Actor Ted Danson

Emmy-winning actor, environmentalist and author of Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them explains the backstory of his commitment to the conservation of oceans.

Ted Danson is best known for his TV work: his Emmy-winning role on Cheers, as the star of Becker and his turn on the drama Damages. His versatility extends to film, as well, with credits that include Mad Money and The Amateurs. Danson became interested in drama while at Stanford. He transferred to what is now Carnegie Mellon and then moved to NYC, where he worked in commercials and soaps. A longtime environmentalist, he founded the American Oceans Campaign and is the author of the new text, Oceana. He also stars in HBO's comedy series Bored to Death.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ted Danson back to this program. The Emmy-winning actor and long-time political and environmental advocate is the author of a wonderful new text about what’s happening to the world’s oceans. The book is called “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.” As I said, Ted Danson, always an honor to have you on this set.
Ted Danson: Thank you very much.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Danson: I am, I am.
Tavis: I was whispering when you walked on the set here that you’ve done so much good work over the years – “Cheers” and “Becker,” et cetera, et cetera. There’s a local channel here in L.A. that plays “Becker” reruns every day. I’ve gotten, like, hooked on “Becker” all over again, and I appreciate it so much more now than I did when it was running the first time.
Danson: That’s always kind of like this double-edged compliment – like where the hell were you when it was on the air? Damn it, man. Damn it.
Tavis: (Laughs) No, I was watching then, but I really – (laughter).
Danson: No, it does grow on you. You get people in airports who are – the people who work late and come home and catch it at night have grown to appreciate it more and more.
Tavis: When you look back on your work, whether it’s “Becker” or whether it’s “Cheers” at this point of your career, those two series specifically, you think what? How do you view in hindsight the work that you have already done on the comedic side?
Danson: As Sam Malone said, “I’m the luckiest son of a (blank) in the world.” I had the greatest part when I was in my thirties and early forties. When I started to get a little stiff and cranky in my fifties, I had the best part, playing Becker. Now I’m playing this slightly, wonderfully senile, depraved, sweet man on HBO, “Bored to Death.”
I seem to have been around really great writing throughout my career, which is where it really begins.
Tavis: How important is that, and how rare is that, to have been in the business as long as you have been, and to your point now at these various stages of your own personal development and aging process, which we’re all going through, you find the right roles for the right years of your life. That seems like a pretty rare thing in this business.
Danson: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s rare or lucky or blessed or whatever, but I have been very lucky, yeah, because that’s the fun part, to be able to – I watch myself, I’m 63, and I’m around – I’m playing with kids, acting with actors. Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis, who are my kids’ age, basically.
I watch them include me, sweetly, like my kids do. They want to make sure I’m okay, and they include me. When the hell did I start having to be included? (Laughter) I used to be the “clude;” I didn’t have to be included.
Tavis: You’re already clued in; now you’re being included, yeah.
Danson: At this stage, what you care about is wanting to be relevant still, so I have a character who’s desperately trying to be relevant, hanging around young people, smoking dope and don’t leave me out; whatever you’re doing, I want to do it too. So it resonates within me, and so it’s fun.
Tavis: This book is – first of all, it’s a beautiful book.
Danson: I am so happy about it.
Tavis: In terms of the design. I’m a design and layout person – design, layout, and that’s to say nothing about the empowerment that’s in here. Let me start by asking how this became your cause, because there are so many personalities, so many celebrities in this town who at certain points in their careers attach their names and their worth and their value to something that’s necessary, but how did this become the issue for Ted Danson?
Danson: Wow. I think several things happened. “Cheers” was paying me a lot of money and I felt guilty and responsible and what do I do about that. I was walking on a beach with my kids in Santa Monica, and they were eight and four and wanted to know what that sign meant, “Water polluted, no swimming.” How could anything that big and beautiful be polluted, and why can’t we go swimming, and I had no idea.
I also bumped into a man who was fighting Occidental Petroleum from drilling 60 oil wells right along Will Rogers State Beach. All of these things started to come together, and really, out of naïveté and innocence and maybe a little brash, we decided to start an organization together called American Oceans Campaign.
It lasted for about 15 years and then merged into Oceana, which is the world’s largest single-issue marine conservation group, and that’s where I am now. I’m on the board of directors and that’s really what inspired me to write this, is I’ve learned a lot as a layman, as an actor, hanging around these amazing scientists and lawyers and policy people, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned because it feels like we’re at a tipping point with the oceans.
Tavis: You’ve learned a lot, but have you seen much change over the years you’ve been attached to this issue?
Danson: Sure, here and there. But what we’re dealing with is so vast and so global that it really does need to be energized and kicked into high gear. Basically what’s going on is we are overfishing – the biggest danger – there are lots of things going on with the oceans that are threatening them.
The biggest danger we face is overfishing. We have too many boats out there. We literally could fish out our oceans, some scientists believe, in the next 40, 50, 60 years. We are trending in that direction.
One of the great scientists that’s in this book, Dr. Daniel Pauly, friend of mine, he discovered in 2002 that in 1988, for the first time ever, fish catch around the world was going down. Every year, for the first time in history, we catch fewer and fewer fish with more and more sophisticated boats going out trying to find them.
Nine out of the 10 big fish that were around when I was growing up – the swordfish, the tuna, the marlin, the shark – 90 percent of them are gone. If there was that many sharks when I was a kid, there are now this many.
So we are fishing out the top of the food chain, and it’s pretty crucial because about 200 million people depend on fish and fishing for their livelihood, and about a billion people, mostly in poorer countries, depend on fish for their protein. So this is a big problem. Good news is, it’s fixable.
