Any time you sit down to interview someone, you obviously want to do your research so, at the very least, you seem informed. What you don't expect is for them to turn the tables on you, but that's exactly what happens a few seconds into a conversation with Tony Danza when he asks, "How was talking to Shatner? That must have been fun, huh?"
Of course it was! He's the Shat (as in William). But that's not the point, though I don't get to say it when he asks, "You want to hear the first time I met him?"
Why wouldn't I?
"He was captain of the ABC Battle of the Network Stars team in '84, and I was on the team," Tony explains. "But I really had to convince him to use me. You know, 'Hey, I'm a good athlete, you have to use me,' and he finally did."
Now Shatner does have a reputation of either being extremely friendly or kind of putzy, to put it mildly. "It was both," he laughs. "First of all, I was a big fan of Star Trek, so I was excited about that. But, you know, he definitely wanted to do it his way."
And with that out of the way — and definitely trying to turn the tables back the way they're supposed to be — he got hit with a question that has plagued many of his fans (or at least this one) for decades: why do most of his TV characters have the first name Tony? On Taxi he's Tony Banta, on Who's the Boss? he's Tony Micelli, on Hudson Street he's Tony Canetti, on The Tony Danza Show he's Tony DiMeo, and, now, on his new Netflix series The Good Cop, he's Tony Caruso, Sr. What gives?
"Listen," he replies, this road obviously a well traveled one, "I actually do a joke that they were afraid that it was a reflection on my acting ability; that I wouldn't answer to another name. Seriously, though, it started with Taxi, because it was written for a different guy. It wasn't written for an Italian guy, but an Irish heavyweight named Phil Ryan. Then they met me and made it Phil Banta and then Tony Banta. Then Who's the Boss? came along and they just lumped the name in there, and it went on from there. I don't know why. What do you want from me? I mean, if you're gonna be pigeon-holed, you might as well really go for it, I guess."
Meet The Good Cop.
Sorting our way through the Tonys, we lock on the latest, Caruso. In The Good Cop, which makes its Netflix streaming debut on Sept. 21. His character (also known as Big Tony) is a former NYPD cop who, after serving time in jail for "bending" the rules, lives with his son, Tony, Jr. (Little Tony, played by Josh Groban), described as a brilliant, straight-laced NYPD detective who follows the rules while solving some of Brooklyn's toughest crimes. Needless to say, the two end up solving crimes together more often than they don't. The show is created by Monk's Andy Breckman.
"What do you look for?" Tony asks rhetorically as to why this particular project. "You're always looking for the writing, and I just think this guy, Andy Breckman, is a truly great writer. It's certainly the most fun part I've had since Who's the Boss?, because he's just so out of his mind and fun to play. I also liked what felt like a throwback to the days of Columbo and The Rockford Files, if you know what I mean. There's a little bit of a mystery involved; it isn't just a procedural, which I didn't want. You get some comedy, of course, but you also have a murder mystery. Let me tell you, it's very difficult to get laughs while you're talking about a murder. There's a thin line and Andy walks it."
One of the strengths of the show is the fact that while, yes, it's got its murders and crime-solving elements, there's a strong repartee between father and son, a relationship that, to some degree, Tony, 67, was able to base on the one between he and his 47-year-old son.
"He was born when I was 19," reflects Tony, "and when you have a kid at 19, one of two things can happen. You either ruin both lives or you end up with the greatest relationship between a father and a son in the world. And I have the latter. Me and my son are like best friends. He's got two boys, too, by the way, and to watch him father his sons is so profund, especially because he's so much better than me at it. But anyway, what I did was I took my relatioship with my son and I just sort of overlaid it on Josh and I. And what's great about Josh is he's sort of bought in, so we have this real good father-son thing going on. It's one of my favorite things about the show."
In the past, all of Tony's previous shows were done for the broadcast networks. This is his first for a streaming service, though there isn't all that much he feels is different, not even the guarantee of a minimum number of episodes.
"In my experience," he says, "I was always guaranteed a certain amount of episodes, even on the networks. But the difference here is the scope of it and the tyranny of convenience we're all living under. You have the scope which is that when it premieres, it opens in something like 190 countries at the same time. That blows your mind. And then the other thing is, I can work very hard for five months to do 10 episodes of a show, and then you can watch it all in half a day with a bag of popcorn. It's so different in that way. But having said that, shooting was shooting. It was doing a TV show on the streets of New York, which, by the way, added to the incredible adventure of this show. Using New York as a backdrop, a canvas, you're just so lucky you're getting to do it rather than a backlot somewhere. You also get a lot of support, both financially and emotionally from Netflix, but having said that, it's a company. If they don't like what you're doing, they're gonna tell you."
