On Tony Danza's first day as a teacher at Northeast High in Philadelphia, a student asked if he was a millionaire, and he admitted that he was. The "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss?" actor certainly didn't need to be there, about to embark on a year that would include Steinbeck and Shakespeare, but he had decided that it was time for a third act in his career. (Danza was a professional boxer before he became an actor.) The A&E show "Teach" followed Danza's time as an English teacher during the 2009-2010 school year, and now he's written a book, "I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had," reflecting on the experience. Danza, 61, spoke with Huff/Post50 about his decision to step into the classroom, his problem with "Jersey Shore" and why he wrote about his marriage.
Let’s talk about the title of your book. What were you like as a student, and why do you owe your teachers an apology?
Like a lot of kids, I did not understand the value of the time spent there. But the real killer is you end up being 60 looking back saying, "Jeez, I wish I would have gotten A’s. What effect might that have had on my life?" This culture is sort of antithetical in everything it says to the kids. I don't want to pick on "Jersey Shore," but it's pretty clear. I would tell the kids good behavior and hard work will pay off, and then they go home and watch TV and go, "Oh, that's not true." There was a time when watching a cartoon was a nurturing experience. You would watch a Warner Bros. cartoon, and at the end of it you could probably win “Jeopardy.”
You mentioned that you started thinking about this when you were approaching 60. Was there something about that age?
I've been thinking about school for a long time. Having said that, I think 60's very reflective. Arthur Miller said the best you can hope for is that you end up with the right regrets. You become very aware of what you've done, what you should have done, shouldn't have done. I was thinking about the road not taken, and I always wanted to do this. And being a celebrity you get an opportunity.
There are a lot of moments in the book where you describe getting very emotional. Have you always been an emotional guy or did that catch you off guard?
Well, I'm a little bit of an emotional guy, but it definitely caught me off guard. And I'll be perfectly honest that in the beginning the emotion was really because of my own fear that I not only was going to make a fool of myself but this is the only tenth grade these kids get! You can't fool around here. And then it morphed into the empty feeling when you fail, the elated feeling when you don't. I was sitting at my desk one day, and [a student] Chloe, walked in, and she said, "Mr. Danza, I quoted you today." I said, "You quoted me? Well, what did you say?" She said, "I told my friend, 'Make the best of a bad situation.'"
Why did you teach for just one year?
First of all, the show didn't work out. I wanted it to have an effect beyond me too. And then the other thing is basically it's just hard. Principal Carroll said she wanted me back, which was the ultimate compliment. And I said, "I love you dearly. I love everybody here, but at this age, I'm not sure I want to care this much about anything.” I mean, other than my own children. It's just so overwhelming.
The kids are so beset with formidable obstacles. And you have 150 students -- just ponder that for a second. It blows your mind. There's this mantra for the teacher to engage the student. Well, the kids know that too, so they think, "Engage me, come on. I'll put my head to the side, you can open my ear and pour in the English.” But they [also] expect you to care about them individually -- not as a class, as each individual. In fact, you will hear kids say, "That guy doesn't like me. I don't work for him." And then they open up, and they've got some real stories. And it is so draining. One of the first things a teacher said to me [was], "You've gotta be a mother, father, brother, sister, a teacher, a social worker, a best friend."
Was there a point during your year as a teacher when you thought, "OK, I can do this"?
There were great moments, but then you'd fall back into deep despair. I'm not kidding. You'd think you were in a groove. Remember when snow days were the greatest days that could ever happen? Well, what if you have some momentum with some kids? Then you have to really work hard to keep their interest 'cause there's so much other stuff going on. They've all got electronic devices with them. So let's say you get 71 inches of snow in a week and a half? It's almost like you have to go further back.
You write in the book about the fact that you were also dealing with things in your personal life and that you and your wife separated. I’m curious why you chose to include that.
I think my wife probably has the same question. But it's what seemed integral to what I was going through. Because that's another thing. Teachers have this other life that it's very hard to even think about because you're so consumed. There's that moment in ["Freedom Writers"] with Hilary Swank when her husband says to her, "What is with you and this teaching?" And she says, "I don't know, but when I'm in that classroom, my life makes sense." And it would seem to me [that] the reason it makes sense is because you're not thinking of your life. You have no time. It's mind-boggling. I mean, it's OK when you're single. But what happens when you get a couple of kids of your own?
Teaching is your third act after boxing and acting. Will there be a fourth act? I saw you mention a possible run for mayor.
It was an offhand remark on a red carpet in an age of social media. [But] I don't think you can be a 60-year-old person who has grown up in such an incredible country and culture and get to where we are now and not be a little bit concerned. Having said that, I don’t think a political career is a fourth act. I'm trying to get to Broadway. Actually, I'm trying to get back on ABC -- I have a little bit of a deal with the network to come back on a sitcom. And they're not buying a lot of stuff, so the fact that we're even talking is pretty good news.