When he says, "I'm not recommending pirates," Ted Danson smiles like a man who is used to his audience being in on the joke, and the laughter of the reporter and photographer threaten to drown out the "but" and what comes next.
His point: That Kenya's pirates were so good at pirating that they scared off international fishing boats for a time, and the result was an extraordinarily bountiful catch for the local fishermen. Irresponsible levels of industrial fishing are consuming too much of the world's fish, Danson says, and his joke comes only after a detailed description of the plight of fishermen. ("One of the worst things we've done is to call ourselves friends of fish. We are friends of fishermen. Who cares about fish?") From overfishing claiming 70% of the big fish at the top of the food chain, to ocean acidification from carbon emissions threatening the creatures at the bottom of the food chain, to the destructiveness of bottom trawling on seabed habitat, to the toxic mercury pollution found in many fish species, to the perverse government subsidies that send twice as many boats on the water as are needed, Ted Danson knows his stuff.
He also knows that he's "Sam Malone, with X amount of credibility. Why should we listen to Sam Malone talk about fish and world trade organizations?" So, a conversation with Danson at least one by The Daily Green recently at Friend of a Farmer in Manhattan, in preparation for his Heart of Green Lifetime Achievement Award has an undertow of seriousness with a regular splash of humor.
"My hope is as long as I stand next to somebody who does have credibility, who is the world's best marine biologist, who is one of the top policy makers or economists or lawyers, then I do stand a chance," he said. "The fisherman who goes out and works his ass off has credibility."
Danson is best known for his Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning performances, most notably as Sam Malone on Cheers, and most recently on the acclaimed series Bored to Death and Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO, and Damages on FX. But Danson's credibility doesn't rest just on his celebrity, and his affable tendency toward self-deprecating humor. In 1987 he founded American Oceans Campaign, which in 2002 merged with Oceana to become the largest non-profit organization working on oceans conservation in the world. Danson is proud that the organization doesn't just focus on raising awareness, but on policy. It employs scientists, lawyers and lobbyists. Danson himself has testified before Congress numerous times, dating back nearly 20 years.
"It's important to recycle. It's important to choose the right food and order correctly at restaurants," he said, when asked what one thing he'd suggest individuals do to recognize Earth Day. "But these issues are so huge that they need to be acted on on a policy level, on the national and international level."
For individuals, it's easier to become "an international activist," as Danson puts it, than it is to recycle. Just click a mouse on an online petition, send a postcard or a letter on an issue or donate to an organization.
"You want to save the planet, here's your opportunity. If you want to tackle something big and scary and solvable how exciting is that? I'll tell you, the most interesting people in the world are those people who are engaged in whatever. If you are engaged in life, you are most likely doing something to make it better for others," he said. "And it's not heroic and noble. It's fun, it's enlightening, it's smart. Saying yes and not being the cynic. That's something I have absolutely no patience for cycnicism. Be critical absolutely. But don't be cycnical."
In 2009, Danson narrated an acclaimed documentary about a topic it might seem easy to be cynical about overfishing. End of the Line illustrated vividly the factors policy, greed, ignorance that are sending species like bluefin tuna toward extinction, but it focused on solutions, like eliminating world subsidies that contribute to overfishing through action by the World Trade Organization. In a year, Rodale will publish his first book, co-authored with Mike D'Orso, Deep Water, which is described as a "celebratory and cautionary look at the world's oceans." (Danson jokingly suggested featuring a "Christlike" picture of himself walking on water, with the title Danson on Water.)
Expect a dose of spirituality, along with science and humor. While Danson has often said his activism was born out of struggling to explain to his daughters why a Santa Monica beach was closed, the roots run deeper, to his childhood in Arizona. His father was an archaeologist and anthropologist whose career illustrated both the importance of science and the transience of human culture, and his mother was a deeply religious woman who embraced some aspects of Hopi as well as Christian spirituality. The twin influences, science and spirituality, created a stubborn and fun-loving optimism in Danson.
"What do we do to fix the problems? You have to base that on science. You need a spiritual heart to realize that we are all in this together literally all of us on this planet, and if we do not see that we're all in this together, that we all matter, that we all have an impact on each other, then this won't work. This experiment won't work," he said. "The temptation is for all us is to say, 'It's not me. It's him.' Or, 'It's them.' Or, 'I understand the need to reduce the boats on the ocean but theirs.' You really have to rise to your highest level of being human to solve the environmental problems that are facing the world. To me it's an incredible conversation."
Danson's resurgent acting career only gives him more opportunities to discuss these issues. On Damages his Arthur Frobisher character has emerged as a T. Boone Pickens-type personality, embracing wind power as a profitable do-good scheme. On Bored to Death, he plays an aging magazine publisher discontented with his high position in the social hierarchy of New York. He has more perspective on his character after spending nights out with costars Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman in Brooklyn ("Brooklyn always kind of scared me, because it wasn't Manhattan") at restaurants and bars he can't remember ("Absinthe. I can understand why they banned it in Paris during the whatever. It's a buzz it's not a drunk. It's a buzz. You drink two of those ... I wonder if we could get those here.")
"To be 62 and not want to be left out and still want to be relevant, I totally identify," Danson said. "I find Zach and Jason including me sweetly including me. My mind's going, I was never included before. I was including. They're treating me like my children treat me. Then I'm like, Oh they're younger than my children. They are taking care of the nice sweet old guy."
As for Curb Your Enthusiasm, Danson has no more insight into Larry David's intentions for another season than anyone else, but he's ready for another, whenever it comes.
"He really is in a league of his own very different, very special and a sweet sweet dear friend who is the most bizarre character. It's scary to be with him. And all of his fame has now legitimized his Larry-ness. So now instead of trying to tone down his Larry-ness he now capitalizes it on the street. You don't know what he will do next," Danson said. "In a quiet restaurant in Martha's Vineyard full of very old blue haired people, he comes late to us and he has his back to the restaurant and we're all looking at him as he's whispering quote unquote his story that had just happened to him that was just full of the F word, and you see people getting up to leave, and we're all saying "Larry, Larry, Larry" And as he leaves the restaurant he goes, "Nice restaurant. But too quiet for Jews." And he leaves.
"You never know if he's actually living his life or creating an episode."
With two popular shows and a book, Danson has his hands full. Taking a break from acting, or activism, you might expect to find him in the ocean. You shouldn't.
"People ask me, 'Do you go in the oceans? Do you dive?' No. 'Do you love boats?' Kind of. 'Do you fish?' Well, I'm not crazy about it,'" he said. "I love to sit at the ocean and look at it. I'm the typical too-white skin, stand-in-the-surf guy."
Typical Danson with X amount of credibility.
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