I used to think of Tony Danza as that cheesy lunkhead from Who's The Boss?. Not anymore. Now I seem him as a role model of the highest order, a good guy who personifies all the well-meaning urges of our woefully flawed human race.
What changed my mind about him? The new A&E series Teach: Tony Danza (premiering Friday at 10 p.m. ET), which chronicles Danza's experience as he tries out the teaching profession.
The guy could be paying his mortgage just on the royalties from Taxi and Who's The Boss?, or luxuriating in his latest career reinvention as a Broadway actor. Instead, he's chosen the exhausting, unfamiliar and often frustrating work of teaching inner-city high school students. His motivation, he says, is inspiring others to join the teaching profession.
"We have a kid drop out in America every 26 seconds," he says in a public service announcement. "That's insane. We need a new generation of teachers to join the ones already making a difference in the classroom."
Seeing Danza in the classroom is inspiring. You learn, first of all, that the slightly dopey but enormously lovable persona he cultivated in his sitcoms is not a persona at all. It's who Danza is -- a man who's willing to use his gift (an easy way with people) to change the world around him in a positive way.
Danza is an extrovert who loves people. His rapport with the kids comes naturally. They sense his interest in them, appreciate it, and respond in kind. Behavior problems are in evidence, of course. But you get the feeling that they're giving other teachers a much harder time. There's a level of respect in Danza's classroom that starts with a teacher who's comfortable in his own skin.
Danza is unintentionally funny, too. During swine-flu season, he becomes a little obsessive about the constant use of hand sanitizer in his classroom. In that scene, the kids' eye-rolling is priceless. And Danza is just so ... human. When he's caught bending the rules, allowing a cake for a student's birthday and showing the students old Taxi reruns during class time, he seems truly ashamed and worried for his job.
But it's his sincerity that makes him so heroic. When a student from the school newspaper asks him why he thinks he's qualified to be a teacher, he replies, "I'm working very hard. I'm trying to do this all and be good at it. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the kids. I worry that they won't get the kind of teaching that they deserve. I worry that I won't pan out no matter how hard I try." But he's doing this anyway, because "there was a little bit of regret over how I was as a student. About not having taken advantage of the years I had in school. I tell a kid, you got to get smart early in life. You can't get smart late. If you get smart late, you might get lucky like me. But it's a long shot, boy. I call it the road not taken. You know, from the poem? This is my road not taken."
I'm glad he's finally taken it. We could all learn something from that lunkhead on Who's the Boss?.
Are you surprised by Tony Danza trying to become a teacher? Chime in below!