For some it’s the silhouette of the skyline against a sunset, for others it’s the feeling of being at the center of the universe. But for Tony Danza — star of stage, screen and the boxing ring — the thrill of living in New York City is all about “the brush.”
“The ‘brush’ is when you brush against people in the street or on the subway,” Danza says in a recent interview. “You brush. You have to move your shoulders sometimes so it’s not a bump.”
Nearly four decades ago, Danza, 63, left his native New York City for Los Angeles for his breakout role as Tony Banta on the TV show “Taxi.” He remained there for a subsequent eight-season role on “Who’s the Boss?” as housekeeper and single father Tony Micelli. “I have mixed emotions about LA,” he recalls. “When I went out there in 1977 it was paradise. I used to joke, ‘Brooklyn boy lands in Hollywood. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen: blue skies, palm trees, no potholes.’ It was pristine back then.”
But Danza says that he never felt at home with the cars, the isolation and the LA attitude — missing “the brush” most of all. “You are with people,” he says of NYC’s fleeting person-to-person contact. “In LA you get in your car, you drive to work, then you get back into your car and drive home. One of the great luxuries of New York and in my life is not owning a car.”
Danza once again became a NYC fixture in 2004, thanks to his two-season run as the host of the daytime talk show “The Tony Danza Show” and, most recently, earning raves for his leading role in the Broadway musical “Honeymoon in Vegas.” He officially made Manhattan his permanent address in late 2010, and he’s not going anywhere, Danza told Luxury Listings NYC. Besides, “if you want to be on Broadway, you’ve got to be in New York. And I really wanted to be on Broadway,” he adds.
Danza made his theatrical debut in the off-Broadway show “Wrong Turn at Lungfish,” where he earned an Outer Critic’s Circle Award nomination. He went on to perform opposite Kevin Spacey in “The Iceman Cometh,” in Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning play “A View From the Bridge” and in Mel Brooks’ hit musical “The Producers” playing Max Bialystock. In April, Danza wrapped up a nearly six-month run as Tommy Korman, a lovelorn, tap dancing, Sin City poker shark in the critically-acclaimed musical “Honeymoon in Vegas,” based on the 1992 film by the same name.
“It’s very much like boxing. It’s a total tightrope walk,” Danza says of performing for a live audience. “What is really great about a big Broadway musical is that the ensemble becomes such a team. If you saw all the stuff that has to go right for the show to go right! I’m talking about backstage choreography. I’m talking about quick changes, crew guys moving props. And when you pull it off it is a really great feeling.”
Danza explains that his affinity for the stage goes back to his childhood in East New York. “I got kinda hooked on Broadway as a kid,” he says. “‘West Side Story’ was the first show I ever saw. I loved that show. I didn’t know you could do that on stage. It never occurred to me that you could see people really living life on the stage. It’s wild when it happens, and it doesn’t happen all the time, believe me. But when it does it’s so exciting.”
Still, Danza has spent most of his career on television. Asked if he prefers the stage to the studio, he says that he simply enjoys performing regardless of the medium. “I just like acting. I like being an actor,” he says. “But there is nothing in the world like being on stage on Broadway. No one is going to say, ‘Hold it! We don’t like that one. Let’s do it again.’”
Offstage, Danza has used his success to support a number of charitable organizations, especially those that focus on youth outreach, an issue with which he has long been concerned. “It’s funny. I’ve always gotten along with kids. But now I want to give back. I wondered, ‘When did this happen to me? It must be of late,’” Danza says. “But then, somebody posted an interview I did with Huell Howser in 1981. I was talking about a movie I was in, when all of a sudden I get into this strange conversation about how I want to help kids. So I guess I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”
Specifically, Danza works with youth charities like the Police Athletic League and the All Stars Project, an after-school program that organizes auditions, talent shows and performance workshops for inner-
city youth. “If you want results, it’s one of
the greatest programs I’ve ever seen,” he says.
He’s also become deeply concerned with reversing the erosive effects of gentrification on urban communities — particularly his own. “It’s so much harder to be a kid today than when I was a kid, and I was growing up in East New York in Brooklyn!” he says.
Danza remembers the East New York of his childhood as an exciting, friendly, thriving neighborhood, saying that it had a profound and positive impact on his character. “Growing up in New York in the 1950s and 1960s was probably the greatest time and place to be a kid, ever,” Danza says. “It was a working-class community with a lot of kids on the block. All you did was play out in the street. You had relative safety, so you could leave in the morning and come back at dinner, and your parents wouldn’t worry.”
The Danzas lived in a small two-story row house near the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Barbey Street, and then at 127 Euclid Avenue between Ridgewood Avenue and Etna Street. His father was a garbage man in the neighborhood, something that he says “was pivotal in my upbringing.”
“Somebody would always tell him if I did anything wrong, so there was always that governor on my behavior,” he says. “It was a different world.”
He recalls that, for decades, his initials could be found carved into the third booth at Long’s Ice Cream Parlor on Fulton Street in Cypress Hills. (Today, it’s a “variety store.”) But for Danza, that long-lost graffiti represents more than his self-professed childhood hoodlumism. The physical inscription has acted as an abiding symbolic connection to his beloved Brooklyn community, which he still occasionally visits.
“So many kids I work with come from East New York and it’s so tough; it’s poverty. You have to remember we were poor, but nobody was poverty stricken. Poverty is so different now. With poverty you used to get a community. Now you don’t even get that,” he says.
“Kids nowadays are bombarded with images that we didn’t have to put up with,” he adds. “Whether it be violent video games or TV shows, the message isn’t to try to be good, to be part of society. Instead they tell you to be a radical individual.”
In 2009, Danza decided to reach out to underprivileged urban youth more directly, teaching English at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The experience resulted in his critically acclaimed book “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High,” which spent five weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
“When I was teaching I would tell my kids that hard work and good behavior will pay off, but then they would go home and watch ‘Jersey Shore’ and come back and tell me, ‘No, there is another way!’” Danza says. “When you are young, hard work sounds hard, and the easy ways look a lot easier. I think I would have had a tough time growing up in East New York today.”
Ironically, while East New York has struggled, Danza has witnessed the once dangerous streets of Manhattan — he now lives in a premier building on the Upper West Side — wiped clean of not only their crime, but also their vibrancy. “What’s happened in Manhattan is really sad. And the Upper West Side has changed unbelievably. People used to say it was ‘Mau-Mau land,’” he said, referring to the street gangs that once roamed the neighborhood. “It wasn’t upscale. It was kind of dangerous.”
But, walk down Columbus Avenue today, he says, “and every single mom-and-pop store that had been there since the 1940s is gone. You have Kate Spade and Theory, but no one is ever in those shops. It’s frustrating. I think the last [mayoral] administration didn’t help.”
Pausing to reflect, Danza adds: “It’s like the new slogan of the city is ‘I got mine, how come you ain’t got yours?’ I’d hate to see New York become a gated community.”
Danza doesn’t claim to have a solution, but he is optimistic. “I hope that we will find some kind of balance. It’s tough. If I can get thousands and thousands of dollars for a storefront, and you’ve been with me for 20 years paying much less than that, it’s hard not to take the money. It’s hard to counteract. But in general I think we have to be a more compassionate city.”
Danza suggests, half-joking, that instead of an “I love New York” campaign, the city could use an “Our New York” campaign. “That speaks to the fact that we all live in the greatest city in the world, and that it’s up to us to take care of it and to take care of each other,” he says.