Tony Danza needed a break from acting, so he became a high-school English teacher. He talked to Ramin Setoodeh about his new memoir, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.
“I wish my parents were around to see this,” Tony Danza says. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.” He’s talking about his first book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High. True to its title, this memoir is about the year Danza—the star of Who’s the Boss and Taxi—quit show business to become a high-school English teacher in Philadelphia.
If the premise sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Danza, 61, has told variations of it before. It was the subject of an A&E reality series called Teach that ran for six episodes in 2010. Not a fan of reality TV, Danza half-jokingly says he told himself he was doing “cinema verité.” That, perhaps, should have been the first sign the idea was doomed. A&E yanked their camera crews after the first semester, out of concern there wasn’t enough drama, but Danza stuck around through the end of the school year for his students’ sake.
“The message in our culture is, get it fast, get it quick,” Danza says in downtown Manhattan over a hamburger lunch, which he downs quickly. “ ‘I don’t have to work, because look, Snoop Dogg is selling Chryslers. Why should I study?’ The message undermines education.”
Danza’s book is an entertaining read. The arc of the story is familiar to anyone who has seen one of those movies where an inexperienced teacher lands at the head of the class and learns about himself in the process. His students, who were born after Who’s the Boss aired, would say to him, “My mom is a fan,” or “Aren’t you the guy from Happy Days.” (No, he’s not, but he used to play on the Happy Days baseball team.)
Danza assigned his students reading that included To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Julius Caesar. When his students didn’t warm to those titles, he bought them all copies of Twilight. For the record, he says, he hadn’t read Twilight himself—until he shared it with his class.
“Everybody got into it,” he says. “I just figured this was a popular book, but the problem was, it was thick. We had a lot of fun reading it.” When asked what his favorite part of Twilight was, Danza doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I liked the romance,” he says.
Danza became a teacher because he found himself at a professional and personal crossroads. When he talks about this, his voice grows softer and he recites a Shakespeare quote about mortality (“There is a tide in the affairs of men …)
“You get to a point, when you get to 60, it just gets a little more difficult,” he says. “It’s just like everyone else: you have your prime earning years and you have less. I’ve been lucky to reinvent myself a lot.”
In 2004, he landed his dream job as a talk-show host (The Tony Danza Show). But after two seasons, he was canceled, possibly, he says, because Oprah wanted to clear the airwaves for Rachael Ray. The New York base of his job meant that he lived apart from his wife and kids in California, and his marriage of more than 20 years started falling apart.
He got a divorce in 2011.
“Neil Sedaka was right: breaking up was hard to do,” Danza says. “I miss her. I miss her bad. We’re close. How can you not be? It’s not something you want to go through. I never thought I would. I thought for sure I’d be married forever.”
He moved back to New York—where he rides the subway, showing me his metro card as proof—and with all the extra time on his hands, he began work on his book. “I started going to bed at 7 p.m. and waking up at 2 a.m. and writing until 6 a.m., and then going to the gym and looking at what I wrote,” he says. His first draft rambled at 90,000 words; about 15,000 words were chopped off in the editing.
Even though it’s been two and a half years since he’s been a teacher, Danza still keeps in touch with his students. He texts them advice and this year, gave the high school commencement speech. The best stories in the book are about how involved in the students’ lives he became. He hosted a poetry contest and a talent show, acted as a chaperone for dances, and attended football games.
Some of the lessons he taught his students—“you have to be constantly learning”—have applied in his own career. One of the big things that changed his life, Danza says, happened when he was 32, during an episode of Taxi where he had to learn how to tap dance. It taught him that he could be a song and dance man, and later paved the way for his Broadway run in The Producers. Six years ago, he says, he learned how to play the ukulele, when his “thought of the day” calendar suggested that he take up a new instrument. “If you’re dating, forget about it,” he says. “The ukulele is a ray gun.”
Danza says he’s still close to his TV family from Who’s the Boss. (As any ‘80s kid knows, the series was second only to Full House in playground chatter.) Of his TV daughter, Alyssa Milano, he says, “I was a pain in the ass. She had a father and she got another father. I chased boys. I’d see them sitting in the stage on the bleachers, ‘What are you doing here! Get out of here!’”
He sometimes stumbles upon reruns on the TV Guide channel. “You start watching. You can’t stop. And then you see what you did. I’m very proud of the show.”
Danza thinks the TV viewing audience “isn’t interested in virtuosity anymore.” They want to laugh at their reality-TV heroes, not with them. As he wonders out loud what happened, he starts to blame director/producer Garry Marshall, who used to throw candy into the audience during commercials for Laverne & Shirley. Danza uses this as a metaphor: entertainment now is about getting the viewer “all sugared up.”
Even so, Danza still harbors a desire to return to TV. He’s pitching a series to ABC that is like the Golden Girls—with elderly men. “The nice part about that is, at this age, there are a lot of movie stars, TV stars, who are interested in a series and going back to TV,” he says. “So there’s some real opportunity there. That’s the hope.”
He adds, “I really want to do something classic.”