Tony Danza

Wednesday, June 5, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded on June 5, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today starred in not one, but two highly successful TV comedies and has moved on to fascinating new professional challenges. We’re very pleased to welcome Tony Danza.

Tony Danza: Thank you, Ken.

Paulson: Great to have you here.

Danza: It’s my pleasure.

Paulson: You know, from the minute we first talked to you about this show, you made it clear you wanted to talk about ideas and issues of substance, and we’re going to do that. In fact, you’ve had — in addition to having a terrific career on television and onstage, you’ve also been outspoken. You’ve been involved in the political and public arena. You’re unique among our guests, though, in the kind of success and the depth of success you’ve had in television. No one really gets multiple hit television shows, and somehow you’ve managed to do that. And that began, of course, with “Taxi” and then “Who’s the Boss?”

Danza: Wonderful shows. I think, you know, not everybody gets that kind of — you know, those, that kind of material, either. So that’s — I think that’s where the — the fortunate part of it is, is that you — you know, a lot of guys get breaks in Hollywood because they’re cheaper. They’re new, and they’re cheaper, and it’s a new face. And so that’s, that’s the Hollywood way. But not everybody gets a “Taxi.” That really sort of sets you up, you know?

Paulson: And did you know early on what a special series that was going to be?

Danza: I think I knew this: that it was — I was terribly naïve when I got here. I was ignorantly blissful or blissfully ignorant, one or the other, when I first got to Hollywood and — you know, what was a series and what it would mean, and I really was — but I did know that these were the people from “Mary Tyler Moore” who had had that wonderful show, and this was their first try at another show. It was — it had the best time slot on TV, because it was after the number-one show, which was “Three’s Company” at the time. And the great director Jimmy Burrows; Jim Brooks, who went on to do so many unbelievable things; Ed Weinberger. I mean, it was really … packed with just people that you knew were very good and, and were putting their heart and soul into this. And then one of the things that was always so great about “Taxi” — you know, here was this show — it was a great show. You got these great producers, the great time slot. You got everything going for you. You got Judd Hirsch, and you got Danny DeVito and all these actors. Oh, but one thing — we have this fighter from New York. He’s never acted before, and we’re gonna just put him in the show. And I have to tell you that the fact that those actors — Judd especially — welcomed me with open arms, it made it possible for me to do it. I think — I wonder if, if the situation was reversed: I was the guy — Judd — I would have said, “What,” you know? But they were great, and — and, you know, like, the rest is history, I guess.

Paulson: And then when the show finally goes off the air, I think a lot of people would just say, “I’ve done it.” I mean, we’ve seen what’s happened with the “Seinfeld” cast trying to get a new show that works, and —

Danza: Well, I’ve done that too. I’ve failed — I’ve tried to do a sitcom and have not had much luck trying to do another one. It’s a very difficult thing, very difficult.

Paulson: What was the key to “Who’s the Boss?”

Danza: Well, I think it was an interesting — you know, when these shows work for whatever reason, it’s sort of like a convergence of a lot of factors, you know, many factors of — timing being huge. A hook, maybe, which, you know — I was the housekeeper for a woman and her mother. Just a lot of things have to come together — chemistry between myself and Judith Light, just, you know, Katherine — and just — I can’t explain it, you know. I really wish I could, because we’d be doing another one right now. But it just happened to be the right place at the right time, I think.

Paulson: And most recently, “Family Law” — what drew you to that show?

Danza: I got a call from the studio. They wanted to know if I wanted to join the cast of “Family Law.” I didn’t even know the show. I’ll be honest with you. I hadn’t seen the first year. I think I may have gone by it a few times in my channel surf, but … but I got some tapes, and I saw how well-done it was, and it moved me. I mean, there was a couple of shows that left me agape. You know, really incredible twists and thought-provoking and well-shot and well-acted and well — you know, pretty no-brainer. You just say, “OK.” And I got two great years out of it. I did 45 episodes.

Paulson: Well, one of the complaints of people who have been as popular as you’ve been — I mean, you really are one of the most recognizable people on the planet. The people have seen you in their living rooms for many years.

Danza: Yeah.

Paulson: One of the complaints is you get stereotyped. You don’t get taken seriously. And yet you’ve had the chance to do some very serious work and very important work on the stage. You’ve been in “A View from the Bridge” — rave reviews there.

Danza: Actually did it for Arthur Miller. It’s really something when you see Arthur Miller standing up at the end of the show. It’s really something. Next to me, by the way — he’s standing up, and next to him was my aunt Fran and my uncle Phil, who are very short — and Arthur Miller’s very tall, of course — and my fight manager, Cha-Cha. So it’s really, it’s really an interesting experience.

