A lot of people have poked fun at Tony Danza over the years, but few have done so quite as eloquently as Danza himself. He's aware that his career highs have been high and his lows…not so high, but he's not afraid to face his critics and detractors with healthy doses of laughter and charm. That's one of the reasons I've always like him, even if I haven't loved the work.
If memory serves, the first show I ever religiously watched with my family was "Taxi." I was about 10 when it first aired, and I was more drawn to the antics of Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd, but as I got older, I grew to appreciate what the rest of the cast was up to, and Danza's Tony Banta was probably the character who was most like the actor playing him/her. A former boxer, Danza then went on to try his luck at movies. He pops up in CANNONBALL RUN II, but not long after "Taxi" went off the air, Danza was back heading his own series, "Who's the Boss?", which lasted eight years and gave time for Danza to continue making the occasional movie like SHE'S OUT OF CONTROL and a few made-for-TV disasters.
Balancing a signing career, stage work, a failed talkshow, series, and the occasional film (MEET WALLY SPARKS, CRASH and a solid performance in William Friedkin's TV remake of 12 ANGRY MEN), Danza has kept working steadily for decades. But the film that I'm guessing means the most to him presently is 1994's ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, a modest hit and decent film that had him share the screen with a then-13-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt remembered his old friend when it came time to cast his first film as writer-director, DON JON, in which Danza plays Gordon-Levitt's high-strung father, Jon Sr.
Playing the consummate asshole father, Danza plays Jon Sr. funny, scary and always loud, but also with just enough subtle behavior to see how the son is picking up his father's bad habits when it comes to meaningful relationships and seeing woman as something more appealing than the porn he is constantly watching. DON JON is a really great film, and a large part of that is due to Danza's performance. I had a chance to sit down with him back in March at the SXSW Film Festival, where I was met by the 62-year-old Brooklyn native with more energy than, well, me for starters…and pretty much everyone else I know. He was funny, talkative and very aware of his talents and abilities. Great guy, and I hope you enjoy my chat with Tony Danza…
Capone: Hell, sir. It’s great to meet you.
Tony Danza: Tony, nice to see you. [Frank Sinatra music is playing from Danza's iPod speakers, and he continue singing along to tit as we settle in.]
Capone: Well it’s really great to meet you, and what an outstanding job you do in this film. When I was growing up, my dad was a comedy nerd and watching "Taxi" was a family ritual.
TD: Isn't that great. Just recently--Black Friday after Thanksgiving--they had a 24-show, 12- hour "Taxi" marathon in New York, and I watched. I got my leftovers and my wine, and I sat there and watched the 24 shows. It was so much fun. I’m not kidding, they were great. They broke your heart. They made you laugh, and what’s interesting was that invariably in every show somebody got in trouble and everyone went to their aide. That’s pretty cool.
Capone: It was a nice makeshift family. So just start from the beginning, how did this role come to you?
TD: Joseph called me and said he was going to direct a movie. He had written this thing and would like to send it to me to see what I thought as playing the father. So I read it, and it was like “Are you kidding? I love it. I think it’s great.” By the way, I thought the script was terrific. I think it’s an important movie. I think it really does capture a cultural moment in our lives, this moment, and then he said to me, “Hey, do you think I could play Italian?” [Laughs] Then I said, “That’s what’s wrong with you. You could play anybody, you rotten kid.” Then he said, "We’re going to try to get this Julianne [Moore] and Scarlett [Johansson], and I said, “I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.” Really it was just him.
I’ve known him for a lot of years. We did ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD. And I’ve always had sort of a paternal thing for him, because it was that way, and it’s always been and it is now in fact, besides the fact that I play his father. So I’m really happy for him. I’m really thrilled, because this is something he’s always wanted to do. He used to talk about being a director when he was 12.
Capone: When you read the script and you read that part, what was it about that guy that just made you say, “I can do that.” What did you latch on to?
TD: I come from a family where if they weren’t yelling, they really didn’t care. So I certainly understand that part of it;I understand the dynamic. What I really thought about was, in support of this movie, this story, this guy is a big part. How much of Jon is Jon because of his father? One of my favorite moments in the picture is when we go to say good bye to each other after he brings Scarlett over, and it’s like magnets repulsing each other; it’s so funny. We try. So that relationship was very interesting to me, and Joseph and I talked about it at length.
