Exclusive Q&A with Tony Danza
Tony Danza is known for his sitcom success in Taxi and Who's the Boss? What most people don't know is that before he made it to Hollywood, Tony went to college with dreams of becoming "Mr. Danza, English teacher."
Years later, Tony traded his television scripts for textbooks for one year with a classroom of 10th-graders who had to Google Who's the Boss? to know what it was. The ups and downs of his experience as a first-year teacher at Northeast High School in Philadelphia were filmed for a reality show called Teach premiering October 1 on A&E. In this exclusive Q&A with Tony, he reveals what his students taught him, the teachers who inspired him and what's else he's got cooking.
Lynn Okura: What was the biggest lesson you learned from your students?
Tony Danza: You learn self-control. I think it's the same lesson you learn over and over again in life. ... I'll tell you an example. I worked at an old folks' home once in Harlem, and I was an activities volunteer. I used to do all these plays with the old people. I did The Wizard of Oz, it was adapted. There was a guy there who played the harmonica, so we had an overture, and The Wizard was 96. I got some kids from around the corner—third-graders—who were playing the Munchkins. I used to say to myself as I went there: "Oh, I'm doing something good. I'm going to go out there." But it was so good for me. I think it's called doing well by doing good.
One of the lessons I taught big-time this year, because it comes up a lot in the [literature], is seeing things from another person's perspective—empathy. We talked about empathy and putting yourself in the other people's shoes. In [To Kill a Mockingbird], he talks about that, and I think that's one of the real lessons—is that you can talk about that, or you can really do that.
When you have students—26 of them—with all their different lives...I had one girl who straightened me out. I'm worried about what's going on in their lives and trying to be cognizant of that, and then she said to me one day, "Did you ever think of what went on the period before yours?" I didn't think that you could have such a bad period before mine, that you come in and that's why you don't want to do the work today. So you really have to be cognizant of other people's feelings.
LO: Looking back, is there anything you would change about your first day in the classroom?
TD: There really isn't anything I'd change because you have to go through it. It's funny—there is a certain irony to this. One of the reasons I went back to do this is because I wasn't that good of a student. I just didn't get it, and so I was trying to have the kids learn from my mistakes, as opposed to making [mistakes] themselves. I used to tell them to get smart early, as opposed to late, because I got smart late...but I got lucky. Not everybody is going to get lucky. And there's an irony to that because, as a teacher, you almost have to make your own mistakes. LO: Did you have a favorite teacher growing up?
TD: I did. I had a few, but the one that I remember is a gentleman named Charlie Messinger. He was an English teacher, and he was the first one to introduce me to the theater. He was the guy who put on the plays at school, the musicals. I was in three, and he opened up my eyes to something that I had never even imagined.
LO: You're a father and now a grandfather. What is one lesson you want to pass down to your family?
TD: There's always the lesson of giving back. There's always the lesson of trying your hardest and that hard work will pay off—that lesson is certainly there. But we're lucky. My kids understand the importance of education, and they're doing well.
I think there is a moment in the show where my daughter says, "I am so proud of you for doing this," and all I could think of was: "I'm so proud that you're proud! You're proud of me? You're proud of your father?" Wow. LO: You and your son wrote a cookbook together, Don't Fill Up on the Antipasto: Tony Danza's Father-Son Cookbook. What's your favorite meal to cook at home?
TD: We just cook Italian, but we cook everything. I want to do another book because I spend a lot of time on the road, and I'm by myself, especially like last year in Philadelphia. I want to do a book called Shopping and Cooking for One with Tony Danza, where I will show you how to shop. And, by the way, it should be a movement, because there are many single people in this world. You go to the supermarket, and you need celery, you gotta buy a whole head of celery. It's very difficult for single people. That's why they end up going out to eat.
I love to make soups. My father used to say, "There's nothing like a nice bowl of soup." One of my favorites is...ready? Broccolini, white bean and hot Italian sausage soup. I've used escarole. Escarole in beans is unbelievable, or you can use bok choy, any kind. You can really fool around. That's one of my good ones.
LO: Amazing. What are you working on now?
TD: I'm writing a book about [teaching], and I'm hoping of course that Oprah will pick it! No, I'm kidding. I sold the book to Crown under Random House earlier in the year. There's so much in the [school] year that's not on the show and so much of the stuff that I learned that's not in the show, and I wanted to write a book. Right now the working title is I Would Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year at Northeast High, and it's going to chronicle not only the year, but it's going to chronicle why I wanted to do it and the teachers and incidents in my life. It's going to be sort of a memoir as well, so I'm excited about it.