In December 1992, Ted Danson, the star of the hit sitcom Cheers and my meal ticket for the previous few years, decided that after 11 seasons playing the legendary lothario bartender Sam Malone, he was calling it quits. At the time, I was a co-executive producer of the series, so as you might expect, this news caused me to radically rethink my near-term financial projections.

When Ted Danson walked away from the show, it wasn’t about money, which is a very hard thing to accept when it comes to show business. What Ted wanted, he told us, was a change. He wanted to go in new directions, take some time to reset his career choices, do different things. And because Ted Danson is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and definitely most talented people in Hollywood, when he told us this, we all hugged him and told him we loved him and wished him the very best, even though some of us (me) we’re thinking, You bastard! One more season and I could have bought a house in Brentwood.

He had other reasons, of course. Ted had spent the hiatus months working on a feature-film comedy, Made in America and had begun an affair with his co-star, Whoopi Goldberg, which is one of those things best described as a “head-scratcher.” But they were, in fact, boyfriend and girlfriend—she came to a bunch of shoot nights; she was always lovely and charming—and that, along with his uncertain marital status and the prospect of another few years of Sam Malone made him want to make some bold changes in his life. Changes that, I may have mentioned, would have been so much more welcome a few years down the road, when I could have banked some serious coin, but in the ensuing years I have learned that not everything is about me.

When one of the most popular television-comedy stars is romantically linked to a popular film-comedy star, people talk. And when that relationship is, um, complicated by race and a serious imbalance in the looks department—and I’m just being honest here—people not only talk, they talk crazy.

It’s a publicity stunt, some tabloids suggested. It’s just a made-up PR relationship to sell movie tickets, some people I knew—even some Hollywood insiders—speculated. And in the piles of fan letters the show would receive daily, there were accusations of drug addiction, race betrayal, homosexual blackmail, and even voodoo. (Not kidding about the voodoo.) These two people, went the general reaction, cannot possibly be in love. Somethin’s up.

Which of course was nonsense—as a wise Woody Allen tells us, the heart wants what it wants—but there was something so unexpected about the Ted-Whoopi romance that it called out for a complicated alternative explanation. And because people who are not in show business often assume that Hollywood and “Big Media” are master strategists who have it all figured out, it made sense to declare a simple, though surprising, love affair a multipronged PR move designed to promote a big studio comedy. As opposed to the usual way these things get sold to audiences, with trailers and funny clips and billboards and appearances on talk shows.

What made those theories so laughably idiotic was the idea that modern Hollywood was organized! Was capable of complex three-dimensional thinking! Show business was, and is, a loosely knit community of neurotic and unstable creatives—not just on-camera but behind the scenes as well—who spend their days in a desperate and chaotic search for the Next Big Thing. While it is true that in the good old days, when studio PR flacks could shape and dictate the press coverage of stars on contract, it might have been possible to convince moviegoers that Rock Hudson was hot for Phyllis Gates (he wasn’t) or that Lucille Ball was never a member of the Communist Party (she was), this hadn’t been true for nearly 40 years before Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg met on the set of Made in America. 

The best, and most hilarious, response to the news came from a legendary comedy writer who worked on the show. When he heard the news about Ted and Whoopi, he gave a baffled and disgusted look. And then, with perfect timing, he asked: What does she see in him? 

This was all before the internet, of course, before America’s lonely and individual nut jobs had found each other on Twitter and Facebook and formed a Coalition of the Stupid and Insane. If this had all happened last month, instead of scratching out hate screeds on the back of eviction notices and citations from the county health department, those same people would be online, chattering to each other, insisting that the Danson-Goldberg relationship was not just fake, it was an “op.”

Op: short for “psychological operation,” or “psy-op”—a plot by shadowy government operatives to manipulate and control the mental and cultural landscape of ordinary, decent Americans. The Danson-Goldberg Op, people would claim today, was designed to undermine a powerful symbol of masculine heterosexual power—TV’s beloved Sam Malone—and weaken traditional racial divisions.

Things, I don’t need to tell you, have gotten a lot stupider since then. When the most popular pop star in the world recently began a public romance with a strapping football player, it wasn’t something that required a complicated explanation. Taylor Swift is one of the richest and most famous singers in history. Her current boyfriend, Travis Kelce, is a 6’5” mountain of masculine sex appeal and he wears two Super Bowl rings. By the time you read this, he may have added a third. They are the Most Popular Boy and Girl in the High School of America. They are both, in other words, the Ted Danson in the relationship. But that didn’t stop some people from concluding that the only way to explain how a pretty girl could fall for the star athlete was: It’s an op! It’s a publicity stunt designed by the Deep State to help Biden win in November!

The bananas reaction to the Taylor-Travis romance has all the elements of its Ted-Whoopi predecessor, just bigger and dumber. It relies on the sinister efficiency of the intelligence arm of the United States government, which a casual examination of recent history suggests is bonkers. And it also proposes an intricate scheme of causes and effects. Step one: Get everyone’s attention. Step two: Tell them how to vote or which movie to see. Step three: They robotically comply because you got their attention. I’ve been working in show business for 34 years and I sincerely wish it worked that way. Everyone in Hollywood does. If we knew how to run a decent psy-op, the business would be nonstop hits. Don’t you think Jeff Bezos would figure out a way to psychologically manipulate audiences to watch The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power if he could? He certainly failed every other way.

But “publicity” and “attention” are always the magic elements to any psy-op plot. I’m not a licensed therapist, but I know projection when I see it. Overheated weirdos on the lunatic fringe of politics and culture can think of nothing more valuable than publicity—it’s what they desperately crave—so they see everything around them as just another game of Pay attention to me! Unfortunately, people—audiences, voters, television stars—are impossible to push around so easily. If they were, we’d all be enjoying the second term of the Hillary Clinton administration, Mars Needs Moms would have been a monster hit, Ted Danson would have taken the money and stayed on with Cheers, and I would be living on Carmelina Avenue in Brentwood, north of Sunset, with a view from downtown to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

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