Actor Tony Danza

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Emmy-nominated actor, who became a real-life high school teacher for an upcoming A&E reality show, reflects on why he found teaching such a daunting task.

Emmy-nominated actor Tony Danza is best known for his sitcom personas. The former middleweight boxer has starred in some of TV's longest-running series, from Taxi to Who's the Boss, and hosted his own talk show. He's also an accomplished singer and theater vet. The Brooklyn native, who attended college on a wrestling scholarship, initially wanted to be a teacher. Danza realized that dream when he taught 10th-grade English last year in inner-city Philadelphia—an experience that was taped for a documentary-style A&E show, entitled Teach.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Tony Danza back to this program. The popular actor is taking on one of his most challenging roles ever as a real-life 10th grade teacher for a new project for the A&E network. It’s called “Teach.” The seven-part special airs Friday nights at 10:00. Here now, a scene from “Teach.”
Tavis: Let me start with something that might seem trivial to some, but it wasn’t trivial to me when I got a chance to pop this in and to watch it at home. The notion of your wearing a tie – I leaned over and asked you during the clip whether or not you wore a tie to class every day while you were teaching for the year, and your answer was?
Tony Danza: Yeah, no, I wore a tie every day. I think it’s important that you’ve got to be there every day, you’ve got to look a certain way, you’ve got to set an example, I think that’s one of the things – and by the way, I’m not knocking teachers that come in more casual; that’s their choice. I just felt that for me it was just something that I envisioned. When I think about a teacher, that’s what I envision.
Tavis: To your point now, when you think about a teacher – put another way, before you had this experience, when you thought about a teacher, the teaching profession, you thought what prior to as compared to after the fact?
Danza: Engage them, but I had a misconception, I think, and the misconception was that I come from a time when teachers stood at the blackboard and you took notes. They lectured, and you took notes. It’s different now. The kids need to be engaged in a different way, they learn differently and there’s a thing that has been researched in education called collaborative learning, where you get them really to do it, and they learn – either you see percentage increases in student achievement.
Tavis: What convinced you to do this? Put another way, where did this idea come from and why did you end up Philly as opposed to New York or L.A.
Danza: Well, the first part of the question is I always wanted to be a teacher; I went to school to be a teacher. It’s been something that’s been on my mind and even in “Who’s the Boss,” Tony became a teacher, a parent who became a teacher. It’s just something – I think it’s the most important job there is in the country, I really do. I think our youth.
Then I look at the statistics that we all are aware of – Arne Duncan said last week that a kid drops out of high school every 11 seconds in America. We’re number 12 now as far as college graduates in the world. You see a problem. It’s been on my mind. I’m getting to be 60 years old, Tavis, and I thought I’ll answer the president’s call to service and just go become a teacher.
Just do it – chuck it all and change my life and be a teacher. Then I happened to tell a friend of mine who’s a TV producer, and he said, “You know, we can sell that.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Like a good TV producer, “I can sell that.”
Danza: “I can sell that,” Lesley Gripe, and he did, and if you could do a good show where the kids could come first as opposed to the TV show come first, and you could really show what it’s like, actually put a spotlight into an urban high school in America, because we hear about it and we see it when there’s a bad incident or something, but we don’t really know what’s going on, and also depict what it’s like to be a first-year teacher, what it takes to be a first-year teacher – not just the teaching, the counseling, the rigmarole of teaching, show what it’s like, how difficult it is.
Then also maybe – maybe crazy – inspire some people to do it themselves.
Tavis: How did you end up in Philly?
Danza: Mayor Nutter basically Mayor Nutter. What happened was we did a proof of concept of it, like a little pilot. We did it up in Yonkers at a school in Yonkers right on the borderline of the Bronx in Yonkers called Lincoln High – great principal up there, Edwin Quezada, really terrific guy – but we didn’t end up there.
We did a proof of concept there, didn’t end up there, and so then we put out feelers. There’s a woman in Philadelphia named Sharon Pinkenson, she is the liaison for all film and TV. She made the mayor aware of it, and the mayor called us and said, “Come down, take a look at us. Maybe this will work for our school system.”
Tavis: On a certain level it is courageous of Mayor Nutter to let a TV crew into one of his high schools for the entire year, because to your earlier point you never know what you’re going to see when you go inside a high school these days. So how much risk was the city taking, was the school district taking, letting cameras in this classroom every day?
Danza: Well, I think the risk really centered on me more than the cameras. Was I really on the level with this? This couldn’t be just – this had to be for real. You had to really try and be a good teacher and try to give the kids the 10th grade that they deserved in spite of the fact that you’re doing a TV show.
You talk about risk, but the minute you mention “reality show,” that’s a pejorative, and so right away people are going, “Oh, boy.” The teachers are beleaguered – they’re a little beleaguered so they’re suspicious. There was a lot of skepticism, and by the way, rightly so. There should be skepticism.
But we really tried to both – it was an unbelievable crew which really tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, to really disappear into the framework of the school.
Tavis: But you really can’t. TV cameras, as we know, because we’re surrounded by three or four of them right now, never really disappear. So in a classroom with kids, how did they come to ignore these cameras?
Danza: Well, I disagree, I disagree. I think you can. I think what happens – first of all, I think again, it goes back to me. I didn’t play to the cameras, and so the kids see that. It’s like I disregarded the cameras so they started to disregard the cameras, and how we know is we caught them doing so much – some crummy stuff on camera that they shouldn’t have been doing.
Tavis: We showed a clip a moment ago and you couldn’t really tell what it was, per se, but there was a clip we showed a moment ago of a kid with his phone under his desk, texting. I’ll let you explain what was happening there.
Danza: Well, they can text with it in their pocket. They can look at you, make like they’re listening to you, actually talk to you, but in the meantime they’re texting in their pocket.
Tavis: Are they cheating via text?
Danza: Well, there was one incident where I thought a couple of kids had similar answers, and I know they both had electronic devices, so. There’s a lot of – it’s youth in the extreme, Tavis – youth in the extreme. Fifteen and 16-year-olds in Philadelphia and surrounded by the culture that they’re surrounded by, and it’s a difficult task.
It’s a difficult task to try to convince them that they are – I used to tell the kids, “Coming from this neighborhood, if you guys had grades, every college in America would be after you because they’ve got enough of those private school kids. They would love to have a little spice that inner city kids would bring to the student body.” But it’s a very tough case to make with them.
Tavis: Tenth grade – was that your choice, was that thrust upon you, and I’m trying to remember when, years ago, when I was in the 10th grade, and where I was in my life in terms of what I was aware, not aware, actively planning and plotting my future. What are 10th graders thinking about these days?
Danza: Well, that was one of my – first of all, 10th grade was thrust upon me. I thought eighth grade, because I thought if you look at the statistics we start to lose them in the eighth grade. Having said that, somebody convinced me that 10th grade is really – you’ve got to make a stand there.
What I tried to do, I tried to tell the kids – I have this sort of slogan, “Get smart early.” Don’t be like me – get smart early. Now’s the time, especially the year before your 11th grade, which is your big year as far as colleges are concerned.
So I tried to convince them that – I had a lesson, there’s a book, it’s called “Five.” Where are you going to be in five years? It’s very hard for kids to think about that when they’re 15, about where they are, what’s five years from now, but I tried to stress that, that they had to start thinking about it now, that we’re in a different kind of world than we were when I graduated high school, which is a long time ago.
Tavis: So let me be direct about this – how bad, now that you’ve had the experience for a year, how bad do teachers have it these days?
Danza: Teachers have it tough. “The New York Times,” I was really proud of this, “The New York Times” liked the show but she said that it’s a counterweight to the movie, “Waiting for Superman,” and I know this movie is terrific and everybody’s into it and it’s heartbreaking. The statistics are horrible and what the parents have to go through to get their kids, to put them in a lottery, and one kid’s gay and one kid’s crying right next to him.
But I think the point we’re missing, one of the points we’re missing, is that would every parent in the country do that for their kids. That’s one of the problems, I think. I think that a lot of times – let me do it this way.
Somebody was having a conversation with me the other night about the difference between private school and public school, and I said, “What do you think you pay for in a private school?” She gave me a litany. She said, “I get smaller class size, I get better teachers, I get better facilities,” and she went down that list.
I said, “Well, that’s true, you get all that, maybe, but what you really get, what you really pay for, are the parents. You get like-minded parents who have all told their kids, “Go to school and do well, because it means something.” We don’t have that in the school, so the teachers have that.
I’m sure there are bad teachers, there’s no doubt about it. I think I heard a statistic that there’s 80,000 teachers in New York and only three of them were fired last year, so there’s some problem with the union and protecting them, I get that.
Having said that, I think there are many more discouraged teachers, and that’s evidenced by at three years 30 percent drop out, and at five years 46 percent have finished. Just as they’re getting good, Tavis, just as they’re starting to get it, because it takes a few years, they go, “I can’t handle it.”
Tavis: But if the teachers are discouraged, what’s that say about the kids?
Danza: Well, we need kids that are more motivated. The president gave that great example the other day – kids think they go into the thing and the teacher’s supposed to do everything. They bend their head over, you open up their ear, and you pour it in.
It doesn’t work that way. I had a big sign in my classroom. It said, “Take part in your own education.” I made them hang it up, and we’d talk about that all the time. I can’t want it more than you want it. You’ve got to come in here and want it. You’ve got to understand that it’s important. If a teacher has to teach the curriculum, which is, let me tell you, you feel the clock ticking – “Mockingbird” is 31 chapters. That’s a lot of reading and a lot of stuff.
So if you have to teach the curriculum, build character, instill values and teach – all-importantly, teach some self-control and self-discipline in 45 minutes, you better give me a little bit more time.
Tavis: Here’s the exit question. We know you; those of us who are of a certain age know you as a big TV star on a number of hit TV shows. I suspect that most of these kids were probably born after –
Danza: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. So they knew you as Mr. D. Did they know the Tony Danza back story?
Danza: Well, I think eventually they sort of understood, but at first in the proof of concept it’s so funny, the kids said, “I think my mother’s a fan.” (Laughter) One kid said, “I think my grandmother’s a fan.” I’ll give you a fat lip. But no, they were born after the shows were off the air, so that helped. I think that really helped.
Ironically, during the year the Hallmark channel, and I’m not plugging, but they put on “Who’s the Boss” and so the kids started seeing it.
Tavis: Oh, all right. (Laughs)
Danza: You’d hear things like this, “Hey, you didn’t walk that way back then.” I’m like, “Oh, you little.” (Laughter) But it was great, it was – let me tell you, it’s the most rewarding – for people who watch the show it’s very daunting, and I start out very emotional about things. But the good news was is that I stopped crying about myself and really started crying about the kids, because they would get to you.
Tavis: It’s a great concept and I’m so glad to see that Tony Danza had the courage to step into a classroom for a full year.
Danza: A whole year, a whole year.
Tavis: A whole year (unintelligible).
Danza: Let me tell you, Tavis, I mean it – here’s the thing, though. You say, “Oh, if I can do a whole year, if I can do a whole year,” and it’s no small feat because you’ve got to be there every day for them, but when you see the need and you see the need and then you see some of the committed teachers – there’s a teacher there going back for his 37th year, and I said, “Why are you doing that?” He says, “Because maybe this year I’ll get it right.” That kind of stuff – a year, big deal.
Tavis: It’s called “Teach.” It’s on A&E. It stars Tony Danza and all the kids.
Danza: Yeah, the kids are great, the kids are great.
Tavis: Tony, good to have you on.
Danza: Tavis, thank you, and congratulations on all your success.
Tavis: Oh, thanks, I’m glad to have you back here.
Danza: You’re an institution, my man.
Tavis: Get out of here, get out of here. Come back any – come back any time.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm