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The Case for Ted Danson As the TV GOAT

Nearly 40 years after he stepped behind a Boston bar, Danson is still going. And by the time he’s finished, no one may be able to top his run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Well, hey, I never thought I’d be standing here,” Ted Danson says in the pilot of Mr. Mayor, the NBC sitcom that debuted with a two-part premiere on Thursday. Danson, delivering his first fictional press conference as the series’ titular mayor of Los Angeles, billboard billionaire Neil Bremer, explains that he’s returned to the workforce to steer the rudderless post-pandemic city after leading a life of leisure for eight years. “This time last year,” he continues, “I was happily retired.”

That’s one way in which Bremer and Danson differ. This time last year, Danson was starring in the climactic episodes of the fourth and final season of The Good Place, the series that helped him earn his 16th, 17th, and 18th Primetime Emmy nominations (including a record 14 for a lead actor in a comedy). Now he’s embarking on another prime-time project, nearly 40 years after Cheers charmed a Thursday evening audience for the first time in September 1982. In the intervening decades, Danson has rarely allowed much time to elapse between roles. Maybe Bremer never thought he’d be standing in front of the cameras again, but it would be weird if Danson weren’t on the air.

Although Bremer tells the public he ran for office because he interpreted a snippet of text on a billboard as an omen, the rookie politician later reveals the real reason he sought the spotlight again: He wanted to prove to his teenage daughter (Kyla Kenedy) that he had something left. “She thinks I’m a useless old man,” he says. “And I get it—[she’s] never seen me work. But now, I have a chance to prove to her—to myself—that I’m not done. Not yet.” Fifty years into his acting career, it would be difficult for any TV viewer not to have seen Danson work. In fact, he’s worked more than almost any other actor of his ilk. And although nobody needed convincing that the 73-year-old Danson could still anchor a sitcom cast, Mr. Mayor proves that Danson’s not done bolstering his case as the GOAT of TV.

According to an analysis of data drawn from IMDb and provided by Ringer contributor Rob Arthur, Danson is on the verge of becoming the most prolific TV actor of all time, in terms of total episodes. A couple of caveats: In order to limit our inquiry to actors in a category comparable to Danson’s, we excluded actors who primarily appeared in programs produced for non-American audiences. We also excluded soap opera and telenovela lifers and people who primarily worked on children’s programs or as voice actors, puppeteers, or wrestlers. If not for those filters, the upper echelons would be dominated by soap stars, actors who do dubs for anime, and the cast of The Electric Company, which would reflect a type of prolificacy but wouldn’t capture the kind of mainstream small-screen ubiquity that Danson has maintained since he began to embody Boston bartender Sam Malone.

The table below lists the leaders, excluding their voice-only or “credit only” roles.

Most Prolific TV Actors

Name Episodes
Name Episodes
Michael Landon 796
Ted Danson 768
Bill Cosby 746
David McCallum 742
Mark Harmon 734
Ed Asner 712
Betty White 701
James Arness 694
Ed Begley Jr. 652
Dabney Coleman 649
Wendie Malick 646
Kelsey Grammer 641
Denver Pyle 641
Cloris Leachman 615
Henry Winkler 543
Ron Howard 540

Danson’s current count of 768 includes only the two episodes of Mr. Mayor that have already aired, which means he’ll add 11 to that total by the end of the sitcom’s 13-episode first season. That would put him 17 away from a first-place tie with Michael Landon—close enough that he could supplant Landon with a second season of Mr. Mayor plus Season 11 of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which started shooting in November). Landon—like Danson, an NBC staple—starred on Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven during an uninterrupted 30-year run on network prime time. He was slated to star in a fourth series, the CBS drama Us, when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, a few months short of his 55th birthday.

If Danson can claim the top spot, he has the potential to hold it indefinitely. Mark Harmon, who’s a few years younger than Danson and still stars on NCIS, could catch him, but Harmon has been the subject of recent retirement rumors. It’s unlikely that a younger star will surpass Danson in an era of shorter TV seasons. If Danson stays active for a few more years—let alone as long as indefatigable octogenarians David McCallum and Dabney Coleman or nonagenarians Ed Asner, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman—his final total may be a mark as unassailable as baseball legend Cy Young’s 511 wins, a record generated through a combination of excellence, longevity, and dramatically different conditions than those that prevail today.

Of course, quantity isn’t everything; if it were, we would count all the soap stars. But an almost unparalleled episode count isn’t Danson’s only claim to the title of the GOAT of TV. Nor is the fact that he played one of TV’s most iconic characters, although the depth and vulnerability he lent to his signature handsome heartthrob is a testament to his skill. It’s the breadth of Danson’s memorable roles, the number of networks he’s graced, and the impeccable comic timing he’s brought both to classic series and formulaic fare.

