May 11, 1987 12:00 PM

Even those who normally have trouble figuring out symbolism will have no trouble with this scene: Cheers‘ Ted Danson, he of the square jaw and steel-gray eyes, is taking an early morning walk down to the Pacific Ocean, conveniently located several blocks from his home in Brentwood, Calif. The ocean is in sight, but between the sand and Danson lies the intersection of three roads, and it is not at all clear which leads to the beach. He stands there for a few moments, studying the situation. Finally he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing. We don’t really want to go to the ocean, do we?” Then he whirls and heads home.

Ted Danson seems ambivalent, and no wonder. With his Cheers co-star Shelley Long checking out of the hit NBC sitcom this week after five years, Danson is on the spot. Can he carry the show solo next season? Does he want to? After all, Long’s smash success in Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler sets her up for a promising film career, and Danson wants that too. So far, however, his movie roles (Just Between Friends, A Fine Mess, Little Treasure) have earned the 39-year-old actor only public indifference and critical brickbats. Danson’s work in A Fine Mess moved one reviewer to observe, a little unkindly, “[He] is likely to discover how short the road can be back to underarm deodorant commercials.” All of this has naturally played havoc with Danson’s sense of direction.

Safely at home on the patio of his ranch house, Danson is visibly more at ease in the company of his wife, interior-designer Casey Coates, 49, and their daughters, Kate, 7, and Alexis, nearly 3. His home is the one place he is never lost, whatever his career pressures. “There is a strong sense of family within us,” says Danson. In fact, the family mettle has been sorely tested and found strong. In 1979 Casey suffered a near-fatal stroke while giving birth to Kate (Alexis is adopted). Danson, his acting career just taking off with a juicy role in The Onion Field, put his work on hold for six months to feed and groom his wife and then do the same for his infant daughter. He shrugs off any praise. “I would have looked to Casey to do it had the situation been different,” he says.

Today, after three years of intensive physical therapy, Casey walks with a slight limp but is otherwise fine. “It [the stroke and its aftermath] is certainly not a part of our daily lives anymore. Fortunately the story had a happy ending,” says Danson, over a patio lunch of last night’s leftover pasta primavera. Afterward he clears up the green ceramic bowls and heads into the kitchen. Daughter Kate has just finished her at-home ballet lesson, and Alexis is sitting in her high chair, being fed by the live-in nanny. Alexis screams with delight at the sight of her father. “See, my child loves and adores me,” says Danson, mugging with her for a reporter’s benefit. Then he bellows, “Hey, everybody, we’re on the record. So clam up!”

Danson is being badgered these days to come up with a few facts (or at least hints) about just how the Sam-and-Diane relationship will end this Thursday night. “I can’t tell you how it’s resolved,” he says, admitting only that three different endings were shot for Cheers‘ season closer. Predictions have ranged from whimsical (Diane cancels her wedding and skips off to write a book) to wacko (Sam only dreamed—à la Dallas—that Diane was a waitress for the last five years, whereas in truth she has really been teaching Hegel at Harvard). The smart money says Diane goes bonkers and gets carted off for another, longer than usual, nervous breakdown. The finale does leave room for Diane to return—”which I think is nice,” Shelley says. Ted’s guess is “absolutely not.”

“The relationship was beginning to slow down,” he says candidly. “I think it’s wonderfully appropriate on all levels that Shelley decided to leave. I think the relationship had been done.”

Danson’s well-publicized differences over the years with the notoriously perfectionist Long have put them right up there with Moonlighting‘s Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd and Remington Steele‘s Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist as offstage Bickersons. Danson, however, is taking no final potshots. “I ain’t gonna say anything bad about my partner,” he says. “I mean, my wife and I have terrible arguments sometimes, and they’re kind of our business. Our relationship, Shelley’s and mine, has included not being happy with each other and being happy with each other.” Long confirms that: “Terrible teasing went on in the relationship and outside the relationship, but our energy went into our work and it paid off.”

For Danson the real payoff comes in seeing five years of effort on Cheers enhance the quality of life for his family. In these sumptuous surroundings it’s hard to hold a grudge. Back on the patio the master of the house can’t resist mocking his vain TV image. Glimpsing a Gentlemen’s Quarterly cover of himself in a visitor’s heap of notes, he reaches across the table, announcing, “I’m going to turn this over. This is very distracting. I get lost in that face.” Then, craning his neck and in his Aramis man pose, he quips, “I haven’t spent enough mirror time today.”

Self-deprecating humor is part of what attracts friends and co-workers to Danson. It has also made him chief peacemaker on the Cheers set. “Ted keeps everybody’s sanity,” says John Ratzenberger, who plays Cliff the postman. “He absorbs the angst.”

