They have each received numerous awards and accolades, but receiving the Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts is something performers Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen said they are “honored” to have bestowed upon them.
During a recent phone call with the couple from their home in Los Angeles, Steenburgen said she and Danson were approached about the award a few years ago, but with the COVID pandemic, the ceremony would have been held remotely.
“We didn’t want to do it by Zoom,” she said. “We said it was such an amazing honor, but we preferred to talk about it when it could be real, and we could all be there together. So now that time has happened and we’re very excited to come.”
The couple, who have been married for 25 years, will be honored Monday at the Pell Awards Gala, which celebrates national and local excellence in the arts. Trinity Repertory Company’s signature annual event, which was last held in June 2019, will be at WaterFire Arts Center in Providence.
The award is named for the late US senator Claiborne Pell, who represented Rhode Island for six terms — from 1961 to 1997 — and was a champion of the arts.
“It’s just an amazing honor to be associated with both Senator Pell and Trinity Rep,” said Danson. “To be connected to a person and organization that stimulates creativity out of the community and tries to get it back into the schools, to me, is such an honor because in both of our lives, being open to creative possibilities changed our lives.”
Steenburgen emphasized the importance of the arts for young people, and said it’s “heartbreaking” that funding for the arts in schools is being cut.
“I think what people don’t realize is it’s not really about encouraging or teaching kids to become actors — I mean that might be the result of it — but what it really does in terms of theater, music, and all those sorts of things is give the kids who might not be included in a group an opportunity to be part of a team,” she said. “It’s every bit as much of a gift to the soul and to the spirit of a human being as it is to be on a sports team.”
“And what’s beautiful about music and about theater and even a celebration of people’s paintings and all forms of expression of art is that they are communicative,” she added. “It’s about communication; it’s about teamwork; it’s about inclusivity; it’s about learning about people who might be quite different than yourself, and it’s very generous in terms of what it gives to people’s confidence and sense of belonging.”
Danson agreed, and said that offering arts to children “also stretches their horizons and lets them know that anything is possible.”
Cutting funding for arts programs in schools “takes the soul out of education,” he said.
Steenburgen lauded Trinity Rep for the youth programs it offers – as well as other community outreach – and called the theatrical organization “an extraordinary gift to the community.”
Kate Liberman, Trinity Rep’s executive director, said that honoring Steenburgen and Danson for their contributions to the arts and their activism is “an honor.”
“They are familiar faces to everyone — Ted in particular in New England of course for his time on ‘Cheers’ – but also more recent TV and film work both of them have been doing,” Liberman said.
“Ted has also been deeply involved in environmental causes, and even those here in Rhode Island. He volunteered and supported the work of Save the Bay,” she said, “which is something that hits home for a lot of folks here in our community. And Mary is deeply involved also in supporting artistic and other causes.”
“When we think about artistic lifetime achievement, it’s thinking about people who not only might be household names or those who you recognize because you’ve seen their work on TV or in film, but people who’ve had a great impact on the industry of the arts overall and the culture that we live in,” Liberman said.
“And Ted and Mary are two people who we really think of as representing having achieved such things both in their philanthropic work and support both environmentally and for arts causes — as well as their artistic achievements as actors, as performers, and in Mary’s work as a songwriter.”
Steenburgen, 70, who has appeared in a slew of popular movies, including “Elf,” “The Help,” and “Step Brothers,” can be seen in “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” which is a sequel to the 2018 romantic comedy “Book Club,” and is currently in movie theaters. She costars in the movie with her off-screen friends Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Diane Keaton.
Also a singer-songwriter, Steenburgen wrote a song for the movie called “Anywhere With You” that the four on-screen and real-life friends sing together in the film.
Danson, 75, is known for his iconic role as Sam Malone on the NBC sitcom “Cheers,” which aired from 1982-93. He may be as well known as a costar in the 1987 and 1990 movies, “Three Men and a Baby” and “3 Men and a Little Lady,” and for his work in numerous popular TV shows including “Mr. Mayor” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
He’s currently working on a Netflix project that is on hold due to the writers’ strike, and is delving into the world of podcasts with Woody Harrelson, his former “Cheers” castmate.
“It’s something completely different, which is kind of exciting to me,” Danson said of the podcast, which will air in the fall. “It’s to celebrate and reminisce about ‘Cheers,’ but also to catch up with each other and meet each other’s friends. We’ve done about six of them and we’re still trying to figure out who we are, but we’re having a great deal of fun.”
Steenburgen took exception to Danson’s reference to the duo “still trying to figure out who we are,” saying “I’ve heard it and they are hilarious and irresistible together.”
The couple, who have a home on Martha’s Vineyard and are looking forward to spending time there this summer, said they can’t wait for Monday night’s event — including the opportunity to see previous lifetime achievement award recipients and event co-chairs Richard and Sharon Jenkins.
Steenburgen recalled working with Richard Jenkins in the movie, “Step Brothers”: “It was very bonding because a lot of it was scripted, and a lot of it was improvised. … We had the best time throughout the film,” she said. More recently, they appeared together in the 2021 Guillermo del Toro movie, “Nightmare Alley.”
“It will be fun to see [him] and Sharon and spend some time with them when we’re there,” she said. “And I think of Providence as a very food-forward city, so we’re excited to partake in [as many dining options] as we can.”
In addition to Danson and Steenburgen, those being honored Monday night will include Trudy Coxe, executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, who will receive the Pell Award for Outstanding Leadership in the Arts; Barnaby Evans, artist and creator of WaterFire, who will receive the Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts; Suzanne Magaziner, former Trinity Rep board chair, who will receive the Charles Sullivan Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts; and Marta Martínez, founder and executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts, who will receive the Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Past recipients of Lifetime Achievement in the Arts awards include Stephen Sondheim, Viola Davis, Jessica Lange, Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, and Jason Robards.
For more information and tickets to Monday night’s event, visit trinityrep.com/pell
Juliet Pennington can be reached at email@example.com.