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Danza’s New Left Hook

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Danza looks relaxed, kicking back in his Winnebago during a break between his scenes in the CBS show “Family Law.”

But looks are deceiving. It’s a “break” from acting, all right, but not from the nonstop high energy that seems to sizzle through his every thought. This is a guy whose brain is never out to lunch, and it takes no more than two or three minutes before the image of the buff but dumb ex-boxer from Brooklyn is obliterated.

The conversation darts from one theme to another: the differences between sitcoms and episodic dramas; his three kids and happy family life; what it’s like to do eight performances a week on Broadway; his cabaret show; his annoyance with this newspaper’s coverage of the actors’ strike; his even greater distress over the process of the presidential election.

Then, as if all that wasn’t enough, Danza suddenly leaps to his feet and says, “Here, lemme show you something.” Reaching behind a cabinet, he pulls out an instrument case, opens it and extracts a shiny but somewhat worn-looking cornet.

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“Oh my, yes,” he says and grunts. “Uh-huh. A 1959 Conn cornet.”

He puts the mouthpiece to his lips, makes a false start or two.

“You gotta warm up,” he says, then blows a frazzled but intensely earnest opening phrase from the old standard “Tenderly.”

“I got six months in on it,” says Danza, “and in five years I might be a pretty good horn player.”

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It’s a bit hard to imagine Joe Cilano, the character Danza plays on “Family Law,” taking a break to knock out a tune or two on his horn. But the contradiction is part and parcel of who Danza is as a person and an artist, refusing to be stuffed into anyone’s thematic pigeonhole.

When he surfaced this season in the ensemble cast of “Family Law” in the role of hard-edged, far-left attorney Cilano, it may have surprised those of his fans who remember Danza primarily from his long, successful sitcom runs on “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” But he was nominated for an Emmy in 1999 for an appearance on “The Practice.”

And, perhaps more significantly, in the past few years, he has made a string of well-regarded stage appearances, most recently in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway with Kevin Spacey in 1999 and before that in “A View From the Bridge” and “12 Angry Men.”

Still, the sitcoms gave him his widest visibility. And when two successive series--ABC’s “Hudson Street” in 1995 and NBC’s “The Tony Danza Show” in 1997--bit the dust, his career might easily have headed in the recent direction of many dot-com stocks.

“I think ‘Hudson Street’ was a pretty good show,” says Danza, “not just a sitcom, more like a romantic comedy. It started out really big, doing well, and then it just fell apart. We had a lot of internal problems, ABC wasn’t the most supportive, and it didn’t work.

“Then, with ‘The Tony Danza Show’, I was suckered by another network into thinking they wanted what I had to offer, which was a family show. And they said that’s really what they wanted, they’d stick with me, and all that.”

Danza laughs. “Sure,” he adds. “And the check’s in the mail.”

Given the circumstances, he probably would have been the first to acknowledge that he might not have enough credibility to come back and do another show. But that doesn’t take into account Danza’s seemingly irrepressible drive, which is energized by the belief that he can do just about anything he sets his mind to (the cornet, for one thing, and the cabaret act, for another), especially in the entertainment world.

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“Let’s be honest,” he says. “There’s only one way to stick around. In this business you’re faced with being yesterday’s news every day. So I think it’s important to try to expand, and to surprise people.”

It was he who was surprised, however, when he was approached by “Family Law” producers Paul Haggis and David Shore about a continuing role on the show. As it turned out, there was an oddly serendipitous connection.

“I’ve been here at Sony [where he has a production deal] for a long time,” says Danza, “and a couple of years ago we had disaster with our company--Kingfish Productions--and we sort of ran the company into the ground. So Sony renegotiated my contract and took away half my office. OK, I’m a leaner, meaner machine. But my anger, which sometimes tends to go in the wrong place, went to the guy who got the other half of my office. And that guy is . . . Paul Haggis. And this is the guy who gave me the job. So go figure.”

Haggis doesn’t remember the anger, but he does recall the process that led to Danza being cast in the part.

“We were looking to add a new character for the second season,” he says, “to try and add some heat to the show. At first we thought about a woman and then decided well, with a cast that includes Kathleen Quinlan, Dixie Carter and Julie Warner, we probably have enough women.

“The question was who? Who could fit into that sort of ensemble cast and also give us the heat that we needed? Then, I was driving into work one day and thought of Tony. I mean, he was in the same building.”

At that point, a briefly floated prior notion that the character could be modeled on John F. Kennedy Jr. quickly faded.

“After we set up a meeting with Tony,” adds Shore, “we realized we were going to have to come up with a character that was right for him, and quickly, since the meeting was that afternoon.”

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“We already had a pretty left-leaning office in the show,” continues Haggis, “so we thought we’d make him an annoying right-winger. Then we said, ‘You know what, we’ve seen annoying right-wingers before. Let’s make him an annoying left-winger.’ And when we found a back story that supported his character, I said, ‘That’s it. We’ve got the guy who can stir things up.’ ”

And, equally important, a character who was a good fit for Danza.

