NBCU Photo Bank
Ken Tucker
August 09, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

With his tundra-white hair and fashion-forward horn-rims, Ted Danson in 2011 is the very model of a middle-aged TV star. He has parlayed his early fame into a latter-day career of supporting roles on classy outlets (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Damages, Bored to Death), and this fall he’ll succeed Laurence Fishburne as the lead on CSI. Of his new job in the crime lab, Danson said recently, ”Trying to hold a crazy group of people together, whether they are crazy bright or crazy silly, is something I have done before. It makes sense.”

He was also referring, of course, to the role that ? made him famous: Sam Malone on Cheers, which ran for 11 seasons (1982?93). On that sitcom, Sam presided over a group of crazy-silly barflies in what became one of the most beloved (and highest-rated) workplace-family comedies in TV history. It’s no small part of Danson’s achievement that Cheers isn’t a dusty relic. Watch it today — you can find daily reruns on Hallmark and ReelzChannel, as well as WGN and local syndication — and you may be surprised at how well the series holds up.

Right from the start, Danson had the Sam Malone role nailed. As a sobered-up former Boston Red Sox pitcher now running Cheers, Sam had a darker past than many sitcom leads, but Danson carried Sam’s difficulties with lightness and found kinship among other cheerful losers, including George Wendt’s genially grumpy Norm, John Ratzenberger’s loquacious postman Cliff, and Rhea Perlman’s explosively angry waitress Carla.

As Sam, Danson showcased many of the qualities that make him so good in his recent roles. There’s the contrast between his wide smile and his hawkeyed stares: Danson radiates an intensity (the hovering possibility of anger) that’s modulated by his merry eyes. What I just described could also be said of his Arthur Frobisher on Damages. And Danson’s loose-limbed manner behind the Cheers bar — or bantering with Shelley Long’s Diane and Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca — shows up decades later in his similarly fluid, cool style on Curb and Bored.

Danson’s hair was darker on Cheers, but the warmth and casual grace he gives off today were in every scene. When the series ended, Sam was left alone to close the bar — everyone else had family to go home to except him — but he’d made millions of people glad he’d been in their homes. Catch a rerun sometime and see if you don’t want Sam Malone, and Ted Danson, in yours. Cheers: A

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