Capone: That whole sequence where you meet her is just so funny, because you’ve gone from being this guy who yells at him all of the time to being someone who is hitting on his girlfriend. It’s the sleaziest, greatest thing. But he’s proud of his son.
TD: That’s exactly it! There’s a certain pride to it, which is perverse too. [laughs]
Capone: Like Marlon Brando in STREETCAR, I think you and Joe are going to bring back the wife-beater t-shirt in full force. Buy stock in them now.
TD: That’s so funny, those wife beaters. They tweeted a picture I guess this week, and I was out there last night. And I got a lot of wife beaters to sign--guinea tees, a lot of people called them.
Capone: Yeah, I would not do that in this room. What’s interesting about Joe’s character, when we meet the family, we realize that if he’s ever going to be a better person, he’s got to overcome a lifetime of that family coming at him.
TD: And the daughter, Brie Larson is--when she finally does speak--it’s really the beginning of it. He sees, “Wait a minute.” I was just telling somebody that I‘m thinking about writing another book. I wrote this book about teaching, and I’m thinking about writing another book, and the book I want to write now is about how I have very provincial ideals about life and about what I would do with my life. One of the reasons was where I came from, this is what you heard a lot: “Where you going? Stay home. Stay in the neighborhood,” instead of “Go out there, see what’s out there for you.” And when I taught, I used to tell the kids, “Most people don’t aim too high and miss, they aim too low and hit.” So I think all of that stuff is involved in this guy; [watching] football is the height of his life.
Capone: It’s always got to be on for atmosphere. You always hear that adage that the villain doesn’t know he’s a villain.
TD: Right, you’ve got to like him.
Capone: Did you have to do that too with this guy? Does he know he’s not that great a father and not that great a role model?
TD: I don’t think he thinks its his responsibility. I think he thinks, “I did what I’m supposed to do. I go to work every day. I put a roof over everybody’s head. I’m here.” He has a certain disappointment with this kid; it’s only when he brings home Barbara that he’s like, “Wait a minute, he does have some of me in him.” But I think he doesn’t think that’s his responsibility. He thinks it’s the kid’s responsibility, and it’s almost a refreshing attitude, because in a country consumed with helicopter parents, it's maybe somebody saying--I’m not saying that’s right and certainly the lusting over his girlfriend is certainly not right--“Hey, I do my job; you do yours.”
Capone: Talk about the day or days that you spent on the scene with Barbara there, how was that time different than all of the other stuff that you shot with the family. It seems like it was a completely different vibe.
TD: Well, it’s Scarlett Johansson.
Capone: Okay, yeah. That changes the dynamic.
TD: A little bit. [laughs] And she’s wonderful in it. She is really terrific. She’s comic and she’s that girl. It’s a very detailed performance she did. You know when he brings her to the house to meet us, right?
TD: She gets out of the car, she’s nervous. “Hey, what are you nervous about?” He walks over to the door like a schmoe and he starts to open the door, she comes up behind him and she does this little nervous dance, foot to foot. I said, “Wow, that’s really good.” She’s really good in it and she just brings this other dynamic to it. She’s quite a force, a presence.
Capone: Did Joe say, “Okay, you’re going to be a different family today.” Did he put it to you that way?
TD: No, she does that. The scenes are written; the family is on its best behavior. The family starts talking about love, about, “Oh, remember that day we went out.” It’s like “Wait a minute, what happened?” And by the way, it reflects back to what we're talking about, because that was just the object. Now this is all bologna really; it just happens to fit this moment.
Capone: One of the hardest scenes to watch is when Joe tells them, “We’ve split up.” Your reaction is just so brutal.
TD: [Laughs] “Can you get her back?” [laughs]
Capone: Everyone automatically assumes it’s his fault.
TD: And that’s the dynamic of the family, though. That’s what Joe wrote. He lived in New York for 10 years, so he has some experience and he knows a lot of people. But I’m telling you, I sent a bunch of my friends with vowels at the ends of their names--actors, and directors and producers--who were very sensitive to any kind of stereotyping or denigration, and I didn’t get any of that. I got all good seals of approval on Joseph--the “Italian seal of approval” I guess. Like I said, he was really worried about playing an Italian.
