Love was clearly in the air when Ted Danson met Mary Steenburgen on a five-hour canoe ride on California’s Big River during filming of the otherwise forgettable 1994 movie Pontiac Moon. “We paddled in sync,” Ted tells Closer. “We went out as friends and by the time we came back, we were in love.”
Making it all the sweeter, both Ted, 70, and Mary, 65, had been through rocky romantic waters beforehand and had given up on love. “I announced to all my friends — not dramatically, but very seriously — that I was done with relationships,” says Mary, then a single mother of two. The twice-divorced Ted had reached the same conclusion. “Ironic how life works in those moments,” he says. “Once you throw up your arms and surrender, a lot of times things come your way.”
That’s the kind of wisdom Ted attained from a young age, when he grew up as the son of a professor who ran a Native American history museum outside Flagstaff, AZ. “The unspoken message I got as a child was that we had nothing,” he recalls. “We didn’t have TVs. I looked like a ragamuffin. My dad worked, and there was enough money for necessities, but getting more money was never a goal.” Ted’s early life was rich in another way, however: “There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t told I was loved.”
Ted excelled in academics and athletics and earned a degree in drama from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He struggled for years as an actor — his most prominent job was as “The Aramis Man” in cologne ads — until a breakout gig in 1981’s Body Heat led to his casting (over pro football vet Fred Dryer, who later landed the cop show Hunter) as recovering alcoholic ex-baseball player turned Boston bartender Sam Malone on Cheers.
The show made Ted a superstar earning him 11 Emmy nominations (one for each of the sitcom’s seasons) and two awards. His home life, though wasn’t so cheery. He and his first wife, actress Randy Gosch, divorced after five years. He married producer Casey Coates but during the birth of their first daughter, Kate, in 1979, she suffered a massive stroke that left her paralyzed on her life side. “For the first month, I did nothing but cry,” Casey says. “I gave Ted permission to leave me. I thought I was going to be a wipeout the rest of my life.”
Luckily, that turned out not to be the case. At first, “it was horrifying,” Ted admits. “But after you get over the shock, you roll up your sleeves and work at getting things better.” They did, as Casey learned to walk again with Ted’s help, and they adopted another daughter, Alexis. But the trauma of the stroke created “a huge rift between us — a massive lack of trust,” Ted says. “We were adjusting to the fact that we weren’t the same people we were before it happened.”
The last straw in Ted and Casey’s marriage was his affair with Whoopi Goldberg, his co-star in 1993’s flop Made in America. It became a huge embarrassment after Ted appeared in blackface at a Friars Club roast in an ill-advised attempt to lampoon their interracial romance, and he ended the relationship. Whoopi was devastated: “It was real painful, and it was very public,” she says. “And the loss of his friendship hurts a great deal. We can never go and have a soda, anywhere, I’m friends with almost every man I’ve gone out with, except this man.”
A year later, Ted and Mary found each other. She had been a fan of Cheers, watching it to lift her spirits when she was going through her divorce from actor Malcolm McDowell, the father of her kids, Charlie and Lilly, but she assumed Ted was a slick shallow playboy like Sam. He did nothing to disabuse her of that notion with his first impression. He showed Mary the new hair extensions he’d gotten for Pontiac Moon.
“My first thought about him is, this is the most ridiculous creature I’ve ever met in my entire life,” she remembers. Jokes Ted, “And she was mine from that moment on!”
Strangely, that’s true, as Mary discovered Ted was deeper and wittier than she’d ever imagined. “I’m ridiculously in love with him,” she tells Closer. “I find him endlessly fascinating. He surprises me all the time and most of all he makes me laugh.”
Ted seconds that emotion. “I get nervous around her because I want to impress her I am the luckiest. When I die, I will have known in this life what it is to love as a human being and to be loved, and I am so grateful.”
The couple wed in 1995, and like any pair, they occasionally clash. Mary confesses she gets jealous sometimes. “People think they know Ted from watching TV, so literally a woman has one drink and she comes up and just wants to sit on his lap!” she marvels. “I want to punch their lights out!”
Like any good husband, Ted’s always quick to say he’s sorry. “We fight it out, but it’s better if I listen.” He says, “When I think I’m right. I’m usually way wrong. We have such a bank of goodwill and trust. And you need to be with somebody trustworthy.”
That perspective has come with time. “We’ve been through it all, and you just need to have a lot of faith in each other,” she says. “By the time we met, we didn’t want any ties in our life, so we’re free and absolutely honest with each other. That helps a lot It’s amazing to have a partner who gets you.”
And their life just keeps getting better. Mary recently starred in the box office hit Book Club, and Ted earned an Emmy nomination for his hit NBC sitcom, The Good Place. As much as they love their work, they’d rather stay home. “I’m madly in love with my wife and family, so going away sucks,” says Ted. “Perhaps it didn’t in a previous marriage, but I much prefer being home with my granddaughters.”
Ted and Mary have three (from Lilly), and they’ve brought a whole new joy to life. “Mary says it’s like eating ice cream with no consequences,” Ted gushes, “It’s delicious.” Adds Mary, “I found myself just lying on the driveway with one of my granddaughters, counting birds, and planes, because that’s what she wanted to do. I was like, I actually don’t have anything better than this to do!”
With a life like that, who needs a bucket list? “I’m kind of a Pollyanna,” Ted says. “I have three granddaughters, four children, and I’m married to the most beautiful, funny wife. I just want to enjoy every second I have with all these astounding people around me.”
He has no regrets. “If I corrected my mistakes — which are cringers — would I take them away if it were to alter anything about where I am now? No,” he says. “Life is messy. The older I get, the more I realize it’s OK to be imperfect. Because you can still grow and make changes in your life. It’s not like you’re finished at 70 or 75.” Cheers to that!
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