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Jeff Daniels: What I'm thankful for

Jennifer White and Jeff Daniels
Eliot Johnson
Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio's Jenn White and actor and musician Jeff Daniels in Studio East at Michigan Radio

Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow, and it's a time to reflect on what we're all thankful for this year.

Actor and Musician Jeff Daniels stopped by the Michigan Radio studios this week to talk about why he calls Michigan home, the importance of the arts in the state and what he is thankful for. His answer might surprise you.

This weekend, Jeff Daniels will be hosting the fifth annual Jeff Daniels and Friends Variety Show at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. Daniels says Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to hold the show for a few reasons.

"There are a lot of people around. There are a lot of relatives in town and people looking for something to do… It seemed like a good idea to kind of bring together a lot of people who were also celebrating home.

From the beginning, Daniels says he wanted the show to feature artists and acts from Michigan.

“This is the fifth year,” says Daniels, “And this is going to be the best one ever because I’ve found out where the fun is and how much fun to make it for the audience. You know, I got the Reverend Robert Jones who’s this blues master. I’ve got the Saline Fiddlers coming.”

In addition, the show will feature The Ben Daniels Band, led by Jeff’s son. Daniels jokes, “You know, big believer in nepotism.”

Mr. Daniels has also written a song for Charlie Marcuse, the singing hotdog vendor who can be found every summer at Comerica Park, and this weekend at Daniels’ variety show. “I’ve known Charlie over the years,” says Daniels, and the song “will showcase his operatic ability to sign the word ‘hotdog.’”

Daniels is known by many in Michigan for his dedication to the state, choosing to live here even though much of his career is based in Los Angeles or New York. “I can’t explain it except that it’s home,” says Daniels, “It’s a place I understand. It’s who I am. It’s where I am. It’s what I am. I think a lot of us feel that way.”

While Mr. Daniels loves living in Michigan, he recognizes that lately it has not been easy for everyone to stay in Michigan.

“Some just had to leave. They lost their jobs. They lost their homes. They had to leave. But for those of us who stayed, we’re pulling for it even more.”

The arts and humanities have always been important to Daniels, and even though the current economic situation in Michigan may be pressuring politicians to take funding away from the arts, Daniels wants to remind Michigan that the arts contribute greatly to the strength of our society. He says, “It’s what it does to the imagination and the creative side of any person when you get that kid to put a trombone in his hand or the kid that writes poetry. They’re expanding their mind beyond just numbers.”

Daniels says a child doesn’t have to become a professional musician or artist for the arts to make a positive impression on his or her life. “Even if they don’t go into the arts, their minds are expanded,” says Daniels, “The imagination is like this adrenaline rush for the brain that’s completely natural and, I’m happy to say, legal. And when you have the arts, whether it’s music, or writing, or drama, or on and on and on, sculpting, painting, you know, at a young age and then beyond, it’s not that these people are smarter or elite, they’ve just got more going on upstairs.”

Thinking artistically can help a person develop vision, too, says Daniels. People who are engaged with the arts “can see beyond just the end of their nose, or tomorrow, or their next buck,” he says, “The arts takes you way beyond that, you look way down the road. You know, the great artists are people who had vision. And a lot of the business people that are very successful support the arts because they understand that vision thing, and that comes from having your mind expanded by the arts, by the humanities in ways that stimulate the imagination and creativity.” Daniels adds, “Show me a really good businessman and I’ll show you a guy that’s got an imagination.”

This Thanksgiving, Mr. Daniels says that he’s thankful for any job created in Michigan

"It’s easy to cut. It’s easy to run. It’s easy to slash and burn budgets and all of that, and I know that some people have to do that. But I am thankful for every businessman, every company, every organization that hires somebody, especially those that didn’t have to – the people that said, ‘You know, we could have profited more and held onto more of our money, but you know what? Let’s hire those two people.’ It all matters, especially now here in Michigan, so I’m thankful for any and everyone who has hired one or more people in the last year"

You can hear the interview tonight at 4:50pm on Michigan Radio.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.