Robert Trachtenberg/NBC

Danson didn’t break through on Cheers until he was about to turn 35. His first recurring role came on The Doctors, a daytime soap, and for several years he got guest work on series ranging from Laverne & Shirley to Magnum, P.I. and Taxi (with several less-impressive stops in between). Cheers made him one of the most recognizable men in America. Although Danson says it took him a long time to feel comfortable playing Malone, he seemed to have a feel for the character from the first scene.

Despite presenting as a square-jawed mimbo, Malone wasn’t a stereotypical athletic lothario. For one thing, he was, by all accounts—except, sometimes, his own—pretty bad at baseball, more Charlie Brown than Billy Chapel. He was a recovering alcoholic, and his preening masked an inner insecurity, just as the back of his head hid a bald spot. He could be coarse, crude, and cruel, but he also had a sensitive side. He fell for an intellectual, and although he accumulated innumerable notches on his bedpost, he never really got the girls he saw as something more than that. Almost 30 years after Cheers went off the air, the sitcom still holds up, which is partly a credit to Danson’s complex panache.

Danson dabbled in feature films during his 11-year run on Cheers, and he showed that he could handle dramatic roles. (He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in a 1984 TV movie about sexual abuse, Something About Amelia, in which he appeared alongside future Damages costar Glenn Close.) But few of his films from that era really resonated with critics and audiences, aside from the 1987 comedy Three Men and a Baby.

Freed from his 22-plus-episodes-per-season sitcom commitments after the much-watched finale of Cheers in the spring of 1993, Danson must have seemed like a movie star in waiting, but his post-Cheers choices were poor. Made in America, which opened the week after Cheers closed, was panned by critics, and the relationship with costar Whoopi Goldberg that started on set led to a disastrous roast at the Friars Club in October 1993, where Danson wore blackface and repeatedly used the n-word and other racial slurs. Goldberg defended Danson as the private roast developed into a public scandal, but their relationship soon ended.

Prompted by a reporter to preview his set prior to the roast, Danson had declined and joked, “My career would end.” It didn’t end, but it certainly stagnated. His next few films—Getting Even With Dad, Pontiac Moon, and Loch Ness—were forgettable flops, although he met Mary Steenburgen while making the middle movie and married her in 1995. Having failed to build buzz on the big screen, Danson returned to TV. In retrospect, his failure to launch as a leading man in movies may have been a blessing. Although he’s sprinkled sporadic appearances in feature films—including an unlikely cameo in Saving Private Ryan and a return to tending bar in the 2018 comedy Hearts Beat Loud—amid his many subsequent series, abandoning his quest to establish himself as a big box-office draw allowed him to master the medium he met first. It also gave him time to amass a TV résumé that went well beyond Sam Malone.

Danson played an irascible doctor on Becker for six seasons, proving again that he could command an audience (at least as long as he had Everybody Loves Raymond as a lead-in). After Becker, he recalled in 2018, “I felt like I’d stayed too long at the half-hour comedy party, and I was kind of boring myself.” But his on-screen assignments gradually diversified. Starting in 2000, when Becker was still on the air, he began to play a fictionalized version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, adding a second entry from the all-time TV comedy pantheon to his bio. The distorted Danson’s silver-fox exterior and warm-hearted, generous persona obscures the inner arrogance and selfishness that Larry David shares but doesn’t try to hide, making him a fine foil and nemesis for the more authentic but less personable protagonist.

As Curb continued, Danson broadened his range. Few actors could transition seamlessly from legal thriller (Damages) to oddball HBO comedy (Bored to Death) to CBS forensics procedural (CSI and CSI: Cyber) to prestige drama (Fargo’s fantastic second season) to serialized NBC sitcom (The Good Place) to sci-fi satire/tribute (The Orville), but Danson did. Whatever one’s TV-viewing proclivities, he’s almost omnipresent. “I seem to be almost like a contract player in the ’50s or something,” Danson said in 2018. “I tend to do what’s next in front of me and I seem to be very, by and large, blessed.” No wonder Danson has no interest in bringing back Cheers; he’s too busy for a reboot.