Tavis: I was about to ask how is it fixable, and I ask that because beyond those persons who depend on fish, that billion people that depend on fish for their protein, we live in a country, certainly, and in an environment where obesity is such a significant issue.
You start talking about losing weight; fish is one of those foods that is relatively healthy for you as compared to other things. I’m trying to juxtapose fishing out the oceans and yet we’re told if we want to be healthy, there are certain fish you ought to eat more of as opposed to other stuff. So I’m trying to make sense of all this.
Danson: Right. Okay, so it’s not just that we’re taking too many out, it’s how we’re doing it. We are wiping out their nurseries, for example, because some of the fishing techniques are these huge – some boats are as big as, like, a football field and a half long, and they have these huge things called – they bottom trawl.
So they have these nets that 50 years ago you’d have to lift when you came to coral reefs or rocks or nooks and crannies. Now they’re so sophisticated and so heavy, the equipment, and the boat’s so powerful they can just drag right over the coral reefs and the rocks and the nooks and crannies, and turn them into a gravel pit. We have amazing photos of what happens.
The trouble is those are the nurseries. That’s where the little fish hide and get bigger and get big enough for us to eat. They are the fish we enjoy to eat. But if you wipe out the nurseries, you have a huge impact on the oceans. Stop doing that and you allow fish to rebound, because they will.
For example, in the North Atlantic during World War II people were afraid to fish; couldn’t because of the U-boats. The stock of fish just went through the roof. Here’s some exciting news. For example, there are about two and a half times the amount of boats out on the water that can sustainably fish. The reason why that can exist is it is so heavily over-subsidized.
It’s about an $80 billion a year landed fish industry worldwide. Twenty to 25 billion of that is subsidized from our taxpaying money. This country’s pretty good, but the rest of the world over-subsidizes their fleets to go out and do the wrong thing. If they weren’t subsidized, you cut those subsidies, they would not have the fuel or the whatever to be able to go out in the wrong places to do the wrong thing.
So for the first time ever, the World Trade Organization has this language in a DOHA round where they’re going to try to reduce, through trade agreements, fishing subsidies. That would be huge.
Farm fish – we all thought that that was going to be the solution. Farmed salmon in most places, especially in Chile, which is where we get, in this country, most of our salmon, you have to catch, grind up, three to four pounds of wild fish to feed to the salmon, the farmed salmon, to make one pound. So that kind of ratio is crazy.
You’re wiping out the fish that are for the local people, the fish that can grow into bigger fish that we want to eat, and feeding it to make one pound of salmon. Not a smart thing to do. So stay away from farmed salmon, truly.
Tavis: We all know you, as I said at the top of the conversation, you’ve been a political activist for a long time. Of course, we all remember your relationship with the Clintons and your friendship there. Assess for me how this administration is doing on these issues.
Danson: Pretty good. Pretty good. If you read the book, you see that we really have to turn this around in a huge way. The problems are global. It’s possible. The good news is it is possible to do that. He scared me, to be honest. I’m a huge fan. We campaigned for him, my wife and I.
So I say this with respect, but he scared me when he opened up the offshore oil drilling up the coast of the Atlantic and lifted the moratorium. He put it back in place. That’s a really good thing for the oceans.
He signed a bill to stop shark finning in this country, which is huge. We kill, like, 70 million sharks a year for their fins so that we can sell them to China so they can make shark fin soup. Anyway, I give him a pretty good grade, absolutely, but this book I hope encourages all of us to do the right thing.
Tavis: Let me end our conversation where this book really begins. This is my first time seeing you face to face. You’ve been on the program a number of times before, but it’s my first time seeing you face to face since the BP spill. So now that we’re on the other side of that – I think we’re on the other side of that; we’ll see what the implications are long-term – but I think we’re on the other side of it.
You start out the book, again, talking about it. Your assessment now of what happened then and how we keep it from happening again.
Danson: I think – well, to keep it from happening again, my point of view is don’t open the coast to offshore oil drilling, period. Clearly you’re not going to shut down the wells in the Gulf, but you don’t do any more offshore oil drilling.
I think we dodged a bullet, basically. When you look at – there were models made of it happened in April. On the day that it happened, if you look at years past, that specific day, the currents did this and swept around Florida and up the coast of the Atlantic, or it slammed into the marshes in Texas and Louisiana.
So it did all these bad things in previous models. This particular year the currents created kind of an eddy that kept the oil in one place that allowed it to evaporate. So the damage was not as bad as I think people thought. We don’t really know what’s happening to the nurseries, the larva that was exposed to the oil. I’ve heard stories now in this last month of baby dolphins washing up dead, 10 times the amount as normal. So we don’t know, we don’t know.
May I add one thing?
Tavis: You certainly – go ahead.
Danson: Because we’re talking fast and we talk about the kind of scary stuff. What makes me so happy about the way this book turned out is at the end of every chapter, because it’s important for us to know what’s going on, is also what you can do to make it better.
Tavis: A checklist, yeah.
Danson: What needs to be done. The biggest thing I’d like to end with is go to the ocean. Have a great fish dinner. Remember how much you love the ocean. Because if you don’t start form a place of joy and excitement, you’re going to – oh, that’s too overwhelming, I don’t want to go there. Do this work, but with a light heart is kind of my message with this book.
Tavis: He’s a fine thespian; of course, we all know that, but also a committed advocate. His new book is called “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.” He is, of course, Ted Danson. Ted, good to have you on, as always.
Danson: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend.
Danson: Yeah.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm