Tony Danza brings his old-school act to Live! Philadelphia, talks about social media, teaching acting and more
“Social activist/commentator” is probably not a phrase that comes immediately to mind when the subject is Tony Danza. After all, the 71-year-old actor is best remembered as the slow-witted-but loveable Tony Banta on the brilliant turn-of-the-’80s sitcom Taxi and as Alyssa Milano’s earnest-and-loving dad on the immensely popular Who’s the Boss? But it doesn’t take much to get him started on the plight of kids today and, more to the point, his efforts to keep them safe and engaged.
Danza recently called, ostensibly to talk up his June 11 performance at Live! Casino-Hotel Philadelphia. But it took no more than a “How are you doing, Tony?” for him to launch into an extended discussion of the perils facing young people today and his efforts to counteract and mitigate them.
Not that Danza’s advocacy is newly formed: Back in 2016 and ’17, he starred in the A&E channel’s reality TV series, Teach, which followed his life as a full-time teacher at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. And until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, he served as master of ceremonies at the school’s annual student talent show (he had to miss this year’s return to a live event due to a scheduling conflict). But these days, he’s focused on helping kids in his native New York City.
“I had been asking [former NYPD Commissioner James] O’Neill and [current chief Keechant Sewell] to let me put an acting program in one of their facilities, in a bad neighborhood, in the neighborhoods where you have twice and three times the crime [as elsewhere],” he said. “So, finally, I met this guy, he's the assistant commissioner for youth services, and he says, ‘I wanna do that. It’s a great idea!’”
Ultimately, Danza, after receiving a “small grant” from a benefactor at HBO, launched a program at a police facility in Harlem. “We were gonna do a four-week pilot program, to see how it went,” he explained. “I started with six kids, six reluctant, scary kids. And at the end of the four weeks, I had 34 kids. And it was all word-of-mouth. Nobody knew about it.
“So now I’m gonna do it in East New York [where he grew up] in the fall.”
Danza isn’t a sociologist (nor does he play one on TV), but he was unambiguous in his assessment of much of what ails America in 2022. He places the blame squarely on social media, citing it for the rise in bullying (and the violence in which it can often result). But he went deeper than that, suggesting that the various popular platforms have revealed a heretofore unseen ugliness in the American zeitgeist.
“Here's my big revelation about social media, about why it's had such an effect on our country,” he offered. “Certainly, we see kids more prone to suicide, more prone to depression, having body issues and all this stuff.
“But it really has let us see who we really are. We all had this idea of who we were [pre-Internet]. We all watched TV and we all listened. So we all had an idea of Americans. And then [with social media] we got introduced to Americans. I'll give you an example:
“There's a friend of mine, who will be nameless. He’s an ex-cop. They made a movie about him; a tough guy. A good guy, I really thought. We’d been friends about 40 years.
“I can't take him now because [thanks to the Internet] I know what his mentality is and how he feels and the people he loves and supports and the ideas he has. I don't see the guy no more. And that's what happened to all of us. We found out who we were.”
As for his upcoming Live! gig, Danza, who later this month will open a two-week run at Manhattan’s legendary Carlyle Hotel, promises a one-man variety show, something he’s been doing in casinos, cabarets and theaters across the country for more than 25 years. The current program, dubbed Standards & Stories, will find him performing tunes from Broadway and the “Great American Song Book,” showing off his tap dancing and ukulele skills and regaling the audience with anecdotes from his life and career. But he is especially excited about the newest addition to the act.
“There's a song called ‘Do It the Hard Way,’ by Chet Baker. My piano player wrote a chart for it and there's a long scat in the middle of it,” he said, referring to the jazz term for vocal improvisation using wordless syllables. It's so cool to do. It's so much fun.”
In 2016, we ran into Danza, who is in the cast of an upcoming Hulu film called Darby Hunter Wants You, at the bar at Patsy’s the venerable Midtown Manhattan Italian eatery that was a favorite of Frank Sinatra’s. He mentioned that he was working on a sitcom pilot in which he played the father of standup-comedy superstar, Sebastian Maniscalco. So, we couldn’t let him go without asking what happened to the project.
“Everybody thought it was one of the funniest pilots they’d ever seen,” he offered. “Unfortunately it was before Sebastian had sold out Madison Square Garden. So right away he turned it into a movie [the yet-to-be-released "About My Father"] and Robert De Niro plays his father.
“It's so funny. You know, he did an interview the other day about it and I happened to catch it, and I swear to God, it was the same interview he did about me playing his father.”
Show time is 8 p.m. For tickets, click here.