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Actor Ted Danson reflects on his life in a game of Wild Card

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Few people seem as comfortable on screen as Ted Danson. He typically waltzes into a scene with a wry smile and an air of confidence. But his latest project has been feeling a little out of his element.

TED DANSON: I would never have pegged myself as somebody who would really enjoy doing a podcast 'cause I'm the opposite. I tend to be a little more of a wallflower than you would think.

FLORIDO: Danson is hosting a podcast with Woody Harrelson called "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." It's a nod to "Cheers," the sitcom they both starred in. And in an interview on NPR's new show Wild Card, Ted Danson talks about the quieter private side of his life, how he's learned from his stumbles, how he thinks about his mortality and what keeps him optimistic. Wild Card is a show where guests choose the questions at random from a deck of cards. It's broken up into three rounds - memories, insights and beliefs. Here's Wild Card host, Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This is Round 1 - memories. Three cards I'm holding up before you. And you pick - one, two, or three.

DANSON: Three.

MARTIN: Three.

DANSON: Yep.

MARTIN: What was your form of rebelling as a teenager?

DANSON: I'm not 100% sure I ever rebelled as a teenager. I brought my parents to their knees when I was 45, but...

MARTIN: Ooh (laughter).

DANSON: ...As a teenager, I smoked cigarettes. Yeah.

MARTIN: That's rebellious.

DANSON: Yeah. My father's museum had this big, huge Hopi bowl full of sand right outside the door and said, no smoking. People who would drive up from Phoenix, get out of the car, and we'd watch them from our hiding place. And they would come out, light a cigar or a cigarette, walk five feet and go, well, hell, and have to stick it out. They would go inside, and we'd scamper up, grab the cigarette before it was put out, and run back into the canyon and smoke. I guess that's rebellion.

MARTIN: So you were a conservationist...

DANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Even then.

DANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right (laughter).

DANSON: And see, I'm milquetoast. But I'm telling you...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DANSON: ...It came later. Yeah.

MARTIN: But you're - so now I have to go there. I have to go...

DANSON: Oh.

MARTIN: ...Even if you were 45, what - you brought your parents to your - to their knees?

DANSON: Well, I won't be too specific, but I didn't really grow up emotionally until I was about 44. And I was a bit of a liar in my relationship. I'll leave it at that.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DANSON: And I started to work on myself very seriously around that time, going to clinics, and I had a mentor - a psychologist and a mentor. And I worked very hard to not be that person who hid his emotions and just went out the back door. So that was all kind of messily in the press. And my parents, poor parents were going, what? You know, and I finally called them, and they were very sweet. And they came to support me and everything. But it was - the press sounded horrible. The work underneath the press was invaluable. And I'm very glad for that time, even though it was, you know, messy.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DANSON: Very messy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We're into the second round.

DANSON: All right. Give me the title of this round.

MARTIN: Insights - things you're learning now.

DANSON: All right.

MARTIN: OK?

DANSON: Yeah. I'll pick...

MARTIN: Three new cards.

DANSON: ...Number two.

MARTIN: Three new cards. Number two.

DANSON: Yep.

MARTIN: If you got a do-over for one decision in your life, what would it be?

DANSON: Woof. I wouldn't.

MARTIN: You wouldn't do over.

DANSON: I wouldn't look for a do-over. No, I wouldn't. And there are things that I'm deeply embarrassed about...

MARTIN: Well, if - it came to you...

DANSON: ...Ashamed about...

MARTIN: ...Automatically.

DANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Say more.

DANSON: Because if I did something over - I'm being a little bit tricky here. But if I were...

MARTIN: I know. You're being a little tricky.

DANSON: Then I'm - you know, if I did something differently and I took a different path, I wouldn't be with my wife, Mary Steenburgen, so...

MARTIN: I know. I get that. But I also think that it is - I think people get hung up on, I have no regrets because if I did anything differently, I wouldn't be who I am today.

DANSON: All right, but let's...

MARTIN: But there are things I definitely wish I had done differently.

DANSON: Oh, me too. But that - you know, that's numerous. I probably can look back at this podcast and pick one...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DANSON: ...That I wish I hadn't done. I have cringers. I am - you know, I am horribly embarrassed about many things. And it's cringeworthy. You know, but that's my life.

MARTIN: Were you always so accepting of that? Or has that been an evolution for you to look back at your life and those mistakes and embarrassments and errors and say, it's OK?

DANSON: Well, I wish I hadn't become a liar and walked out the back door, you know, early in life. I wish that hadn't been me. But even your wounds you kind of have fondness for. If you've gone through them and lived through it and, you know, acknowledged it and, you know, made amends and all of that stuff, then you don't want to not have those in your life. Although they're horribly cringeworthy...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DANSON: ...You know?

