'CSI': Ted Danson, John Ratzenberger stage a mini-'Cheers' reunion

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Don't call Ted Danson and John Ratzenberger "Sam" and "Cliff" ... at least not this time.

The actors who co-starred for 11 seasons on the classic sitcom "Cheers" reunite Wednesday (Oct. 9) on Danson's current series, CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," in a story that echoes a real-life 2003 tragedy. Ratzenberger plays the owner of a nightclub where a fire takes four lives, prompting D.B. Russell (Danson) and his forensics team to investigate.

"First off, it was like, 'We haven't seen each other in a while. What's this going to be like?'" Danson tells Zap2it. "I was a bit nervous, but it was like falling off a log and getting back on. It was so sweet. We hung out in my trailer between shots and just reminisced and caught up with each other."

Danson adds he's greatly pleased with Ratzenberger's "CSI" work: "His performance? Wow! I got a little preview when I was looping [re-recording dialogue], and he just hit it out of the park. It sounds patronizing to say I was proud, but I was just so impressed by what he came in and did."

For his part, Ratzenberger says reteaming with Danson was "such a treat. Even running into him at the local supermarket is a treat. He's just a genuinely great guy, and as a leading man -- and I realized this very quickly on 'Cheers' -- he sets the whole tone. Anybody lucky enough to have worked with Ted knows he sets a terrific pace. He's a very generous actor, and I'm lucky to count him as a friend."

The "CSI" script made it clear that, despite the novelty of Danson and Ratzenberger being paired again, they'd have to break their "Cheers" pattern. "Sitting across the interrogation table from him, I had to bite my tongue," Ratzenberger reflects, "because I really wanted to make a joke and go into Cliff: 'Yeah ... so, uh, Sammy? What're we doin' in here?'

"For 11 years, that was our relationship. We were laughing a lot, then suddenly, here we are being very serious with each other. That was quite a gear change. I like to crack jokes anyway, so it's very difficult to steer away from that. This was a very serious topic, though, so you had to stick with it."

One hundred people died in a Rhode Island club fire 10 years ago, including the lead guitarist of the band that was playing at the site, Great White; the "CSI" variation makes two band members among the deceased. Connecticut native Ratzenberger recalls the real incident clearly.

"I asked the producers specifically, 'Does this have anything to do with the Warwick fire?' and they said, 'Yeah. It's based on that.' I think the guy I play is maybe a little too old to be in that business, but he didn't amass any other skills along the way. His heyday was probably back in the '70s or '80s, when he was the ultimate hipster, and now he's still trying to maintain that persona. You see quite a lot of that."

Lately, Ratzenberger has appeared on the FX series "Legit," and he'll reprise his movie voice role as piggy bank Hamm in the animated ABC special "Toy Story of Terror!" Wednesday, Oct. 16. As much as he likes being known to a new generation for his Disney-Pixar work -- he has voiced characters in every one of the company's feature films -- he never tires of being recognized as the trivia expert of "Cheers," mailman Cliff Clavin.

Ratzenberger says he created the character in his audition for the 1982-93 show. "It was based on the parent of a friend I grew up with. The guy would always crack me up; he came on like he was the font of all knowledge, and his delivery was the same as Cliff's, wanting to make sure everyone was paying attention. I'd laugh behind my hand and think, 'This guy is ridiculous.'"

Having Ratzenberger on the "CSI" set allowed Danson to engage in something he usually doesn't. "No one lets me tell 'Cheers' stories," Danson says. "They kind of roll their eyes and walk away, like, 'Oh, great. The old guy's gonna tell stories now.' But with Johnny there, we did draw quite a little crowd for those." 

Not only was Danson glad to be with Ratzenberger again in general, he was happy with how the situation played out for all concerned, both behind and in front of the "CSI" cameras.

"It's hard to be a guest star sometimes," Danson says, "to walk in and do you stuff while everyone else has been together for a while, and Johnny was just fantastic. He did a great job."

"CSI" airs at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on CBS.
Photo/Video credit: CBS