After a year in the tabloids, the actor speaks about his past and his future

By Jess Cagle
Updated June 17, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

It rained on the morning that Ted Danson almost died. Roads were slick as he navigated his white Lexus through Los Angeles’ Topanga canyon, on his way to a business meeting. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1993, he was feeling rambunctious, rebellious — to hear him tell it, “adolescent.” Lately, the living hadn’t been easy. A year earlier, he and Casey, his wife of 15 years, had split. Now his relationship with the other woman, Whoopi Goldberg, was also coming apart. And one week ago, he’d painted himself black and unwittingly faced the nation at the Friars Club in New York, munching watermelon and describing Goldberg’s private parts as “the size of South Africa and twice as inflamed.” Let’s just say that, as a whole, the nation was not amused.

As if he could outrun the bad press, Danson sped faster up the canyon. When he whipped his car around a corner and it skidded into the middle of the road, he considered slowing down. “No,” he thought, “I’m not going to let something else dictate what I do.” He downshifted, hugged another curve, and began spinning. Fortune mercifully bounced the Lexus off the embankment, rather than hurling it off the cliff on the other side of the road. But then the truck appeared. Coming from the rear, it hit Danson’s car right behind the driver’s door. Danson slammed against the embankment again, more violently this time, and the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass gave way to an awful silence.

Moments passed. He had trouble lifting his head. “How easy,” he thought, strangely unconcerned, “how effortless it could be to pass from living to not living.” Then came the crescendo of sirens. In less than eight hours he would be back home, miraculously unharmed, except for a stiff neck and sore muscles. But in the ambulance he felt angry, lonely, and, finally, at peace. “Time to get on with whatever you’re going to do with the rest of your life,” he thought, and these words ran through his brain: “Move on. Let go. Don’t hold on. Move on. Let go…”

Now, eight months after the accident, Danson, 46, is doing a pretty good job of letting go. He’s let go of his marriage. He’s let go of Whoopi. A little more than one year ago he let go of Cheers, the NBC sitcom that showcased his golden comic talents for 11 seasons and made him the highest-paid actor in television history. He’s let go of his four-cigars-a-day habit. And yes, he’s let go of his toupee, at least off screen.

But he isn’t exactly empty-handed. There’s Getting Even With Dad, the impending kiddie comedy in which he stars as a bumbling ponytailed crook turned straight by his adorable son (Macaulay Culkin). There’s his production company, Anasazi, through which he executive-produced his next film, a comedy-drama called Pontiac Moon that’s due in October. There’s the American Oceans Campaign, the environmental charity that he cofounded in 1987 and in which he’s now taking a more active part. And there’s a new love, Mary Steenburgen, the actress-activist-Friend of Bill who phased into his life while they were making Pontiac Moon last winter.

After having watched him for more than a decade on Cheers, audiences don’t know exactly what to make of him. As a performer and as a man, he seems not so much an enigma as, well, kind of weird. “He’s certainly not who I thought he was,” says Steenburgen, 41, who knew his tabloid image before she knew him. “He’s so much more complicated than I guessed, and so much more interesting.”