Capone: What do you have coming up?
TD: I’m going to do a play. I’m going to do a musical called HONEYMOON IN VEGAS [based on the film]. Jason Robert Brown wrote a score for it and turned it into a musical, and we’re doing it at the Papermill Playhouse in Jersey, and then hopefully it’ll be on Broadway in the spring. And I’m going to write another book. Did you ever read [playwright] Moss Hart’s first book, called ACT ONE? It’s a terrific book. Or Steve Martin’s book BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC'S LIFE? It takes a part of their career, and looks at how they got there, and I know the exact moment my life changed. I know the exact moment.
I was on a campus and I heard NINE AND A HALF, and I got up and somehow my life changed. There was a guy in the audience, and that’s how this all happened. Well, I want to go to that moment and then flashback and talk about how I ended up getting there and go all the way through "Taxi" and to "Who's the Boss?" and then quit. So it’s not just a string of stories that you would tell on a talk show. I want to explore the fact that I had very provincial ideas about life, even though I went to college. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “What are you doing? Stay home. Stay in the neighborhood.” I want to explore what kind of effect that has on people even after you get a brig break. So that’s my take on it. I saw this thing on David Geffen. He’s a kid from Brooklyn just like me.
Capone: The "American Masters" PBS thing? I saw that.
TD: Total white wash, but anyway… He's a little bit older than me, but when he sees the movies of '60s and hears the music, he’s inspired, he has to go there and be there. Me, I was just as inspired, but I was going to do it in the neighborhood. I was going to do it there. I want to understand that. I want to take a look and see if I can discover it in the retelling of how I got there.
Capone: Just after I saw that Geffen piece, there was a documentary at Sundance about The Eagles, and they did not talk about him in the most flattering terms. So if you wanted to fill in the gaps, you can dig that up.
TD: That was totally laudatory, but the one thing that was, and even in the Eagles thing, they didn’t say that he didn’t defend them. He’s a fierce defender of his artists.
Capone: They did say that, that’s true.
TD: That was the thing that made him what he was and what he is.
Capone: You’ve done lots of theater in more recent years. Is that something you want to keep doing, going back and forth?
TD: I have been lucky in a long career to have a lot of different avenues for creativity. I’m a singer, I’m a dancer, I do a live show, I’ve been on TV, and I’ve done some movies and I’ve been on the stage, I’ve done stand up. I really revel in the fact that I’m able to do that. I like that. I come from a little bit before this current epoch of entertainment when there were a lot of people who could do a lot of different things. So I am sort of a throwback, I think, to that and I kind of like that. You know, I’m a tap dancer.
Capone: You’ve seen Joe dance, I’m sure. That’s what I've always admired about him; he can do so many things.
TD: And he’s willing to put himself out there, because a lot of people go, “Hey, I’m good at this, let me stay there.” But it takes a little guts to go out there and say, “Let me try something else,” especially if you’re fairly successful in one thing. I have a theory that it’s really the only way to stick around. There’s always going to be another sitcom star who’s going to be cheaper, better, younger. So you might as well try something else.
Capone: Being hired into a movie that he’s directing, that had to make you feel about as proud as you could about someone you have a working relationship with, but it goes beyond that.
TD: Having been around him for as long as I have and then knowing that he really wanted to do this, Joseph has immersed himself in film culture. He’s spent a lot of time and made a ton of little movies, and this is not somebody who doesn’t know his way around. Just the last three directors he worked with [Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson and Steven Spielberg]… What are you talking about? And he’s smart enough to take stuff that he can use form those people.
So you have all of that. So to see him, because you know he’s still a kid. I’m proud of him. I mean I almost feel funny saying that, but I am. And I know his mother and father and I'm close to his family, and so I’m thrilled for him. I really am. I’m thrilled to be in it. I like the movie a lot, so that’s really great. It’s easy to promote something that you’re excited about. But above all, I really am very happy for him.
Capone: Cool. Tony, thank you so much. It was great to meet you.