Cheers to Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen's Evolving Love Story: The Secret to a More Perfect Union

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen have been married for 26 years and remain head over heels in love, but during the pandemic someone found out he had room to improve as a partner.

By Natalie Finn Dec 29, 2021 9:00 PMTags
Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, 2005Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

If anyone was under the impression that Ted Danson was the perfect husband, let him disabuse you of that notion.

"I used to think that I was Mr. Enlightenment, madly present and in love with Mary," he said of his relationship with his wife of 25 years, Mary Steenburgen, while on Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend in April 2020. "And true—that was true. But, I also noticed, Oh, I used to like half-listen and then figure out what she was saying, and then decide what I was going to say and then interrupt her. 'Cause I'm going fast, I'm going fast here."

And the two-time Emmy winner admitted that only when the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to travel, film and photo shoots, gatherings, in-person meetings, and pretty much everything else related to their careers as actors and activists did he realize that it might behoove him to slow down.

"There's so many little silver linings in our relationship," he added. "One last thing and I'll let this go... I think we might have gone really fast until the end. And taking this moment almost feels like a little gift."

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Danson, who's celebrating his 74th birthday Dec. 29, lamented multiple times that so much suffering in the world was occurring amid the circumstances in which he had this revelation, but, he reiterated, "it's a little gift" amid all the madness.

So basically, the star of CheersThe Good Place and now the NBC sitcom Mr. Mayor took advantage of his unusually light schedule to become a better partner. 

OK, so now he may be the perfect husband. Or getting there.

"Happy 25th Anniversary!" Steenburgen wrote Oct. 7, 2020, in a celebratory Instagram post. "This was SUPPOSED to be a sweet loving anniversary photo but you have a big piece of salad in your teeth. So there it is. Thank you for making me laugh today and every single one of the last 9,125 days. You are the goofiest, wisest, kindest, dreamboat in the world. True, that is a big ass piece of salad but even that doesn't mar your legendary beauty."

Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

There's always something.

But their mutual endless appreciation of each other is also a product of having been through this whole marriage thing before (once for Steenburgen and twice for Danson), and learning about themselves in the process, which created a more fertile opportunity for finding just the right person to be with for the rest of their days.

Because even Mr. and Mrs. Enlightenment had to have their eyes opened along the way.

Opportunity ended up knocking on the set of the 1994 period family drama Pontiac Moon, starring Danson as a lusting-for-adventure science teacher fascinated by the moon landing in 1969 and Steenburgen as his wife who, after suffering a trauma, won't even the leave the house.

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Steenburgen had divorced British actor Malcolm McDowell in 1990 after a decade of marriage and two kids together, actress Lilly McDowell and director Charlie McDowell. Danson, meanwhile, wasn't that far removed from a headline-making relationship with Made in America co-star Whoopi Goldberg that had overlapped with the end of his marriage to second wife Cassandra Coates, the mother of his two daughters, Kate and Alexis.

"We would like to set the record straight…. We are no longer romantically involved," read a statement released by Goldberg and Danson in November 1993.

So let's say that neither star of Pontiac Moon was looking for any off-screen drama, and no one expected to actually fall in love.

"Ironic how life works in those moments," Danson told Closer in 2018. "Once you throw up your arms and surrender, a lot of times things come your way."

Robert Schaffel/Kobal/Shutterstock

Steenburgen, too, is of the opinion that timing is everything. "We met when we were 40 and 45, and we had lived a bit," she told People in 2018. "We met at a time when both of us had stared down some demons within ourselves and that was lucky that we met then."

Theirs is a union "where the man in the marriage is secure in both his kindness and tenderness, but also in his strength," the Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist star said, singing her husband's praises for the magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue. "I definitely feel that he is the result of almost like dreams I had when I was young about someone I would want to spend my life with, and I really cherish that and I think neither of us take each other for granted."

Steenburgen continued, "He is just kind to me every single day. If he has an early call, I try to get up while it's still dark and make him coffee and send him off and he does the same for me. I think it's those little kindnesses that completely make up our life that are so appreciated."

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But though the place they're in now sounds beyond good, she wasn't exactly head over heels on day one. In fact, she was a huge fan of Cheers (as were so many, the NBC comedy drawing 93 million to its series finale), but Danson had been too convincing playing chauvinist bartender Sam Malone for 11 seasons. "I actually believed that he was sort of superficial and slick," the Arkansas-born star, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1981 for Melvin and Howard, recalled to Closer.

And unlike Sam and his obsessed-over hair, Danson had a weird wig for Pontiac Moon, so he even looked like "the most ridiculous creature I've ever met in my entire life." By her side for the interview, Danson quipped, "And she was mine from that moment on!"