Paulson: Was that hard, to get accepted into those kinds of roles?

Danza: Well, I got lucky with that one. LaPaglia — Anthony was doing the show. He had won the Tony, and he wanted to leave, and I got a call from my agent. I was in New York playing “Rainbow and Stars,” actually. And I got a call from my agent: Would I like to go see a play with him? Would I go see “View from the Bridge”? And I wanted to see it. I was dying to see it anyway. I said, “Oh, I’d love to.” And so we watched the play, and after it finished, he said, “Listen, eh, they’re really seriously thinking about asking you to do this play.” And I was like, “No, it’s the greatest” — it’s, it’s, it’s “Streetcar” for Italians. I mean, it really is. You know, it’s just an incredible role. And it was a great production. Michael Mayer was the director, and it was just a magnificent production. And I had some of the best eight or nine weeks of my life doing that show.

Paulson: And you had rave reviews for “The Iceman Cometh.”

Danza: Spacey’s production, Manny Azenberg and Ira Pittelman, and it was, you know, 19 actors on the stage at one time, and it was great to be part of that.

Paulson: One of the interesting things — I’m sure you picked this up as you, as you’ve read your reviews — is, even as they write terrifically positive things about your performance, it’s always, “Can you imagine Tony Danza is this good in Arthur Miller?” What is that about?

Danza: Well, like, I think how you started the conversation, that you get typecast. People like to put you in a slot and keep you there, because then they don’t have to think about it anymore. I think that’s one of the problems in general. I mean, I think that’s why — to make a total leap, that’s why I think everybody’s so … enamored with the president’s performance on terrorism, because, you know, we don’t have to worry about it as much. If he’s a genius, then, you know — and so the same thing with that kind of thing. I think that, you do get stereotyped, and you have to fight that. And you — the way you do it is by constantly trying to — you know, get — elbow your way out of that box and do things that are scary and risky, and you stick your chin out. And the knives are sharpened for you, but when you pull it off, it’s great.

Paulson: The — the knives were sharpened from time to time when you jumped into the political arena as well. You — you’re a famous guy. Politicians, people in the public life don’t mind having their picture taken with you. And very, very often, especially in connection with articles about Republican fund-raisers, visibility events, your name was there. In a community, a Hollywood community that is largely described as liberal —

Danza: Well, and it is.

Paulson: And — so let’s start with that. Is it true that the Hollywood community is liberal, Democratic-oriented?

Danza: I think it’s liberal — there’s a liberal bent, ah, but, you know, I — I’m sort of starting to think that it doesn’t really matter anymore, you know. I mean, I think that’s really the problem with Democrats or Republicans. I think — I kind of like to be an American, you know, and not to worry about all that stuff. And unfortunately, I think that America comes second in that — on those lists and that — you don’t want to be like that, I think. But I did go through a time where I — you know, I was, I was a liberal when I came out of college. My father’s a garbage man. My mother’s a bookkeeper — blue-collar people and so very Democratic: “Power to the People.” I went to school in ’68, so — college in ’68, so, you know, Kent State happened and, and Vietnam and all of that, and so I was really radicalized. And then I started making a little money in Hollywood, and it was in, like, ’91, ’92 — ’90, ’91, ’92, and, and L.A. was just a shoot-’em-up. I mean, you were afraid to send your — go out — you were afraid to send your kid or your wife to the store. And it didn’t look like it was gonna go anywhere. And so I got a little bit more conservative — more and more, and I made some friends — actually, you know, the president’s father. And I had a manager who was a big supporter of his, and I got involved.

Paulson: The president’s father would be [Both say] George Bush.

Danza: George Senior, George Bush Senior. And I thought highly of him, and I — but now — and I guess it corresponds interestingly with this character I’ve been playing, Joe Celano, who sees things differently, you know. And to me, it just seems that with conglomeration, with globalization, with, with the — with setting it up so that the gap widens as opposed to the gap’s getting smaller, the little guy really has no chance. And you have to look at it that way. I just think, you know, that the — I think Schlesinger said that the definition of a liberal is someone who believes the most powerful institution in society should be answerable to the people. Well, if the corporations are running government, then the people have no say.

Paulson: Any regrets about jumping into politics as you did?

Danza: I haven’t. I really think — that’s another thing I haven’t done. I really — I’m very rarely outspoken about it, because I think there’s a certain disproportionate influence that, that recognizability or celebrity gives you. What worries me a lot of times is that there are people who don’t think like that. You know, you hear people with — on the radio or on TV who have absolutely no — they haven’t looked at The New York Times or a paper in years, you know, and, and they — you know, they sort of skim the Post, and they’re giving their — you know, they really don’t know what’s going on.

