"You know, sometimes my life is like a boxing metaphor, and I'm the old-timer who got a title shot with this show," it suddenly dawned on Tony Danza over lunch at his favorite bistro, Nick and Toni's on West 67th. "That's what I feel like."
He comes by that metaphor--and that feeling — quite legitimately. The brash tough-little-monkey charm he paraded for five seasons of "Taxi" and eight seasons of "Who's the Boss?" is through-and-through authentic, and it's no understatement to say he fought his way to Easy Street, which, these days, looks a lot like Broadway.
He swaggered onto the stage of the Nederlander Nov. 18 as Tommy Korman, a high-roller with high hopes in Honeymoon in Vegas, the glitzy, giddy musical that Andrew Bergman adapted from his 1992 movie. An exuberant Jason Robert Brown score has replaced the film's all-Elvis soundtrack, and Rob McClure, Brynn O'Malley and Danza fill the triangle previously occupied by Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan. Packed with parachuting Presleys, the show opens Jan. 15, 2015.
Were this Adam and Eve in the Garden of Vegas, Danza would qualify as the serpent, a snake-in-the-grass who trips up a honeymooning couple just before they — well, cross the finish line. Korman fleeces the groom-to-be out of $58,000, then proposes, indecently, to cancel the debt for a lost Hawaiian weekend with the intended bride. How do you get audiences to like a guy like that? You hire Tony Danza. "Well, it helps," the actor allows. "Jimmy was great in the movie, but I'm playing it differently. You really got to root for the guy. If you don't, you're in trouble. At first, I had a little problem getting this guy — and I don't want to get arty-farty on you here — but I was thinking, 'This is musical comedy. Am I the funny guy, or am I the bad guy? What am I supposed to do?' It took me a while, but I've found him. He's warm, he's romantic, he's determined, he's cool. I even like his walk. He kinda has a glide to his walk."
The part has sympathetic underpinnings (i.e., the bride-to-be is a dead ringer for his dead wife), but mostly it's Danza Razzle-Dazzle, keeping the roughness in reserve, mellowing the macho, bringing it down to a lounge-lizard low flame — and gliding.
The actor bounded aboard this project four years ago, the minute Brown sang him a lyric he had written for his character: "While we're young / We think that we're invincible / We act like we know all there is to know / We pop our pills and smoke our dope / And never realize that hope / Is just a visitor, a guest star on the show."
"But it has been a torturous trail of almost-starts. Even after the great reviews we got at Paper Mill, we couldn't get a Broadway house. I felt the clock ticking. Everyone has a shelf life. When I was a kid, there was a guy at the Gramercy Gym, Paddy Flood. After I'd been on TV, I'd come back and box, and he'd say, 'Hey, Actor. You'd better play a fighter before you have to play the manager.' That kept ringing in my ears."
He learned timing and fancy-footwork as a prizefighter and is only mildly surprised he wound up on Broadway a song-and-dance man. "I'm a garbage man's son from Brooklyn so I had to keep my dreams in check, but I knew I'd amount to something."
A teacher in the 10th grade, a Mr. Messenger, spotted a spark of creativity and cast him in the high school musical three years running — first in the Kiss Me, Kate chorus, then as Albert in Bye Bye Birdie and Billis in South Pacific. He also introduced Danza to Broadway (Joe Egg and West Side Story) and ballet (Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci). "But I got sidetracked by boxing. I was a street fighter as a kid. That's what we did. It was another game we played. I grew up like that. After college, some bar buddies of mine entered me in the Golden Gloves and I won, and I kept winning. A year into that, a guy at the gym said, 'Ever think about TV?' He brought these guys from NBC to see me fight. I got knocked down twice the first 30 seconds, but I got up and won it. They gave me a screen test, and I ended up in James Brooks' office with 'Taxi.'"
The toughest hit he got was from a tree on the ski slopes of Utah. "When you wake up on the respirator and everybody's crying — including the priest — you say, 'Man, I need a second opinion.' I broke my back, dislocated my spine, crushed a vertebrae — I thought the mob got me." It took two years of rebab to get him back in fighting form.
When Broadway beckoned, he didn't go to the shallow end of the pool. He replaced two Tony-winning performances (Anthony LaPaglia's in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and Nathan Lane's in Mel Brooks' The Producers). In between, he bartended at Harry Hope's for Kevin Spacey in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.
Now 63 and a latent grandfather, he's originating his own Broadway performance — a surprisingly lovable louse that Ben Brantley of The Times suspects "may be the best musical portrayal of a gentleman gangster since the heyday of Guys and Dolls."