For Tony Danza, teaching is an emotional experience

Tony Danza arrives at Taverna Tony in Malibu, one of his favorite spots, and he's moving fast. Casually dressed in a Northeast High School shirt and jeans and sporting a bit of stubble, Danza carries a large black scrapbook in his arms.

"I couldn't find my lesson plans!" he says, almost yelling. Quickly, he orders a beer, says hello to a few employees, and turns toward a photographer for a photo shoot that he demands be over faster than you can say "Tony Danza — a teacher?"

Danza, 59, is at odds with himself. His new A&E reality series, "Teach: Tony Danza," a documentary-style show that followed Danza as he taught 10th-grade English last year in inner-city Philadelphia, premieres Friday. The show business veteran knows the importance of promotion, but anything he does to "sell" his TV show makes him feel uncomfortable, he explains over salad and lamb sandwiches — like he's tainting the "best year of my life," he says, and harming "my kids."

It also turns out that Danza was under the misapprehension that he was meeting a Times education reporter. That's why he was freaking out about his lesson plans, evidence of how hard he worked to complete the Northeast High curriculum as creatively as possible, he says.

It bears repeating: Tony Danza — a teacher?

Well, it's been a long time coming. Before Danza was a successful middleweight boxer and television and Broadway actor, he wanted to be a teacher. Never a good student, Danza says he always wanted to help young people not make his mistakes. But his life took another direction, and Danza eventually became famous for roles on two hit sitcoms, "Who's the Boss?" and "Taxi."

"Tony Micelli on 'Who's the Boss?' became a teacher, and that did not come out of some writer," Danza says. "That's me, going, 'What if?' So this is something that's been on my mind a long time."

Danza is well aware of the "irony" in his situation. He's often associated with the not-so-bright men he played on TV, and critics have been downright cruel about the audacity it took for him to teach high school sophomore English. And to do so in front of reality TV cameras! That was just proof, his critics said, that the show was a desperate attempt to get back into the spotlight.

No one was more cautious than Northeast High Principal Linda Carroll. "When you hear the word 'reality,' it sends up a thousand red flags," Carroll says by telephone. "But after meeting Tony, I began to see that he was really genuine.... Tony spent a lot of time on his lessons, and he did exciting things to stretch their imaginations, to ensure that they got it. He appealed to every sense, every type of learning style. He didn't just lecture."

It wasn't the actor's idea to teach in front of cameras. Over lunch with his longtime friend, Leslie Greif, who produces reality shows such as " Gene Simmons: Family Jewels," Danza confessed that as he approached his 60th birthday, he was reflecting on the things he still wanted to do — teaching being at the top of the list. Greif suggested they film it, and Danza agreed, provided they produce "responsible reality."

A&E bought the series, based on a presentation Danza and Greif shot in Yonkers, N.Y., following Danza as he taught one day at a school there. But the school decided against participating. Once Northeast High was selected, after Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter got involved, the producers held a casting call among 10th-graders. Danza, meanwhile, was busy taking professional development courses and reading the classics in preparation for meeting 26 teenagers born three years after "Who's the Boss?" went off the air. Because there was no time for Danza to become accredited, a teaching coach observed all of his classes.

On his first day of school last September, his insecurities materialized. "I was thinking, 'Oh, God, I should have just done it [without cameras],'" he says. "There's no way I'm not gonna look bad. And I had to come to grips with that eventually. It was tough. I just felt this tremendous responsibility to the kids all of the time."

Viewers will be surprised by how much of that anxiety is captured in the series. Danza, it turns out, has the propensity to become emotional — in front of the students, away from the students, and even in front of the press when he's reliving how those sophomores constantly challenged him. They mocked him, threatened to leave, and even cheated on exams in front of the cameras. In one episode, Danza actually leaves his class because he can't control himself.

"I wasn't trying to cry, but I was constantly worrying about whether I had failed them," Danza says. "Did I let that kid down? That would make me cry. And there's no doubt they hurt me. They broke my heart sometimes. No doubt about it, I struggled."

The students, the principal says, did not.

"My concern was, were they going to worry about being on film and not focus in class?" Carroll says. "Children are so resilient that I swear to you, by the second day, you didn't know the cameras were there. They were still texting under their desks, leaning over, daydreaming, just like any other class."

Although he taught only two classes a day, Danza was at Northeast every day at 6:45 a.m. and stayed for the entire day, helping with hall monitoring, counseling and office work. He also assisted with the football and debate teams, band class and fundraising. When the production crews packed up in January, Danza stayed in Philadelphia, away from his wife and daughters, for the remainder of the school year.

"I couldn't tell the kids that filming was over and 'See ya,'" he says. "I was committed to this."

The students rib him plenty over the course of the series, criticizing him for talking too much, going off topic, and, yes, crying. But a scrapbook of photos, mementos and notes they made for him at the end of the year demonstrates exactly how they feel.

"I know as you are reading this, you are probably crying like a sissy. Please don't. I will take what I learned this year and use it forever," wrote one student.

"Teachers don't get paid much," Danza says. "They work so hard. They're under a tremendous amount of pressure. It's not even a recession-proof job anymore. So the one currency they have is when that kid comes back three years after he graduated, and says, 'Because of you, I'm at Penn State.' That's pretty tough to beat."

On that note, Danza tears up. Recently, he adds, the emotions have resurfaced because school has begun. Danza feel like he's abandoned his students, and he contemplates daily the idea of going back. For her part, Principal Carroll says she'd hire him without hesitation.

"The students really miss him," Carroll says. "He was there for them. There were kids that were not in his class that he used to spend time with every day, so on many different levels, he just connected. And not because he was Tony Danza."

Danza is using a journal he kept to write a book about his year at Northeast — his favorite job of his entire life.

"It's the most important thing I've ever done because there's a bunch of kids over there who knew that I cared, who knew that I was trying to make them see the importance of education in a culture that doesn't celebrate neither education nor teachers," Danza says. "I feel good about it. I do. By the way, I have a lot of self-loathing. That's me. And this is an unbelievable tonic to that."

The actor pauses and adds, "Don't make me cry."

But, of course, it's too late.

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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