“It’s perfect for me,” says Danza, “because it actually mirrors my own philosophical journey. I went to school in the ‘60s, so I was Judge Bork’s nightmare. Then I came out here and made some money in ’89, ’90 and ’91, and the city was a shoot-'em-up, a very worrisome place. So I got very conservative, like the liberal who gets mugged.

“But now, with the way things are going in the world, with globalization, with the only allegiance to corporations and the bottom line, I see the little guys taking it on the chin. And that’s something that stirs up old flames. So it’s very easy for me to be passionate about playing a character who wants to do something to help the little guy who takes it on the chin.”

Even with Danza’s comfort level with the character, bringing a new actor into an existing ensemble can have its hazards in a business that can be so powerfully ego-driven. But not, apparently, in this case.

“We knew,” says Shore, “that Tony Danza is the type of guy who goes on TV, basically can do anything, and people still love him. But just as important, we quickly found out that Tony is not the sort of person who struts on stage and says, ‘OK, this is the Tony Danza Show.’ ”

The Trick Behind Making a ‘Never-Ending Movie’

Moving from sitcoms to dramatic episodic television, even with the supportive confidence of his stage experience and a high TVQ rating, has not, however, been a complete walk in the park for Danza.

“A sitcom is a whole technique in itself,” he says. “When it works, there’s nothing like it. It’s like doing a 50-page play every week--a couple of performances and you move on--and there’s this tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

“Here, it’s like the never-ending movie. You can finish a show on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday you’re on the eighth scene, or the 27th scene of the next show. So you have to be constantly working on an arc of awareness, so you know where you are emotionally in a script.”

Given the many other irons Danza has in the fire, it’s intriguing that he is able to maintain any “arc of awareness.” In addition to the cornet, the living room in his Winnebago has another item testifying to his insistent curiosity--an electronic keyboard synthesizer, with a large book of standard songs nearby.

“I always wanted to play piano,” he says. “I asked my mother once why they didn’t give me lessons when I was a kid and she said, ‘We tried, but you didn’t want to.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t want to go to school either.’ So I’m getting around to it. And it helps me work on material for the nightclub act.”

Ah, yes. The nightclub act. Yet another element in the Danza bonanza of activities, and one that cuts to the core. There’s a line he uses in the performances that succinctly explains why he continues to perform as a song-and-dance man, even though the act barely pays for itself.

“I’m living every Italian man’s dream,” he says. “A tuxedo, a stage and a microphone.”

That dream led him to an appearance with Frank Sinatra at the legendary singer’s 80th birthday celebration in 1995. “And he yelled at me too, on national television,” recalls Danza with an affectionate chuckle. “As he was finishing up ‘New York, New York’ he went to take a step. And for a second or two he looked like a guy seeing if the ice was hard, and I thought he might fall. So I slid over very coolly and put my hand on his arm. And he looked at me and growled, ‘Hey, what’re you doing? Back off!’ ”

His nightclub act has now become so well organized that it exists in several manifestations--from a solo act with a four-piece backup band (and Danza’s spotlight cornet soloing) to a full-fledged production with backup singers, film projections and orchestral accompaniment. In June, he’ll celebrate his 50th birthday with a three-week run at Michael Feinstein’s club in New York City.

“I love it,” he says. “It goes right back to the guys I admired when I was growing up, like the Rat Pack. That’s what they did. They acted, they sang, they danced. They could do 90 minutes as a single. Maybe I’m a little bit of a throwback.”

Brooklyn’s in His Bones

Danza, whose full name is Antonio Ladanza, was born in Brooklyn on April 21, 1951. And he’s never left behind the Brooklyn association, even though he also has a suburban background.

“Actually,” he says, “although I was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn, we moved to Malverne in Long Island when I was 15. So I got the best of both worlds--this exciting, dangerous but not deadly upbringing in Brooklyn, and then the ‘Happy Days’ idyllic suburban life of Long Island.”

He leans back in his chair, idly fingering the valves of his cornet as he recalls his early years. “Don’t worry,” he says, in mock reassurance. “I’m not going to play anything else.”

Then he adds, with a laugh, “But I am going to play it on a record one of these days. The piano too, with a swing band, reviving some of those great old swing tunes. I’d like to give that to myself as a present.”

It’s only one of the many items on Danza’s to-do list.

“And I’m dying to be in a big picture one day,” he adds. “I used to do a joke about, ‘I’ve done three movies in my life, two of them with the same monkey.’ That’s not going to get you in the academy.

“And somewhere down the line, I’m going to get to do a musical on Broadway--hopefully ‘Pal Joey.’ ”

Shrugging at his own audacity, he continues:

“What can I say? I’m enthusiastic. It’s in my nature. I’m getting a chance to do some of the things I used to dream about doing when I was a kid. With ‘Family Law,’ I’m working doing something I absolutely adore. I can’t wait to come to work. I’m doing theater, I’m doing my nightclub act. And I’ve got my cornet!

“Look,” Danza says, pensive for a moment in the midst of his effervescent ebullience, “I’ve been around over 20 years, and to be working regularly at that point in your career, doing all the things I get to do, well, that’s rare. And I’m very much aware of how lucky I am to be where I am, doing what I’m doing.”

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* “Family Law” airs Monday nights at 10 on CBS.


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