New “CSI” star Ted Danson’s shift from comedy to drama was symbolically reflected in his real life: “I was staring at the ocean in Martha's Vineyard, kind of humming to myself,” he recalls, “and within a week I went to my first autopsy – a real one – in Las Vegas.”
Danson, who debuts as the Crime Scene Investigation unit’s new supervisor D.B. Russell in the procedural’s 11th season premiere tonight, quickly found himself arm-deep in prep-work for his new role. “Lord, the autopsy,” he moans to PopcornBiz. “Oh, man, that was like sticking my finger in a light socket. I was vibrating for days. I mean, I was sitting there holding somebody's skullcap while they weighed his brain. It was intensely real and – not to sound overly something – had like a spiritual impact on me. Here's what happened, I went back to the hotel and looked in the mirror and went, 'Thank you, body. Thanks for everything you do.'”
After a lengthy, distinguished television career that’s been largely centered in comedy – everything from his classic “Cheers” role as Sam Malone to “Becker,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Bored to Death” – and some hailed dramatic stints including an Emmy-nominated turn on “Damages,” Danson will be mixing light and dark as he steps into the central position previously occupied by William Petersen and Laurence Fishburne: his character will bring a low-key levity to the often grisly proceedings.
“I find drama really relaxing,” admits Danson. “I find it not easier in a bad way, but comedy is hard. Comedy is like ‘This not funny, this is not funny, this not funny.’ You have to find the right funny every day, and when you do a drama it's the writing, it's the directing, it's the editing, it's the director of photography that makes the drama. You have to show up and be real in the moment and that's kind of your job. It's a different kind of job.”
Danson says he was a viewer of the series himself early on because of a friendly connection. “Billy Peterson and I did a film years ago, and then right after that he got this,” he explains. “So I watched for a while to see how he was doing and everything, and then I've been watching a lot of the [newer] episodes. The last two episodes last year were through the roof, unbelievably good. And coming in I'm so grateful that there's no fear or anxiety on the set. You walk in and everyone is relaxed and happy to be there. The crew is so fast and so good that going to work is just pure work and pure joy, as opposed to that new anxiety of starting something out.”
The actor explains that he didn’t take the job because he feels compelled to constantly be employed. “I can do nothing really well, really easily,” he says, “so it's going to be an adjustment. Mary [Steenburgen, his wife] and I love hanging around, making each other laugh all day. This will be new, because Mary has a show in Nashville that's coming up, so we'll have to work to find each other…One of the perks is that I get to be home. One of our kids is going to have a baby, and so I get to be a grandfather and be home."
"I love going to work every day on an ensemble piece, and this is such a bright show," he adds. "It's the number one watched show in the world. That's pretty astounding and irresistible.”
"CSI" returns tonight at 10 PM on CBS