Paulson: When you — when you take on difficult roles, you certainly see the power of — well, you’ve always seen the power of media, of television —

Danza: Oh, it’s unreal, and I — and one of the things that I really think is that we don’t take responsibility for that influence.

Paulson: And a lot of parents are concerned about what’s on their television screen. And you produced a lot of that content over the years. Did you ever say, “You know, we really shouldn’t have this character doing this or saying this? It’s not an appropriate model for others,” or —

Danza: Well, look, I don’t think — you know, I — it depends on what you’re doing. And if you’re doing a family show, you have to — I think you got — you know, it’s an 8 o’clock show. You know, who’s going to be watching? And I think one of the things I’m most proud of in “Who’s the Boss?” is, I can sit there with my 9-year-old now and watch it and not feel that feeling you get when you’re watching something that you think, “Uh-oh, maybe this isn’t right for them.” But I, you know, I think entertainment and the content is — that’s part of free expression, and I just wish that — you know, we can’t have it both ways. You can’t say on the one hand that “I’ll pay billions of dollars for advertising to influence people on the TV, and yet what is being — what the content doesn’t have that same effect.” You can’t have it both ways, you know. It’s either influence — it either has influence, or it doesn’t; and you either have a responsibility, or you don’t.

Paulson: What is the state of free speech in America today?

Danza: That’s kind of worrisome. You’re — I think — you’re not allowed to say anything, really. I think it’s kind of — I think it’s scary that speakers go on college campuses and get shouted down. That’s not to say that we didn’t shout people down when I was in college, so I — but now I’m aware of it. I think, you know, that awareness thing that I talk about to the kids — I also tell them that they have to form opinions. But they — and they have to have opinions, because if you don’t have opinions, then you can be easily led. The government just tells you, “Hey, this is what we’re gonna do,” and then you do it. But you also have to be able to — be willing to listen and then maybe change your opinion if you hear an argument that makes sense. Certainty is what gets you in trouble. Certainty is what always gets us in trouble in the world. I mean, you know, guys like, you know, (Saddam) Hussein, they’re certain, you know. Bin Laden, he’s certain of what he’s doing; sometimes you shouldn’t be certain.

Paulson: One of the traditional roles in a free society for a free press is to be a watchdog, to keep an eye on things, to keep us better informed. How would you grade their performance?

Danza: I think they’re up against it, you know, because, first of all, I think there is an effort by the administration to, you know, just make it — it’s a little harder to complain, because, you know, you’re not supporting the war on terrorism. There’s an alert. It’s terrible that we’re all collectively holding our breaths for the next thing to happen, but — I think what’s really wrong with the news is that it’s about scaring you. It’s about — certainly, certainly on the local level, I — it’s unbelievable. I mean, it’s just unbelievable: “The mother of all storms.” “We’re on storm watch.” “We’re on this. We’re on —” I mean, you know, the teasers are unbelievable. And I think the network news has to do a little bit of that, too, because it’s about ratings. It’s no longer — you know, we used to have American companies that were — that had some allegiance to the country and to the citizenry. Well, we don’t have that anymore. We have global companies whose only allegiance is to the bottom line. Many cases — in probably all cases — the chief executive’s pay is tied to the stock price, so the only way to do it is at all costs. I think you’re gonna find that there’s a lot more of Enron accounting out there. I think we’re really sitting on a problem there. I think — and we all are, because we’re all vested. I think — I think that especially this is true when it comes to the media conglomerates. Maybe the horse was out of the barn already once the conglomerates got a hold of the media, because — how can Tim Russert really investigate a guy who works for GE? The same guy’s paying him. It’s like in “Bulworth” when Warren Beatty said — when, you know, he’s on that debate, and the three anchors are there, and he says, “Come on. Who you kidding? The same guy paying me is paying you.” So, you know, it’s like — I’m a big campaign finance, you know, proponent. I just — finance reform proponent. And I find it incredible that, that this is all OK. The president raised $1 million, $1.4 million with that picture of him on Air Force One. He used 9/11 to raise money. And what’s he saying in that picture? Is he saying, “Is it all right for me to come back?” Well, I mean, let’s talk. I mean, you know, I don’t understand why this isn’t said. And I didn’t hear anybody in the press say that. So I think that there is a little — I think they’re under the gun a little, but I think they’re certainly good people. I love the Times. I’m a big reader of The New York Times, and I am a news junkie. But I think that a lot of it is, you know, is titillation.

