A few weeks ago, “Taxi” turned 35. That and “Who’s the Boss?” are what Tony Danza is best known for — but he’s always been busy. A onetime boxer who stumbled into acting, he’s been a somewhat surprising stage star. Right now he’s prepping a musical version of the 1992 film “Honeymoon in Vegas,” with him in the James Caan role. He also spent a year teaching at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, which produced both the reality series “Teach: Tony Danza” and a book on his experiences. He’s now back in a medium that hasn’t always treated him well: movies, playing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s dad in “Don Jon.”
You’ve been busy with stage work.
It’s all I want to do. When we were on “Taxi,” we used to talk of ourselves as a repertory company. When “Who’s the Boss?” went off the air, I did a play that came to New York. Once you do a play in New York, that’s it. The first time I was hooked. There’s something about doing a play in New York — it consumes your life, because you have to do it eight times a week. My father used to call it “lovely work.”
How does stage compare to TV work?
The thing that’s great about a sitcom is it’s like doing a little play every week. But with plays it’s that repetition that makes it so exciting. It reveals itself down the road. I’m a dancer as well, and I love when something’s in your bones and you don’t have to think about it. The only way you can do that is by doing it a hundred times. That’s what’s sad about being reviewed when you’re just starting as opposed to being reviewed after you’ve done it for awhile.
Your character in “Don Jon” isn’t very redemptive.
He’s not redemptive at all. But everybody you play you love. Tommy Korman in “Honeymoon in Vegas” is a manipulator and not a nice guy, and at the end he actually gets rough. But I love him. I don’t think you can be out there if you don’t love the guy. With Jon Sr. here — I know people like him. We’re all a bit like him. We’re a little bit disconnected, a bit less reciprocal than we’d like to be. He’s just a bit more extreme than most.
How was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a first-time feature film director?
He’s terrific. He wrote a movie that captures the culture of the minute, and makes us laugh, and there’s a message that — he’s not proselytizing, but it’s there. It’s a cautionary tale, a comment on society. I think kids should see this movie, because it’s exactly what you don’t want to end up like. And then he directed it? Wow. Joe’s got a vision. He said to me, “I want these scenes to crack. I want them to snap. I don’t want to see Tony Danza.” We did a take and said, “I still like ya, get rid of that.”
You and Gordon-Levitt met while shooting “Angels in the Outfield.” What was he like then?
He was just a sweet kid. He’s always been a sweet kid. You knew he was talented. He was following the director around when he was 12 years old. He wanted to do this. This is the culmination. When he talks and when he walks, he reminds me of Gary Cooper. Take a look. The stature, the way he carries himself, the way he talks — he’s a real movie star. I already got the job so I don’t really have to do this, but I think he’s a terrific talent.
Danza spent a year teaching at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, which produced both the reality series “Teach: Tony Danza” and a book on his experiences. Of course, he has some things to say about the recent issues with massive school cuts.
“We have to make a commitment to educate all our kids, not just the ones who can pay $30,000 for the private schools, and not just the ones that are motivated,” he says. “The ones that aren’t motivated, that don’t have motivated parents — it’s not their fault. If you privatize, how do you not end up with a two-tiered system? Because the motivated kids with the motivated parents are going to go to the good schools, and then they’re going to leave everybody else behind. And the continuing budget cuts will come from the schools in the low income areas. One of the big problems we have in the country overall is the inequality and separation between rich and poor. Public school was a leveling thing. We all did it. Now we don’t. And isn’t this a pay me now or pay me more later situation? Because these kids are going to grow up into unproductive adults, and then you’re going to have to pay for them anyway, whether it be health care or welfare.”