His hit rate isn’t a coincidence. The latter-day Danson’s status as a trustworthy sitcom sweetheart helped sell The Good Place’s all-timer twist; we knew our heroes had to be in the Bad Place when Danson’s avuncular chuckle gave way to an evil laugh (which was Danson’s idea). Like Malone, reformed demon Michael is a study in contradictions—an immortal being who’s ancient and powerful but still sort of sucks at his job and is having a hard time getting the hang of befriending humans rather than torturing them. He’s earnest and sober in one scene, zany in the next.

Even on the small screen, Danson’s produced some duds. Ink, a mid-’90s CBS sitcom in which Danson and Steenburgen played divorced newspaper journalists navigating the same New York newsroom, ran for a single season. Help Me Help You, a 2006 ABC sitcom that starred Danson as an egocentric therapist, was pulled from the schedule after its ninth episode aired. So the success of Mr. Mayor isn’t assured, although the cachet of its cast (which includes Holly Hunter) and its creators (Tina Fey and Robert Carlock) should grant it a fairly long leash. That the series exists at all in its current form is largely a tribute to Danson: Originally envisioned as a 30 Rock spinoff in which Alec Baldwin would reprise his role as Jack Donaghy, Fey and Carlock reimagined the show as a vehicle for Danson after Baldwin dropped out. When Danson balked at relocating for a series set in New York, Fey and Carlock switched the setting to Los Angeles. If Danson doesn’t come to you, go to Danson.

In its first two episodes—the only two NBC sent to critics—the series doesn’t quite click. The premise of an entitled, inexperienced politician fumbling an important position doesn’t seem so funny in the midst of a pandemic and a constitutional crisis. The setting doesn’t seem specific, and (maybe because of the audible from Baldwin to Danson) the series hasn’t picked a preferred setting on the Parks and Rec–to-Veep feel-good-to-cynical spectrum. The script isn’t as snappy and laugh-filled as 30 Rock’s, but 30 Rock started slow too. Mr. Mayor may find its stride. In the meantime, Danson is delightful, his flair for physical comedy undiminished by age or arthritis.

He eats a weed gummy and gets goofy. He rolls up a piece of pizza tip to crust and chews it like a burrito, talking and laughing with a mouthful of food. He smacks L.A. Kings mascot Bailey the lion, knees him in the groin, and hits him with a garbage can, exclaiming “Fly back to hell” before fleeing the scene. His antics get laughs partly because they’re performed by the legendary Danson, TV royalty who nonetheless embraces seeming silly and graciously gives other people punch lines. But they amuse mostly because he still sells them, just as he sold his determination to floss in a viral clip from the Good Place set. “I’m still that excited person that first drove through a studio gate 40 years ago,” Danson said in 2018. The excitement he professes to feel comes through on the screen, where he never looks like he’s phoning it in or resting on his considerable laurels.

Hunter, an Academy Award winner and four-time Oscar nominee, didn’t start slumming it on the small screen until she was almost 50. (She made her TV debut in 2007’s Saving Grace.) Mr. Mayor is her first sitcom; she plays ultraliberal councilwoman Arpi Meskimen, who becomes Bremer’s deputy mayor. Over time, their antagonistic tone may morph into a Leslie Knope–Ron Swanson détente. “At the Golden Globes, she’s sitting in the movie section. I’m down in the TV section,” Danson joked about Hunter in an interview published this week. But in Mr. Mayor, he’s on his home turf. Danson has stayed at the top of his game long enough to see movie stars flock to the small screen and a pandemic elevate the living room above the theater in the cultural conversation. In the end, it’s probably better to be the best TV actor ever than one of many movie stars.

“I made that old white man seem cogent and cool,” chief of staff Mikaela (Vella Lovell) says about Bremer in Mr. Mayor. In reality, Danson does that himself. (It helps that Michael and Mayor Bremer are rarely sighted outside of slimming suits, and that Danson still wears a hairpiece when he isn’t at the beach.) What might Danson do next? In 2018, he said he wanted to do a Western, so perhaps he’ll try to follow in the bootsteps of Landon, James Arness, and Denver Pyle. What he won’t do is attempt to follow in Fey’s. “I’m not a storyteller,” he said in 2018, adding, “I do not have that side of my brain working that would allow me to produce or direct.” So be it; one can’t become the most prolific TV actor by being a multihyphenate.

“All that dumb stuff today? I mean, people showed up because you were gonna be there,” Arpi tells Bremer at the end of Mr. Mayor’s second episode. The same observation applies to the series itself. Maybe Mr. Mayor will burnish Danson’s illustrious small-screen CV, or maybe it will be a footnote, a blip between better shows. Either way, many of those who watch will do so for Danson, who as always will leave them wanting—and likely getting—more.

Thanks to Rob Arthur for research assistance.