After more than 35 years in showbiz, Ted Danson has played his fair share of off-screen advocacy roles. Think of all the promotional appearances stars make on red carpets and radio waves alone. With recent recurring gigs on FX’s Damages and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death, Danson gets plenty of work-related media requests.
His celebrity also lends itself to public-figure roles unrelated to acting. He’s an environmental activist, an occasional political campaign figure and an eternal representative of the classic sitcom Cheers, the long-running show that made him a star. But there’s one more spokesperson role that Danson takes on. By default, he’s an ambassador for the state of Arkansas, albeit a "junior league” one compared to his actress wife and Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen, he says.
“Mary and I have literally missed airplanes because we have been in some city and someone says, ‘Mary Nell! We’re from Little Rock!’ We will screech to a halt, there’ll be a big grin on our faces and we’ll talk to them about Little Rock and how we miss it and literally miss the plane because we talked to strangers about Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Steenburgen first brought Danson to her hometown of North Little Rock in the early ‘90s, shortly before they married. The Arizona native recalls that first visit in a series of scenes – not surprising for someone who has spent so much time on set – and many of them involve food. He recalls Doe’s Eat Place, the dive of a steakhouse that became popular among off-duty press during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. “I think that was a snapshot I’ll never forget. We still go there for their tamales constantly.” He also remembers tasting some of the best barbecue in his life. “We sometimes go straight from the airport to Lindsey's,” he says.
After that first trip and their subsequent wedding, the pair returned several times and eventually purchased a high-rise condo downtown. “I really have fallen for Little Rock,” Danson says. “It has a little of the big city and a little of the rural, and I love that combo. You have all of these amazing things at your disposal,” he mentions the theaters, sports venues, hospitals and nonprofits, “and yet you can drive out to Keo and get some of the best pies you ever had.”
All his gushing over the cuisine makes you wonder about his diet outside of Arkansas. Food is a convenient way to tangibly describe Little Rock, but with some prodding Danson tries to capture the local flavor in other ways. For him, he says, Little Rock has this coloring of a president and first lady that makes it seem international – like a gateway to the world. And not just because of the Clintons. He offers Gen. Wesley Clark as another example of a worldly figure whose impression looms here. It gives one the feeling that in Little Rock, you can “be exposed to the world in pretty much every area imaginable,” he says.
Danson raves about Heifer International, the Little Rock-based nonprofit that works to end world hunger. He knows of the talent and expertise in the area’s “world-class” hospitals because of Steenburgen’s mother and aunt’s recent experiences. In fact, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is recognized worldwide – and gets patients from as far – for its multiple myeloma research and treatment. And he’s witnessed the natural beauty statewide while campaigning for Hillary Clinton.
Then there are the people of Arkansas who create an atmosphere of “general warmth, openness and acceptance,” he says. It’s hard to go unnoticed in Little Rock like you might in a bigger city, he says. “People know you in a small-town way, and I think people kind of crave that.”
Arkansans know Steenburgen better than Danson, of course, and to be in Little Rock with her is fun, he says. “Walking around with her is a pretty amazing experience. It really is Mary’s town and she truly starts to get a little antsy if she’s been away too long,” he says. “She loves the heat and humidity in the summer.”
Raised in Arizona, Danson fancies the season as well. The thought of some Arkansas sun harkens him back to an evening meal on Brave New Restaurant’s riverside balcony. “We were listening to some of the loudest bullfrogs I’ve ever heard in my life. It was this warm, muggy nighttime with this kind of mist coming over the river. That was pretty magical to me.”
It must have been. It’s the one restaurant story in which Danson doesn’t mention the meal.
Ted and Mary on the Little Rock social scene in 2009, appearing at the Fifth Annual Autumn Lights Gala.