteworthy credits (The Onion Field, The Women’s Room, Body Heat and the recently released horror flick Creepshow) have been overshadowed by personal tragedy—and hard-won triumph. On Christmas Eve 1979, Danson’s wife, Casey, now 45, suffered a massive stroke while giving birth to their only child, Kate. Miraculously, the baby was healthy, but Casey’s left side was totally paralyzed. “A neurosurgeon told me she would be lucky to walk again,” recalls Danson, who for the first three weeks of Casey’s three-and-a-half-month hospital stay slept on the floor of her room. “I couldn’t bear to be alone. It was too devastating,” says Casey, who blames her stroke on hereditary high blood pressure. “For the first month, I did nothing but cry. I gave Ted permission to leave me. I thought I was going to be a wipe-out the rest of my life.”
Danson admits, “It was horrifying. But after you get over the shock, you roll up your sleeves and work at getting things better.” Inspired by actress Patricia Neal’s account of her recovery from a stroke with the help of then husband Roald Dahl, Ted became Casey’s left-hand man, while a nanny and relatives took care of Kate. Ted and Casey claim that their est training (they met at an est seminar in 1976) helped pull them through. As did humor. They devised a challenge race to see whether Casey or little Kate would crawl first. “Kate won at eight months,” laughs Casey, whose only impairment now is a slight limp. “I still can’t stretch my toes or dance, but those are minor problems compared with not being able to lift my arm or hold my baby or hug my husband.”
The Dansons are still dealing with psychological scars. “We’re adjusting to the fact that we aren’t the same people we were before this happened,” Casey confides. Notes Ted, “A relationship changes when you have a baby. The changes just got retarded in our case.” Casey adds, “It was sheer survival. You don’t think about your sex life when you’re paralyzed.” When Casey first was able to go out, she was embarrassed to be seen in public. Often they’d wind up sitting in their car, airing their differences. “There was a huge rift between us—a massive lack of trust,” Ted allows. “Her gratitude fed into the sense of sacrifice I was feeling.” But, he adds, “My commitment and depth of love for her are sure a lot richer.”
The son of an archaeologist, Danson grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., attended the posh all-boys Kent School in Connecticut, flunked out of Stanford (he says having girls in class was a distraction) and graduated in 1972 with a drama degree from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University. Danson went to New York, where he landed small stage roles, commercials (Pampers) and a part on the now defunct NBC soap Somerset. After a five-year marriage to his college sweetheart dissolved, he met Casey, a Greek-American from Long Island. They married in 1977 and moved to L.A. An interior designer, Casey redecorated their four-bedroom home in North Hollywood before Kate’s arrival. Since then, needless to say, they’ve been too busy to develop many outside interests. If Ted’s career continues to surge, they want to buy a house somewhere in New England and redesign it. “What we like best is playing house,” says Danson. A simple pleasure, perhaps, but for Ted and Casey it’s a cause for Cheers.