‘Cheers’ Star Ted Danson Opens Up About the Challenges of Playing Sam

by Josh Lanier

If you can’t be a baseball player, adjust yourself like one. That’s what Cheers director James Burrows told Ted Danson to do whenever he needed to find his inner jock. Danson played former baseball star Sam Malone in the show. Danson didn’t know anything about the sport, and he worried his lack of knowledge would show on the screen. So, Burrows gave him a piece of method acting to try whenever he felt lost.

“(Burrows) told me that I needed to — perhaps — if I reached down and rearranged myself periodically get me into that jock feel, and I used to get some of the best close-ups because I’d do this at the most inappropriate times,” Ted Danson recalled during the 2016 Cheers Reunion special.

Ted Danson worried about playing Malone because they are so different. The Cheers star didn’t go to bars, and he wasn’t much of a ladies’ man like his character. But the writers realized early on that those differences would help sell the character to audiences.

“Ted felt very uncomfortable at first playing Sam because he wasn’t a lothario in real life,” writer and producer Ken Levine told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “But he brought a quality to Sam that he himself possesses: kindness and humanity. That went a long way toward the audience embracing Sam.”

It also allowed the writers to take the Sam Malone character places they couldn’t have with a less pliable actor.

“What we liked about him most was he looks like a leading man, but he’s a character actor,” Cheers co-creator Les Charles told THR. “He could play a lot of colors. Sam had a dark side with his drinking problem and womanizing. It made writing more challenging and fun.”

‘Cheers’ Cast Shot Spitballs at Actors Struggling with A Monologue

The cast of Cheers said they behaved a lot like a family while on set. Like any good older brother, they made sure to tease anyone struggling with a monologue or a difficult scene. They would fire spitballs at the actors from off-camera.

Ted Danson said it began because the “rowdy” group of actors had a lot of downtime on set and a near-endless supply of straws and napkins.

“I used to think I was a pool player and boy am I not. I enjoy a good dart game,” Danson told Thrillist in 2018. “Did you ever play football with a folded piece of paper? Flicking it through someone’s fingers? We did that a lot too. We were also fairly rowdy [on the set of Cheers]. And we had no shortage of bar straws and paper napkins, so spitballs were common.”

Danson said during the 2016 reunion special that whenever someone was struggling to get their lines, the other actors would rush over to “be there” for their fellow cast members with straws in hand.

John Ratzenberger said you can see spitballs in Woody Harrelson’s hair in one episode of the show that he and George Wendt shot. The director didn’t notice them.