A little song, a little dance.
One of the things that Tony has definitely liked that he's been doing is a cabaret act, which he's presented in a number of different forms that combine singing, dancing, and storytelling.
"I don't presume to be like the greats, like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Sammy Davis," he admits. "But for that hour and a half, I can go up there and pretend I'm them. I love the American Songbook. I love to try to evoke a connection between an audience and yourself for 75 minutes. It's a real challenge to get up there and do that, but when it's over, it's a tremendous feeling. And it's this gift that you get to do, because everybody in the audience would love to be doing what you're doing, but you're the guy getting to do it. So if you really go up there and enjoy yourself, you'll be amazed how much the audience enjoys it, too. I try real hard to make a connection with them. To weave a beginning, middle, and an end out of all these stories and these songs to affect some kind of connection at the end. That's the real goal and when it happens? Man, is it great."
Although Tony, who started out as a professional boxer, played Broadway for the first time in 1999, he spent all of those years prior filming sitcoms in front of a studio audience, which would seem to have made him comfortable performing in front of people as opposed to just having the audience disconnect of acting on film (which he's done plenty of as well).
"You know, doing Taxi was like being in an acting school every single day for five years," he says of the sitcom currently celebrating its 40th Anniversary. "I was surrounded by the best. Not only behind the camera, but in front of the camera. And then Who's the Boss? came along and I got the chance to apply everything that I learned on Taxi to my own show. Doing it in front of a live audience, I would help with the warm-up, I would do jokes, I'd make the kids dance. It's always been kind of a show, so those years certainly prepared me to get up there. But when you get up and have to do your own thing, it definitely takes a while. In other words, all that other stuff, you bank that, and it certainly is a source to have, but there's more to it.
"I can sing," he continues, "but I'm not one of these great voices, and it takes time to get ready to do a show like that. I wish it would've happened a lot quicker for me, but now I'm comfortable. There's no doubt that maturity certainly adds to the mix, but, I'm telling you, with this kind of thing, to get up and do a one man show or a cabaret act, you really have had to have put in the time. You have to go up and fail. You have to go up and feel crummy. You have to go up and get a bad review. You have to do all that stuff, and then, eventually, you say, 'Oh, I got it! Go up and have a good time. Don't try to succeed, just enjoy the gift. See it as a gift.' This is going to sound pretentious, and I don't mean to, but sometimes, right before I go on, I say, 'Let's go pretend to be Frank Sinatra.' You go up there, you're in a tuxedo and you sing right to the customers in the front row, and it's really exciting. And fulfilling, too. I adore doing this."
No conversation with Tony is complete without having a discussion of his first big break, Taxi, the show about the work and private lives of drivers for New York's Sunshine Cab Company.
"It's one of the truly great shows," he reflects warmly. "About two years ago they had a marathon during either Labor Day or Thanksgiving, and I watched 19 episodes. They were all so great; I couldn't believe it. It's always about somebody gets in trouble and everybody comes to their aid. It's just such a beautiful show. And, again, it goes back to the same thing we were talking about with The Good Cop. In some ways you feel there is a connection in that the writing was just what made Taxi so great. I mean, sure, Danny, Carol, Judd, Marilu, and everybody else is great, but you had to have the writing. And that's what I'm feeling with The Good Cop as well.
"A quick thing about Taxi. Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Jeff Conaway — they'd been knocking around Hollywood for a while. Now they get a show. It's gonna be written by the people who just came off The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who won all the Emmys. Now they're gonna write this new show, and it's gonna be on ABC, this newly ascending, or ascended, network. Everything looks great. Jim Burrows is gonna direct and, by the way, we've got this fighter that we found in New York. He's never acted before professionally. We're gonna put him in the show. How would I have acted in their position? They welcomed me with open arms and I got a chance to thrive. That's why I love them all so much and we're really a close knit bunch. If I would've come there and Judd would've been pissy to me, who knows what could have happened? Maybe I'd fall apart. I don't think so, but who knows?"
When he mentions the fact that he's had a 45-year career, Tony's asked to consider his feelings about everything he's accomplished. "I very rarely look back," he points out. "I always want to do something else. I think I've got some good performances left in me and I just think there's more to come. At the same time, I'm so blessed. I mean it. Listen, July was the 40th anniversary of Taxi and now I have another show where I'm number one on the call sheet. You know what that means? That means, 'Here's your sandwich, Mr. Danza.' That's pretty good. I'm livin' large and feeling pretty lucky."