Paulson: Let’s talk about the campaign-finance reform issue. Amazing issue. And yet, you know, as somebody who is a proponent of the First Amendment, there are issues there. How do you tell Americans they can’t contribute money to advertising that says something on behalf of their candidate?

Danza: Look, I, I totally am all for representation, but I think when money is the bottom line — I one time got into a conversation with the (House) speaker at the time, (Newt) Gingrich. You know, I — because I’m in Hollywood, and I used to go to this thing called the Wednesday Morning Club, which was a conservative club. And I remember a time when Repub — when politicians had to be above reproach. Well, now, you know, you could ask them a question about some — you know, some trip they took for Arco or something, and it’s like, “How dare you think that I’d be doing anything like that!” It’s amazing to me. And I just think it’s — you know, once again, if corporations are running things — and, you know, this president, for instance, certainly I don’t, I don’t think he’s — you know, he — I don’t think he’s ever met a company he doesn’t think is right, so I just, I just think that, you know, the little guy needs — there’s only one way to make your stock price look better. That’s to cut cost, to be leaner and meaner. The only way to cut cost is labor. So there’s such downward pressure on the American worker. Factories are leaving or are cutting benefits. I mean, I see it in my industry. In my industry, forget about it. If you got Jim Carrey or one of these stars in a movie, they tell everybody else it’s scale plus ten. You don’t want it, the next guy will want it. So there’s a downward pressure on everybody. And then for some reason — another thing — it seems to me that a lot of these rich guys don’t remember what it was like to have to pay a bill. And you know, somebody said once that — this certain guy wanted to be the new Lew Wasserman — he just passed away — the new Lew Wasserman of Hollywood, you know. But the thing that this particular person doesn’t understand is, Lew Wasserman understood the cameramen had to make a living too. You know, the middle class is what’s important. I want everybody to do well — don’t get me wrong — and everybody should get what they get, but it should seem to me, that once — that just because you’re rich, it shouldn’t mean you should be richer. It should mean, “Maybe I can do something with it.” I — you know, it’s just an idealistic sort of world that I’m looking for. I mean — I’ll give you an example. Stanley Tools, just a couple of weeks ago — I love this story. Stanley Tools, an American company, you know, they want to reincorporate in Bermuda — or the Bahamas, whatever it was, you know. Which — reincorporated, by the way, means opening a storefront there. And now we pay $30 million less in federal taxes. So you get the infrastructure, the safety, everything that America is, but you don’t have to pay your $30 million. The president will never say anything about that. I was in the bar last night in the hotel that we’re staying in, Ken, and ran into this guy who’s the chief financial officer of a financial services (company). He said to me, “Well, you got to understand, Tony — you got to do it, because somebody else will do it for them.” Well, that’s wrong. That’s wrong. And that has to come from the top that it’s wrong. Why didn’t — the president rallied against Castro in a totally political move to get votes in Florida and get his brother re-elected or whatever, and yet he didn’t say anything about Stanley Tools doing that, ’cause I guess he thinks corporations shouldn’t pay taxes.

Paulson: You know, you’re clearly an idealistic, passionate guy, and yet you’re painting a pretty grim picture here: Money drives everything; people don’t have the courage of their convictions. Who does it right? Are there politicians, are there public figures whom you admire?

Danza: Ah, boy. You know, I keep waiting for that guy to come along, that one guy that’s gonna make a difference. You know, that one guy who’s gonna say, “Hey, you know, let’s practice what we preach.”

Paulson: This is largely a show about the First Amendment — but do you have an opinion about the Second Amendment?

Danza: Well, seems to me — see, I have this thing — my father used to say something to me, and it sort of applies to all this stuff — whether it be capitalism, gun control, even free speech — is that — he used to tell me that I had to have a bike — a lock on my bike to keep the honest people honest. So I think unfettered anything is kind of worrisome, and in this particular case, I just think — you know, guns kill people in America — like, every 20 seconds or something, somebody dies. So I think giving more guns — I mean, for instance, the gun, the gun show loophole — why don’t we close that? The president said he was going to in the campaign; hasn’t opened his mouth about it since. It’s just common sense. So I’m — you know, I’m all for owning a gun, but I think it should be responsible, and I don’t think — I don’t need an AK-47 in my house.

Paulson: You know, if there has to be reform of the system, and most people would agree there needs to be, then we’re looking at, really, the next generation and instilling in them the kind of values you’re talking about. What do you tell your kids?