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He, however, was "immediately smitten," he recalled in 2018 on Off Camera With Sam Jones. He met her when the director, Peter Medak, got them together for dinner to see if they had the necessary chemistry. Basically given the go-ahead to "look this person in the face and in the eyes, at dinner I was just 'Oh my god, look at her.' She had this thousand-watt bulb going off behind her eyes, she was so light, and so interesting." He motioned with his head to indicate he was down for the count.

Danson said he didn't find out until later that Steenburgen was suspicious of him, recounting how she had said, "'Ugh, I love the script, but if Ted Danson's attached to it and he's that Hollywood-slick, Sam Malone-kind of guy...'" But, he felt that she started to look at him differently one day when they were in the lunch line on set and she noticed that he was both splattered with paint (taking up painting was part of his "self-discovery," he explained) and had a tear in the back of his jeans, so she could see his "tighty-whities," as she called them.

"And she went, 'Well this guy's not cool,'" Danson said with a laugh. "'He's a doofus! Now I'm interested!'"

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Danson has pinpointed the acceleration of their romance to the five hours they spent shooting a scene in which their characters are out on the water in a canoe. "We paddled in sync," the actor remembered. "We went out as friends and by the time we came back, we were in love."

Or as Steenburgen put it to Closer Weekly in 2017, "When I was going through sad times, I'd watch Cheers at the end of the day to make me feel better. Then I discovered it was easier to just sleep with Sam the bartender."

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They married Oct. 7, 1995, at Danson's 19th-century farmhouse in Chilmark, on Martha's Vineyard, in front of about 150 guests, including Tom Hanks and Rita WilsonJames TaylorJeff Goldblum and then-girlfriend Laura DernCheers stars such as Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer and Kirstie Alley; and first family Bill and Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea (whose wedding Danson and Steenburgen attended 15 years later).

It was a rainy weekend and the bride wore red clogs under her dress to keep her feet dry. Naturally, there was a much larger security presence than even your average A-list wedding would require, due to the 42nd President of the United States being in attendance. The Clintons also attended the rehearsal dinner at the nearby Beach Plum Inn the night before (where Hanks is said to have brought the house down with his toast), and they were a half-hour late to the ceremony because they hung back to let all the other guests file in first, not wanting their motorcade to block traffic.

Fast-forward 26 years and Danson and Steenburgen's honeymoon period may end one of these days... but probably not!

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"[Our love] just gets more profound and deeper as we go through the blessings and joys, but also the hurdles, of life together," Steenburgen told People in 2018. "He is my partner in the deepest sense of the word in this life."

And while they mark momentous events, "I could care less about things like Valentine's Day because literally the appreciation for what I do for him and the way he nurtures me as a woman, as an artist, as an actor, as a songwriter and his celebration of who I am makes me free to fly and be who I am. And I hope I do that for him."

It certainly sounds as if she does, with Danson gushing to Us Weekly in 2017, "I'm madly in love with Mary Steenburgen. She's a remarkable human being so I'm just incredibly blessed. It feels like heaven on Earth. If I were to die, I can say, I know what it's like to be loved and to love."

Asked what sort of pastimes they enjoyed together, Danson cited "major naps" as a favorite activity, but in general they were "always doing something."

"I'm following her around, she writes music, she goes to Nashville," he continued. "I'm about to stop actually shooting [The Good Place]. We're through for the season in a week. So now I get to follow her and go wherever she goes."

You can forgive a guy for thinking he was already enlightened pre-pandemic.

HBO

They've also worked together quite a bit, perhaps most notably playing extra versions of themselves for the past 20 years on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's Curb version of Larry David being a huge fan of Mary's from the beginning, but Ted... Eh, not so much. (Of course the later plot point in which Ted and Mary split up couldn't be further from reality. "He hates happy people," Danson quipped of David to Jimmy Kimmel in 2017.)

They also co-starred in the 1996 TV miniseries Gulliver's Travels and played a couple going through a divorce (but will they go through with it?) in the 2004 TV movie It Must Be Love. Steenburgen guest-starred as a love interest for Danson's playboy publisher on the HBO series Bored to Death and had a cameo on the final season of The Good Place last year.

HBO

And they truly can't get enough of each other.

Danson called Steenburgen "endlessly fascinating" in a 2013 interview with CBS This Morning, and a week later on the show she told Gayle King, "Before I met him, I had actually gotten a little cynical about love. I thought infatuation was really about as far as it went, and then I met him and he's the real deal for me. He's definitely heaven-sent."

She continued, practically starting to blush, "He's hilarious, too, and I'm a laugh junkie, so it doesn't hurt to live with somebody that makes you laugh every day of your life. He's just deeply, profoundly funny."

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For his part, Danson just feels lucky to have the chance to make her laugh every day. 

"If I hadn't worked really hard on myself in my 40s, my wife Mary Steenburgen wouldn't have even seen me," he reflected on Off Camera With Sam Jones. Right before they met, he didn't know if he was even "capable of not messing up a relationship," as his track record—two divorces and his scandal-pocked romance with Goldberg—wasn't great. "And I was such a mess when I met her," he added. "I worked really hard, therapy and clinics and everything."

