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Interview For Tony Danza, easy does it

October 1, 2018

Mention Tony Danza and certain adjectives leap to mind: easy-going, playful, likable and relatable. He’s a guy you can picture pulling up a chair for a friendly family poker game, singing karaoke to a Sinatra song at a neighborhood bar or charming his way out of a parking ticket with a wink, a shrug and a smile.

“I guess I have an affinity with making people feel comfortable,” says Danza, disarmingly. “I do.”

His 40-year career in show business began accidentally when TV’s “Taxi” was casting about for a young, handsome boxer to be part of the ensemble company of actors led by Judd Hirsch. The role fit like a golden glove. With a combination of naiveté and New York swagger, the kid with the blow-dry hair became an audience favorite. That five-year-long series was followed by an eight-year run of ’Who’s the Boss” (which takes place in Fairfield, Conn.), this time with Danza in a leading role.

Now 67 and still in fighting shape, Danza is getting back in the ring with yet another TV series — his eighth or ninth round, but who’s counting — this time by the creator of the hit series “Monk.”

“The Good Cop,” which premieres Sept. 21 on Netflix, centers on the odd-couple relationship between Tony Sr. (Danza), a disgraced former NYPD officer who never followed the rules and his son whom he lives with, Tony Jr., a straight-arrow, honest NYPD detective played by Josh Groban, most noted as a multi-platinum recording artist and performer. (Groban’s new album, “Bridges,” is also released Sept. 21 and he will be in concert Nov. 10 at Mohegan Sun.)

“It’s funny,” says the Emmy-nominated Danza recently in a telephone interview from his home in New York. “On the show, he fights and I sing.”

But singing is not a stretch for Danza by any means. In 2015 he played a tap-dancing tough guy in the all-too-short-lived musical “Honeymoon in Vegas,”: which had a feel-good score by Jason Robert Brown. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called the show “a real-live, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying Broadway musical in a way few new shows are anymore. ... The career-high work here of Mr. Brown and Mr. Danza is so stealthily sophisticated that it takes you a while to realize the sly genius of what they’re doing.”

For years, Danza has also crafted a series of engaging club acts which he performs at every chance he gets between TV, stage and other gigs. His latest edition is “Standards and Stories,” which features a four-piece combo led by John Oddo, who was also Rosemary Clooney’s music director. The show will play the Ridgefield Playhouse Oct. 27. “I sing, tell stories, do some tap dancing and bring out my secret weapon: my ukulele,” says Danza.

Brooklyn Boy

Singing and dancing gives Danza another was to express himself, he says. “It also makes me feel like I have this strange connection with my parents and family because that’s the type of entertainment we grew up on watching on TV.”

Born Antonio Salvatore Iadanza, his mother immigrated here from Sicily and became a bookkeeper and his father, also of Italian heritage, was a waste collector. Danza grew up in Brooklyn, and attended Catholic School until the sixth grade “when I was asked to leave. I think it had something to do with spitballs. I had a mischievous streak. Then I went to public school.

“I tried to be good although the neighborhood was seductive. That’s when you could get in trouble, be with the wrong people, be at the wrong place at the wrong time. You know, Brooklyn, but not like people think of Brooklyn now. That was when my mother said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here’ and that’s when we moved to Long Island.

“I was kind of a cut-up in school and I look back in frustration that I didn’t take it more seriously. I had a great time, don’t get me wrong. But I wish I’d been a better student. I didn’t realize that in order to be interesting you had to be interested. It took me a little bit longer to realize that.”

He graduated from college on a wrestling scholarship. At 24, what began as a lark turned serious when he started boxing professionally, with a record of 9—3. But everything changed and his acting career was launched after he was discovered for “Taxi” in a boxing gymnasium in New York.

Hey, Teach

One of Danza’s more intriguing projects in his career — which also includes writing a cookbook with his son and hosting a talk show — was starring in a reality show in 2010 called “Teach: Tony Danza.” In the series Danza co-taught a 10th-grade English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia during the 2009—’10 school year.

“‘Teach’ opened my eyes,” he says. “I originally wanted to be a teacher and it was always in the back of my mind. I think I did a pretty good job, too. But sometimes teaching breaks your heart so much. I never cried so much in my life as I did that year. But what the show taught me was that teaching is not a job. It’s an absolute calling. It’s one of the hardest jobs ever to do. It takes a lot out of people, to go back year after year, to hang in there.”

When asked what the key to his career longevity, Danza says it wasn’t sticking to one thing but trying different things. But even he is amazed at his long and steady professional run.

“I’m a garbageman’s son from Brooklyn and somehow, just somehow, I ended up on TV. Of all the guys in all the joints they picked me. I feel very blessed.”

Frank Rizzo is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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