Danza: What do I tell ‘em? You know, it’s a tough spot, because you know they’re gonna have to compete in the world that they’re in. It’s not in my ideal world that they’re — but yet you want them to have some idealism, so you — so I constantly talk about that. But I’ll be honest with you. My main thrust always is, be aware that if you’re watching something, they’re trying to sell you something, and if, you know, the movie companies want something and then — and you have to be aware of more than what they want you to know. That’s really my — because then they’ll be able to compete. You have to be a good person and try to do the right thing. I try to understand, but there’s — I don’t know, you know. I mean, we always think about America — my parents came here — my mother came here in 1929 with six, or five brothers and sisters and my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather. They had been here. They lost a couple of kids, went back to Italy, and then came back just in time for the Depression — timing being everything. And I just remember them being so — interested in assimilation and being part of this. I mean, you know, that guy that they killed, Pim (Fortuyn) — the Netherlands — he was assassinated. Anyway, he was supposed to be an anti-immigration guy, but no, what he said was, “You can immigrate. I want you to immigrate, but I want you to understand that you’re coming to our country, so get on the team. If you’re coming here to be separate and — then forget it,” you know. I mean, I think it was — you know, they didn’t even speak Italian in the house. They didn’t want you to speak Italian. You had to speak English. I just think that works better if we’re all on the team.

Paulson: You know, we’ve covered a lot of territory here, including —

Danza: I know. I feel like I’m rambling like —

Paulson: No, now we’ve covered 25% of the Bill of Rights. We’re making great progress. But — and we’re running a little short on time. I have to ask you about your singing career.

Danza: Oh.

Paulson: And — just a rave review in Billboard last month about —

Danza: Unbelievable, unbelievable.

Paulson: — a song you recorded called “The House I Live In.”

Danza: Yeah.

Paulson: And it’s a very powerful song. Can you talk about that?

Danza: Well, “The House I Live In” is a song that was done by the great Frank Sinatra. And believe me, you know — entering Sinatra and, hallowed ground, you know. But he, he did this song in a short movie that was awarded an Academy Award, and in the movie, he comes upon a bunch of kids having a street fight, and he stops the fight, and he sings this song to them about what America is to him, what America means to him. And, you know, it’s one of these songs that is so American, and yet it’s not xenophobic; it’s not nationalistic. It’s a very soft, gentle telling of who we are and what we hold dear in America. And I just thought, “Wow, it’s such a great song.” I was so afraid to sing it, but it came out really well. Artie Butler did the arrangement. And I got to sing it just recently at the Memorial Day concert in front of the Capitol. And it’s — you know, it’s: [Sings] “The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street, the grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet.” You know. All races and religions — that’s America to me. So it’s the team — it’s back to my team theme, yeah, my motif. But I’m in the process of doing the rest of the CD. I’ve got, I’ve got six arrangements. I’ve got four done — finished songs, and I have six other arrangements, so hopefully by the end of the month, we’ll have a whole CD.

Paulson: How have audiences responded to “The House I Live In”?

Danza: It’s actually incredible. I get reports from radio stations. It’s getting a lot of airplay. It’s hasn’t cracked the New York market, because I guess it’s the last one you do, but it’s on all over the country. And certainly it’s right for the time. That wasn’t the, the impetus, but you couldn’t miss the — you know, the relevance of it. But it’s getting airplay, and people are surprised. They’re going, “Who’s that?” you know. And I did something, I think, very, very smart with it. Because Sinatra set it up with the gang fight, I set it up with my 9-year-old, my little Emily, who says, “Daddy, today in school, my teacher wanted to know what America meant to us, so I thought, since you’ve been around so long, you’d be the one to ask. So what does America mean to you, Dad?” And I sing it. And then at the end, she says, “Thank you, Dad. I understand now.” And I mean, it’s — it was just a special thing to do with my daughter, and it’s just a terrific song, and I think people — certainly people who know the song have reacted unbelievably. But it’s amazing … how younger people who don’t know the song react to it. It’s really something. I think, you know, if there is a silver lining in this whole situation that we’re going through, it does pull us together. And if it can do that — you know, I mean, I don’t think patriotism should be a fad. You know, I think patriotism is, you know — I’m famous in my neighborhood because I have a flagpole and I play the trumpet. And on Memorial Day, if I’m home, I make the kids and my wife stand outside under the flag with their hand on their heart, and I play “Taps.” I mean, it’s really — my neighborhood thinks, you know — so I just think that this thing of ours, this country, this house we live in, is magnificent, and we should really treasure it.

Paulson: Thank you for joining us today. It’s been terrific. Our guest today has been Tony Danza. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”