Danson admitted that, as his star was rising thanks to Cheers and hit movies like Three Men and a Baby, his private life was going in the opposite direction. Finally, "at one point, I decided I wanted to stop being a liar. I wanted to spent most of my life, 90 percent of my life, being creative. I really worked very hard to get in touch with me, and what made me tick and why. It was dark and hard, and clearly life is an ongoing process and I'm still working on all of this stuff, but I did make a shift that allowed me to start telling the truth, being more real—and in that moment I met Mary Steenburgen."

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Asked the secret to their lasting love, he told Us Weekly in 2018, that "being in love with Mary" did the trick for him. Pressed for a little more detail, he added, "If there's any kind of unspoken or little thing that hasn't been communicated, we don't let it sit. So we don't have anything festering in any way."

He called their relationship "impeccably honest."

"And," he added, "we just like each other! We like each other a lot, we laugh a lot. It's simple." 

They didn't have more children together, but they blended their families, and Steenburgen has called her husband "an amazing father, an amazing stepfather and an amazing grandfather."

She told People in 2018, "We have been grandparents now for six years. We have two granddaughters, and they can't stop climbing on him. They just adore him. They basically see him as a jungle gym. He is Teddy—that is their name for him, and they just adore him."

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Danson officiated at Lilly McDowell's 2010 wedding to Charles Walton at the family homestead on Martha's Vineyard, and stepsister Kate was matron of honor. Father of the bride Malcolm McDowell and his three sons with third wife Kelley Kuhr were there to complete the sprawling modern family vibe. And perhaps Hillary was busy with Secretary of State business and therefore couldn't make it, but Bill Clinton was among the guests.

On the flip side, both Danson daughters joined Lilly and Charlie when Steenburgen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009.

In 2014, Danson played a crafty marital counselor in stepson Charlie's directorial debut, The One I Love. The 38-year-old's fiancée, Lily Collins, commented on Steenburgen's 25th anniversary post, "Oh happy happy anniversary to you guys!! Can't believe how lucky I am to call you my future in-laws!"

You can't blame a girl for appreciating that wellspring of marital wisdom at the ready, one that keeps being replenished over time.

Watch: Ted Danson on "Three Men and a Little Lady": E! News Rewind

The happy couple wed Sept. 4 in Colorado, Steenburgen writing on Instagram afterward, "Charlie, my son, and Lily, my daughter-in-law!!! Thank you for letting us all bask in the sheer beauty of your love for each other. My heart is overflowing and it almost feels like the last few days were some sort of beautiful dream. But it is all real, and I feel like the luckiest mother in the world."

Collins has since partaken in one of her in-laws' most cherished traditions: appearing as herself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, an event Steenburgen also commemorated with a photo of the Emily in Paris star and a hairless Danson.

"To all those who have long maintained that my husband is, in fact, totally bald…..this is for you," the actress quipped, acknowledging the many toupee rumors Danson has worn over the years. "See him and our dreamy daughter in law in #curbyourenthusiasm."

Hopefully the joke didn't send him spiraling. Danson confided to AARP The Magazine in 2017 that Steenburgen helped quell the anxiety that's always been burbling within him, threatening to spill over.

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"There's always fear, and it's all the human stuff," he explained. "Jobs, work, money, kids, health. Usually, when I have a fearful thought, I flip it into gratitude. Like, if I think, Oh dear, where's Mary? She's not home. Something must have happened, I tell myself, Thank God I have the opportunity to be married to a woman whom I love so much. Because that love is what makes me afraid that she might be hurt or something. I tell myself, 'Aren't you lucky?'"

Steenburgen acknowledged that Danson was a bit of a hypochondriac, "but in the most charming way," and she laughed at his perennial concern that he'll never work again.

"In all the years I've known him," she told AARP, "the longest Ted's gone without a job was maybe 20 minutes."

LISA O'CONNOR/AFP via Getty Images

So it would seem as though he wouldn't have a ton of work to do on himself when the pandemic hit and he and Steenburgen spent months primarily at home. But he found stuff to tweak all the same.

Discussing what how it felt to slow down, take care of himself and really listen to his wife instead of interrupting to speed to the next thing, he told Conan O'Brien in April, "In my little bubble, Mary and I are eating really well and exercising. And just taking that moment to be together in a real way, and deeper than, I think—sorry, I'm rambling."

But he meant to say "deeper than ever before." Because, for him, there is no limit to how much a guy can keep falling in love with Mary Steenburgen.

The second season of Mr. Mayor premieres March 15 on NBC. Watch the full first season on Peacock.

(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)

(Originally published Jan. 7, 2021, at 7 a.m. PT)

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