Wife Casey reports that Cheers fans would not recognize Swinging Sam at home. “He usually plays womanizing men, and that’s the last thing he ever was,” says Casey. “Ted always says, ‘I was born married.'” Danson, whose parents have been married for 45 years and whose grandparents were married for 40, says, “I consider myself a family man, partially because my parents did it so damned well.”

His wife and children’s accomplishments remain a greater source of pride for Danson than his acting assignments. “I have real trouble looking at my work and saying, ‘Gosh, that’s good.'” On the other hand he beams with pleasure while talking about Casey’s just-completed redesign of their house. With Ted at her side, she shows off the new swimming pool. “The reason for the pool is so we can get our exercise year round,” she says.

“It has nothing to do with the fact that we’re snotty, rich people,” jokes Danson. “Nothing to do with that.”

Actually the elaborate pool really is more for use than for show. “Swimming is one of the few aerobic exercises I can do,” says Casey, referring to the stroke’s lasting effects.

The house also has a large wood-floored multipurpose room, used for Kate’s dance lessons, Ted’s thrice-weekly weight-lifting sessions with his personal trainer and twice-weekly yoga. It also features a wide-screen TV that descends from the ceiling—on which, jokes Casey, Ted wastes time watching basketball games when he thinks she doesn’t know. Upstairs there are three bedrooms and a loft in which the kids play house. Danson often climbs the ladder and joins in. “The thing is, we’re not living this Hollywood life,” says Casey. “We’re about picking up the Cheerios and macaroni from underneath the kitchen bench. We’re about never wearing anything you can’t throw in the washing machine.”

Danson met Casey, who is originally from Long Island, at a 1976 est seminar in New York, and it was “love at first sight,” he says. He took her to a Mexican restaurant, and they talked until 4 a.m. They married in 1977 and moved to Los Angeles the following year. Danson says their marriage is a careful mix of temperaments—his restrained, hers volatile. “I’m English and she’s Greek. Did you ever see Zorba?” he asks. “Well, I’m Alan Bates and she’s Anthony Quinn.” It is he, however, who turns volatile when it comes to discussing the difference, a decade, in their ages. “Is it a problem? No!” he says, clearly closing the subject. (Another area of non-discussion for Danson is his first marriage, for five years, to his college sweetheart. He politely explains that if their positions were reversed and she had become famous, he wouldn’t want her blabbing.)

Born Edward Bridge Danson III (“The name works great in banks”), he was raised in Flagstaff, Ariz., where his father was an archaeologist. Danson didn’t study much at Stanford for two years but then got serious at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, earning a degree in drama. He headed for New York next, where he appeared in a couple of plays, two now defunct soap operas (The Doctors and Somerset) and a lot of commercials—including one in which he played a box of lemon chiffon pie mix. “You never get to be known for what you want to be known for,” says Danson. “People always come up and say, ‘Hey, weren’t you in that lemon chiffon commercial?’ ”

This month and next, Danson takes a stab at another form of immortality: movies. He, Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg will be in Toronto shooting the comedy Three Men and a Baby for Disney, the studio for which Long is now filming Hello Again. Danson and Selleck last worked together when Ted did an early guest shot on Magnum. “I had just started to lose a little hair on top and had never noticed it until Tom and I filmed this overhead shot,” he recalls. “It’s amazing standing next to Tom Selleck. All your little insecurities come welling to the forefront.”

This time he has star billing with Selleck, but he readily admits he’s not yet at the point where he can choose the films he does. “In television I certainly could,” says Danson, who starred in and co-produced two TV movies this season, When the Bough Breaks and We Are the Children. “Film is another matter. You need to establish you are box office, and I haven’t done that.”

Meanwhile on Cheers, Danson, like Sam, will be pleased to be back in circulation—at least for the remaining year of his estimated $40,000-per-episode contract. Jim Burrows, Cheers‘ co-creator, promises at least one, possibly several new female characters interested in Sam, and vice versa. Danson says manfully that he is looking forward to the acting challenge: “If Shelley had returned next season, there’s no doubt that we would know what we’d be doing. Now we don’t know.”

He likes that. “It’s going to be like year one,” he says. But there is also regret. He remembers a time, two months ago, when the final scene of this week’s Cheers was shot. Afterward, the cast and the crew had a party. “They put together a lovely piece of footage of just the Diane character, which was very nostalgic,” says Danson. “We realized just how much we had done together over these past years.” At the end Danson made a “little toast,” which he concluded by saying, “I will miss my partner very much.”

At the sound of his own sentiment, he makes a joke (“After the show I dropped by her dressing room. We made love. Our spouses are very lenient”). Then he explains why. “I’m always about two steps behind my emotions.”

Reflective pause.

“What the hell?” he says. “We live in the same town.”

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