by andy sharpless | November 8, 2011 | People
A commercial fisherman sorts a recent catch of cod off the coast of Massachusetts
|Ted Danson and Philippe Cousteau before the House National Resources Committee|
|A fisherman unloads a bluefin tuna in Malta|
I first met Ted Danson about eight years ago, when I joined Oceana as chief executive officer. Often one of the first priorities in such a position is finding celebrities to help promote your cause. In my case, I got incredibly lucky. Ted had been working on behalf of ocean conservation for nearly 20 years and was already on our board of directors. He became an ocean advocate when Cheers was at its height with a local fight in California to protect nearby beaches from oil drilling. A few years later, he cofounded American Oceans Campaign, which was rolled into the internationally focused Oceana when it launched in 2001. Ted is something special—knowledgeable, super smart, and passionate, a great guy who happens to be very famous all over the world (I have been stopped when I have been with him in the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Chile, and Belize).
I must confess that Ted has helped Oceana immensely. In the years since we first met, Ted and I have become a complementary duo. I am the left brain: My business background makes me analytical, linear, and solution-focused. I see ocean conservation as a puzzle to be solved in a series of steps; I tend to favor rational, sciencebased arguments. Ted is an artist and thereby the right brain. He is creative and flexible. But as he puts it, we also challenge each other to use the under-utilized halves of our brains.
"Acting is such an emotional, instinctual, don’t-think-too-much-about-it kind of process. The more you think about it, the more you can kill that spontaneity that has to be there,” Ted told me while taking a quick break from filming CSI recently. “It’s very specific to one side of the brain. When I do any of this work with Oceana, I have to grind my gears and smoke comes out of my ears; I have to flip to the other side of my brain, which I find exacting and very rewarding at the same time.”
And make no mistake: Being an actor championing a cause on Capitol Hill is indeed very challenging and comes at great risk to an actor’s credibility and, frankly, bankability. It is an immense credit to Ted that he has not allowed this to faze him over the years. He has come to Washington many times on our behalf, both to meet informally with politicians about ocean conservation and to testify before Congress. I can vividly recall Ted’s visit to Capitol Hill in 2009. Along with Philippe Cousteau, the dashing grandson of explorer Jacques Cousteau, he spoke in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources on the dangers of offshore drilling. This was more than a year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster; national media interest in offshore drilling was at its nadir.
And yet the room was packed to the gills with people eager to see Ted and Philippe. Thanks to them, our argument against offshore drilling— that it is a constant danger to marine wildlife, beaches, and our wild seafood supply, and that no amount of domestic drilling will lower gas prices so long as worldwide oil demand keeps surging—wriggled its way into the national conversation.
The committee kept Ted at the hearing for nearly four hours, largely because some on the other side were relentlessly trying to trip up him and Philippe. They did not succeed. I asked Ted about his preparation for testifying before Congress, and he said, “I like to pray.” He then added: “The worst thing a celebrity can do is to step up with all the attention of the cameras and then trivialize the issue. That’s the risk you always run whenever you bring a celebrity in front of cameras. The pressure is to make sure you know enough to say I’m not an expert, but here’s what’s going on, and you should talk to the expert.”
Ted Danson, Jeff Bridges, Keith Addis, Andy Sharpless, and Valarie Van Cleave at the 2010 SeaChange Summer Party in Orange County. The celebrity-studded event is one of Oceana’s largest fundraisers.
|Addis prepares for a dive in Belize|
|Danson with Sens. Mike Crapo and Ron Wyden|
|Oceana board president Keith Addis swims with a giant whale shark|
I do think Ted is way too modest—and, regardless of what he says, has an excellent right brain as well. After 20 years of doing this stuff, he really knows more about these issues than most. Certain people, like some of those on the Congressional committee, often foolishly underestimate him. He is well educated: He attended Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. He hangs out, for fun, with the Clintons, and his dad was an archeologist. He likes talking about fishing subsidies. But if you ask Oceana’s marine scientists, lawyers, and campaigners, they will tell you how grateful they are that Ted generously starts the conversation and then lets them finish it (when, to be honest, he often could do that, too).
Here is what Ted does for us on a routine basis: He gets us in the room with the people we need to reach. Waiting in the hallways of a Senate office building for legislators who are running late, who may not even show, is not glamorous work. But Ted is happy to do it and admits it is not much different from trying to get things accomplished in Los Angeles. “It’s the same town,” he said. “You can say that we all deal with silly things and you all deal with serious things, but it’s the same town. It’s a PR town. There are stars and celebrities that go with each town, and they both depend on good PR. And both towns appreciate a good story.”
Over the years, Ted and I have tried to craft one such story out of saving the world’s oceans. Ted has done it most emphatically with his book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. While our experts helped Ted a lot, this book is also a tribute to his incredible knowledge and passion for the issue.
The story in his book goes something like this: We live on a watery planet—71 percent of Earth is covered by oceans. Through pollution, overfishing, and climate change, we are threatening the coral reefs, marine mammals, beaches, and wild seafood supply that make the oceans a vibrant place. But there is a solution. We know how to fix the oceans—and we can do it, as long as we find the will.
More than I ever do (thanks to that pesky left brain), Ted emphasizes the spiritual connection we have with the oceans. Saving the oceans is necessary not only because it regulates our atmosphere and provides animal protein for a billion people around the planet, many of them poor. It is also, quite simply, the right thing to do. He always ends conversations on the topic with a thought he says he got from his lovely wife, Mary Steenburgen: “Go to the beach, swim, surf, boat, fish, eat seafood. Connect with your oceans and start from a place of joy.”
I asked Ted what he gets out of supporting us. After all, he continues to run the risk of being dismissed as yet another celebrity bandwagoner, supporting a cause for the good PR, even though he has decades of dedication and knowledge. “Celebrity is not something that most people crave or really want,” he said. “The joy for most actors is acting. But celebrity is this energy and focus that is put on you. It’s a mantle. It has nothing to do with who you are. So to be able to turn around and make use of that is some way that is constructive is pleasing.”
“I feel like I am serving a function,” he continued. “It kind of closes the loop. It’s okay for me to be a celebrity now because I know what to do with that energy. I make use of it by deflecting it over to something that matters—in this case, the work that Oceana is doing.”
photographs by jeff rotman/getty images (fisherman); kate dankson (danson); courtesy of oceana (Summer Party, Malta)