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Tony Danza – Teacher, Teach Us

Tony Danza

Tony Danza

Tony Danza – Teacher, Teach Us

by Ronald Sklar

The actor spent a lifetime in front of the camera — but he always wanted to teach.

Tony Danza is quoting Shakespeare to me, and it goes a little something like this:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

Of course, we all know that those are the words of Brutus in Act 4, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar. And, we know whereof Danza speaks. It’s all about choices, and he’s made a lot of them. In his mere 61 years, he chose many lives: actor, boxer, song-and-dance man, father, talk-show host. And now — at last, the vocation he’s always dreamed of: teaching.

While we’re at it, add one more vocation to his long list: writer. In fact, he’s writing about being a teacher. His current book has the attention-grabbing but honest title of I Want to Apologize to Every Teacher I’ve Ever Had [Crown Publishing]. It’s a memoir based on his experiences as a 10th grade English teacher in a Northeast Philadelphia public school. The experiment was recently captured in a short-lived A&E reality series called Teach: Tony Danza.

“Being a first-year teacher is hard enough,” he tells me, “but imagine trying to do it on camera.”

Unlike most people, Danza does more than imagine; he acts. He does. And his difficult teaching stint — recorded for millions to see — set off a tidal wave of memories about his own Brooklyn education — or lack thereof.

“I look back on my high school years,” he says, “and I wonder — like a lot of people — why I didn’t try harder? Why didn’t I engage more? Why didn’t I learn more? What might my life have been like had I done that?”

Not that he scored so badly. While a neighborhood punk boxer, he was scouted and plucked from obscurity to be a part of the legendary cast of the classic series Taxi, starting in 1977. He was hired on his charisma alone; he had not a drop of acting experience. From there, he never looked back. Until now.

“I was lucky because I was surrounded by these incredible people,” he says of his castmates, “who were not only wonderful — so great to watch and work with — but they really went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I have a feeling it was making the best of a bad situation. They were getting this fighter who never acted. Let’s help him. And they did. They were so welcoming.”

That gig led to another TV classic, Who’s the Boss, where he expanded his acting and comedy chops, but his character was still named Tony.

“We tried to do timeless subjects,” he explains. “You know — friendship, loyalty, trust — all of those things that you know are going to stick around in society. I think the clothes date the show very badly, but I don’t think the themes do. I also think that the comedy stands up.”

Well-suited for a stand-up guy who originally attended college to become a teacher, but life somehow got in the way.

“I wanted to be a teacher and I never did it,” he says. “It stayed with me. In Who’s the Boss, the character Tony ends up being a teacher. It’s always been a motif in my mind.”

Of course, times have changed a bit since Danza’s school days. Indeed, times have changed, but people haven’t.

“Kids are still kids, but they are besieged by a barrage of messages in our culture that undermines an education,” he says. “You tell kids that good behavior and hard work will pay off, then they go home and watch whatever show they want to watch — you name it — and they come back and tell me, ‘No, wait a minute, good behavior doesn’t pay off and I don’t think those people are working hard.’”

Answers, Teach?

“We are all talking a good game and it’s easy to blame the teachers,” he says, “but in the long run, we all have to be a part of the solution.”

For Danza, the path toward solution is to take it personally.

“I was always trying to tie everything to students’ lives,” he says, “not just to learn it for learning’s sake, but how does it affect them personally? How come Shakespeare was so hip in 1500? How does he know what we’re feeling right now?”

Which leads, of course, to another quote, but this time from the playwright Arthur Miller.

“The best thing we can hope for is that we end up with the right regrets,” Danza says. “I got a couple of mine, and I got a couple that ain’t so right, but that’s another story.”

In the meantime, his book, with its apologetic title, is scoring big points with the very people he once rejected, and who he now embraces with a full heart.

He says, “Teachers are walking up to me on the street saying, ‘I accept your apology.’”

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved. Posted: December 26, 2012. 

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