MARTIN: Did your wife, Mary, have a hard time accepting those wounds, or was that...

DANSON: No.

MARTIN: No.

DANSON: No, I spoke to Mary. I mean, first off, I'm one of those people that obnoxiously vomits their life out on people, you know? It's like...

MARTIN: So like, on your first date, you just (laughter)...

DANSON: ...Literally the day I met her. First off, we both realized - individually, we said to ourselves - I said to myself, I'm incapable of being in a marriage, a relationship because I will mess it up. You know, and it's on me. And she was saying the same thing to herself that, I know I look like I should be good at relationships, but I'm not. You know, we both had come grinding to a halt and also had, in my case, been working on myself to be honest and real. And...

MARTIN: She accepted you for all the things, for your missteps.

DANSON: She - yeah. So from day one - in essence, I was like a convert, you know, to truth. So I - you know, I had to - you know, the drunk on the street knew who I was because I'd stop and tell the drunk on the street who I am. But our life is so empty of secrets, you know? And if there's even a momentary one where - shoot, I didn't exactly tell the truth - it's so devastating that - to me - for me...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DANSON: ...That I immediately grind to a halt and say, I got to talk to you. You know, so being truthful is such a - it just greases the skids of life, man, being truthful. Our life together doesn't mean we don't deal with hard things.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DANSON: But our life together is very full of laughter and joy. Yeah, we're very blessed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We are now into beliefs. OK, three new cards...

DANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...One, two, three.

DANSON: Three.

MARTIN: OK. Oh. Well, how often do you think about death?

DANSON: Ooh, a lot. It's usually a version of, I mean, not literal death, but I - see, I flip my brain. I've trained it, and I like it. And it may not be real, but my brain immediately tries to contextualize and spin myself away from fear. I don't like living in fear. And I have tons of it. You know, it comes up. You know, I had so much fun doing "A Classic Spy" with - that I just finished for Netflix that halfway through it, I went - I was going, oh, oh, don't die. Let me finish this.

MARTIN: Really - to yourself, that's what you were saying?

DANSON: Yeah. You know, I have - something hurts. You know, oh, does that mean I'm - you know, I'm incapable of finishing the - oh, you know, but - and then I go, wait a minute. What you're really saying is, you are so happy to be doing what you're doing. You're so joyful, having so much fun. Don't take it away from me, life, you know? So instead of being fearful, just say, oh, my God, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for this blessing that I have. Thank you for this job. Thank you for whatever - 'cause then I can live in gratitude, which is more joyful, and I don't have to live in fear, you know? I will contextualize my way out of fear as much as I possibly can.

MARTIN: I think that's smart.

DANSON: There are times - COVID was like a brick wall for a while. It was like, d***, I can't spin my way out of this.

MARTIN: I got no context, here.

DANSON: I got no context.

(LAUGHTER)

DANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I have a - I guess I have another question related to this because you did - you have talked publicly about suffering from plaque psoriasis for...

DANSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...A long time. And I wonder if that experience made you think differently about your body and your own kind of physical fragility.

DANSON: Oh, definitely. And I can never look at myself in the mirror. I have - you know, I was born without a chest muscle. I was 6-foot at 13 and weighed 120 pounds. And then when I was 25, I got psoriasis. I was never able to go, you know, oh, what a glorious creature you are in your speedo. You know, I never had that self-affirming reflection in the mirror. So I think it made me - I think self-deprecating humor came out of that. My mother also was - you know, was very - she dealt wonderfully with the light things of life, joy and gratitude and excitement and all of those things. When things were dark, which life has, she had trouble with that.

So there were things like - phrases like, pride goeth before a fall, you know, that kind of stuck in my head. And so it was like, being prideful, even though I am, it was something that I tried not to be because I didn't want the fall - even having a conversation with you today, where I'm kind of forcing it to be on the higher level of the joy meter because that's what I like to hear back, you know?

MARTIN: That's where you like to live, yeah. I get it.

DANSON: That's where I like to live. But I'm also very aware that I will step out of here and directly into a pile of karmic poo because that's just the way the way life...

(LAUGHTER)

DANSON: ...Works. Mr. Ted, who thinks he's so wonderful, Danson, you know, will get a reflection of the truth. But that's fun. That's funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Ted Danson, his new podcast is called, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." Ted, thank you so much.

DANSON: Thank you, Rachel. Have a great day.

FLORIDO: You can hear a longer version of this conversation with Ted Danson and many more on the new NPR podcast Wild Card With Rachel Martin. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.