Ted Danson: My Favorite Mistake

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Dan Busta / Corbis Outline

I grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is beautiful, gorgeous Ponderosa pine country. My father, Ned Danson, was director of the Museum and Research Center of Northern Arizona, part of a very prestigious scientific community.

One summer, when I was 11 years old, my friends and I decided that all the billboards that were out on the highway north of the museum were an ugly blight on the most beautiful countryside in the world, and we were going to do something about it. One of my friends was a Hopi Indian, another was a Navajo, and another one was the son of an archeologist. There was this geologist named Bill Breed who was working at the museum, and he was kind of a Pied Piper to us kids, and he had a little Volkswagen Beetle. So one midnight, we piled into the Volkswagen with our saws and our axes, and Bill drove us out to this open prairie surrounded by pine trees where the billboards were. And we started lying on the ground when cars would pass by, and leaping up when the cars would disappear, and began hacking away at these 40-foot-long billboards.

We took down three or four of them. One of them—I remember it well—was a sign that said “Rita Quackenbush, Real Estate Broker.” And we were so excited and so happy. We just thought we were doing mankind and Mother Nature a huge favor—and we didn’t get caught.

A couple of mornings later, I woke up and my father was in a fury. It turns out it was in the newspapers that somebody had vandalized all these billboards. And he was furious—because he knew it was us. How did he know? Because we cut down all the billboards except the one advertising the Museum of Northern Arizona. So I guess the mistake was that we didn’t cut down my father’s billboard as well.

My dad came into the bathroom while I was in the tub and asked, “Did you do this?” I denied it. “If I ever find out you did this,” he said, “you’re in big trouble.” And then he walked out. But a second later he came right back in and said, “I hope you got the Rita Quackenbush sign.”

I am almost afraid to talk about this, because I’m wondering if there’s a statute of limitations. I have to say that all the environmental work I do now is strictly by the letter of the law. I don’t do any of the cowboy stuff. Everything I do, and everything my organization Oceana does, is perfectly legal. All the more power to the cowboys, but I’m not one of those anymore.

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