By Chesley Turner
photography by Scott Witter
“Thank you for watching Cheers. Please come in and meet this amazing marine biologist who has something very interesting to say.”
If you’ve ever wondered what America’s all-time favorite bartender does in his free time, you might be surprised. He’s been working to save the planet.
“I’m that guy who stands outside the tent. So I kind of use my celebrity. And you know, I’ve picked up a lot over the years from all the scientists and staff members who were willing to teach me as much as I could learn. That’s kind of what I do.”
It’s a very matter-of-fact confession, and it shows that Ted Danson shoots from the hip. Tall and silver-haired, behind glasses that would make any hipster turn green with envy, he’s keeping an eye on how we keep an eye on our world.
After helping prevent 60 oil wells from being built off the Santa Monica Canyon beach over a quarter of a century ago, Danson was hooked. Now, he’s a member of the Board of Directors for the international ocean advocacy group, Oceana. Primarily focused on over-fishing around the world, he says the organization’s business sense is focused. “It’s kind of run like a Fortune 500 company, you know. ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do; It’ll take us five years; Here’s how we’re accountable.’ It’s not about feeling better or just education. It’s about changing policy concerning the ocean.”
When Oceana was formed almost 15 years ago, the world fish catch was declining every year, and increased technology – school tracking, better boats, dragging the ocean floors – was creating an incredibly wasteful industry. “The world threw away a third of what it catches. And, when you’re catching fish, you’re dragging the bottom of the ocean with these huge nets, the size of a 747, dragging and destroying coral and rocks and turning them into gravel pits the size of the United States, every year,” he says. “So what we’ve been doing is working in those areas. And we’ve made a lot of changes and been very successful.”
Oceana works country by country, helping each coastal nation to establish sustainable fisheries. And it’s clear that Danson has done his homework. “[A sustainable fishery] could provide one billion fish a day, at a time when animal protein is hugely in need. We’re about to go from seven billion people in the world to nine billion. And, as soon as you move from poverty into lower class, the first thing you want is protein. So if you make your oceans healthy and make your fisheries sustainable, you take a huge burden off of producing protein on land.”
It’s about being a thoughtful consumer, Danson says; about using our natural resources correctly.
As the son of an anthropologist and archeologist who later became the director of a Natural History Museum, perhaps it’s understandable that Danson fosters this eco-friendly, holistic worldview. “Not in a student kind of way,” he clarifies. “I was predisposed to be an actor, but making use of that, of my celebrity, to do this kind of work definitely comes from my upbringing.”
This work is a foil to Danson’s day job. “I have no desire to direct or produce or write. So to be able to get out of that kind of childlike actor’s brain and go use the other part of my brain to do this is very gratifying.”
And his perspective expands from there. With the recent Supreme Court Ruling legalizing gay marriage, Danson recognizes the strides we’re taking as a society.
“I guess it seems to me that I’m in a field where we have been working with a lot of gay people in the arts, and have been forever, so it’s not something we’ve thought about one way or the other. And if you take a look at 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, it’s very hard to get them excited about their friends’ sexual preferences. You know, so maybe it’s just that we truly have evolved. It’s very exciting.”
Danson shares his worldview, noting that he doesn’t like to get into politics and big-ticket controversies, preferring instead to focus his energy on smaller things that he can really get his hands into and be a part of. “I am an optimist, but the question you always have to ask yourself is: will we evolve fast enough to realize that we really are all in this together, that we really are our brother’s keeper. That there is enough food and water for all of us but we’re going to have to share. That might does not make right. That, you know, there’s going to have to be a real spiritual kind of evolving, rapidly, to get past that kind of greedy, selfish, don’t-tell-me-how-to-make-money-I-know-how-to-make-money, don’t-get-in-my-way philosophy.” Because, as he points out, that kind of self-centric ideology may work when there are two billion people on the planet, but not when there are nine billion.
“Anyway, my new philosophy is: How wonderful that we have all these huge, massive problems to deal with. How else do we find out who we are than grappling with these problems.” We all die, Danson says. No one gets a pass because of what they accomplish. “So relax, enjoy it, and do the best you can.” He avoids the news (to avoid throwing shoes at his television) and sticks to HGTV when the world gets to be too much.
But this self-proclaimed non-politico admits he may change his tune a bit next year. As long-time friends of the Clintons, Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen will likely be staunch supporters of Hillary’s campaign. Danson talks about Hillary as a highly-admired friend. “You always speak in hyperbole when you’re promoting your team, you know, but she is so incredibly bright. Every fiber of her being is trying to make things better.”
Hillary, Danson says, is a problem solver at her very core. He relates how, after working so hard to define and demonize Clinton, the Republicans ended up just across the Senate aisle from her. “And within a year or two, Strom Thurmond was bringing her candy bars every day.” Her dedication speaks for itself. “You know, generals and military people were so grateful when she was the head of a committee because she came prepared and knew what she was talking about.”
He puts a point on what makes her a born leader. “It’s not the ego – the I want to be President – that drives her. It’s the I want to make things better. And that, to me, is a wonderful quality. I want my President to be bright and incredibly prepared.”
Danson editorializes himself, saying, “I always feel very careful when talking about the Clintons because everything is so easily taken out of context, and if I ever thought I would ever say anything that would make a mess, that could be spun in a way to be hurtful, it would terrify me. So I’m always a bit careful when speaking about them. But obviously, I love them. Love them.”
Such an honest, unabashedly admiring comment is refreshingly humanizing. It maybe hints at the type of people Danson and Clinton are, unscripted and off-prompt. Danson truly is an optimist and an idealist – but the best kind. The kind that gets his hands dirty. The kind that stands up to speak for a friend. He acknowledges having a voting population looking for a leader who wants to make things better as an evolution of humanity, and an indicator of selflessness. “They may not have the most money and the loudest pulpit, but there are more Americans than ever who feel that way.”