No one can say the word "stinko" quite like a born-and-bred New Yorker, which is one reason why Tony Danza looks entirely comfortable behind the bar in the Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh, which opened to triumphant reviews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. "I tell ya, it helps to come from Brooklyn," he exulted, two days before receiving some of the warmest notices of his showbiz careers. "Finally, I have a role where I can really let myself go!"
Unmistakably a child of city streets, the actor anchors Eugene O'Neill's sprawling drama to its Bowery setting. As bartender Rocky Pioggi, Danza doles out the hooch, sasses his stable of floozies, and maintains a semblance of order as the fevered blandishments of Hickey (the incandescent Kevin Spacey) stir his snoozing patrons from their booze soaked slumber. "He's very protective of all the guys; he kids them sometimes, he's rough with them sometimes, but he really cares about them," says Danza of Rocky, whom he calls, affectionately, "the latest in my very lengthy line of Italian-Americans."
Danza also brings some hands-on experience to the part, and not just in the onstage fisticuffs, handled as credibly as might be expected from a college wrestler and would-be boxer. "I was a bartender, off and on, for several years. And I know that you get very paternal about your bar, something I used as a way to get my arms around this giant show."
With The Iceman Cometh, the actor explores a new avenue in a varied resume that has included stints as a TV producer and director, pitchman for long-distance phone service, independent filmmaker (with an autobiographical short he put together, Mama Mia, and offbeat roles like a gay druglord in the film Illtown), and song-and-dance man. The road to a career as Broadway journeyman opened last year, when Danza surprised doubters by skillfully filling the shoes of departing Tony winner Anthony LaPaglia in the acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. His back-to-back roles in two American stage classics have allowed him to emerge from any shadows cast by his two TV Tonys, the sweet lunkhead he played for five seasons on "Taxi," and the wisecracking dad on "Who's the Boss?," an eight-season run.
"I feel the most comfortable on the stage," says Danza, who netted an Outer Critics' Circle Award nomination for his Off-Broadway role in Wrong Turn at Lungfish, opposite George C. Scott, a few years back. "For most of my career, I've done sitcoms before a live audience. They don't have the same weight, of course, as Broadway when you're out there, but doing TV helps you with your self-assurance in the theatre." Tackling anything in the O'Neill canon can be a daunting experience for an actor, and Iceman (four-and-a-half hours bursting with characters and concepts) is not an easy place to start. Danza's first encounter with the play, while in high school, was inauspicious. "A teacher, an O'Neill phile who helped get me interested in the theatre, assigned us to read it. And I did -- well, I read sort of the Cliff Notes version, anyway. When I got the play in school, I thought, 'This is daunting. It looks like the Yellow Pages.' And when I agreed to act in the play in January, the size of it really hit me again; Bridge was a big show, but jeez, that was almost easy compared to this thing!"
Rehearsals brought the challenge down to size. "Because it is so big, we'd do Act One on a Monday, then not get back to it till Friday -- and you could lose what you'd learned. Fortunately, we had Kevin to set the tone, and Howard Davies is just relentlessly good; I call him 'RoboDirector,' as he would tear everything apart, then say, 'Thank you for your cooperation.' The Brits [imported from London's Almeida Theatre, where this production originated] are fun to watch; I joke that if anyone does anything good up there, I'll be the first one to steal it." Danza is also delighted to pimp "three great girls," co-stars Katie Finneran, Catherine Kellner, and Dina Spybey, in the course of the show.
For all the rewards of the production, Danza nearly said no to Iceman, not from lingering O'Neill-phobia, but because Bridge-tending kept him from his family in Los Angeles for several months last year. "I had to come to New York to audition for it, and I was hesitant; I said, 'Nah, I'm gonna pass.' It wasn't that I didn't want to do it, but I'd been away from home for so long. But then the production called and said 'Kevin wants to read with you in LA' -- and it's pretty hard to say no to Kevin Spacey. So I read for it, on tape, and they sent it to Howard. And I ended up with the part."
His "harshest critics" -- his wife and three kids -- are in New York to see the actor dispense barroom philosophy. When the play ends its engagement in June, he plans to pick up the threads of his other showbiz activities, getting a "boxing romantic comedy" script off the ground, and taking his four-year-old cabaret act to Atlantic City and other towns. "I tap dance, and sing-standards, Beatles, doo wop, blues. And I encapsulate all of Pal Joey in 15 minutes, the Readers Digest version."
Producers of a planned revival of that show are advised that Danza's dream is to star in a Great White Way musical. In the meantime, the actor, whose roots have served him well on Broadway to date, is to be crowned this year's "King of Brooklyn" in a ceremony to be held in the borough on June 13. In the dialect of his subjects, the king-to-be reports he is flattered by his recent run of success. "Getting to do plays by Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill in the space of less than a year, on Broadway -- I gotta tell ya, that's pretty good stuff!"