Just after he graduated from college, Tony Danza was working out at a boxing gym when somebody said to him: you ever think about being on TV? Since then, he's been a fixture on TV with the hit series Taxi and Who's the Boss?, not to mention his own talk show, his own song and dance stage show, and now a new movie called Don Jon.
We've invited Danza to play a game called "Who's The Boss?": We'll tell him about three companies and three people who might be the head of those companies. He'll have to guess who's the boss.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Sometimes people spend a lifetime doing fun and interesting things so they can spend five minutes with us doing something silly. It's called Not My Job.
So Tony Danza was a pro boxer, and was working out in a gym when somebody said to him, you ever thought about being on TV? Since that day, he's been a fixture on TV with two hit series, "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss," not to mention his own talk show, his own song and dance stage show, and now a new movie called "Don Jon." Tony Danza, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
TONY DANZA: Thank you.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Hey, Tony.
DANZA: Thank you, it's so great to be here.
SAGAL: It's wondeful.
DANZA: Oh, I love - I'm a big fan.
SAGAL: I know, we're a huge fan - in fact we have been unable to find anyone who doesn't like you. You may be the most beloved person on Earth since Mother Theresa passed.
DANZA: Well, it's very nice of you to say, but call my family.
SAGAL: I will.
SAGAL: Is that - we heard this story about how you were discovered. Is that true, you were boxing in a gym in New York?
DANZA: I was training in Gleason's Gym on 30th and 8th Avenue, where it was the Mecca of boxing, and a guy walked in who couldn't rub two quarters together and said did you ever think of being on TV. And somehow I ended up in "Taxi," which is the craziest thing of all.
SAGAL: Yeah because "Taxi" is truly one of the great sitcoms of all time.
POUNDSTONE: But Tony?
POUNDSTONE: I think you're missing some steps there in your story.
DANZA: No, it's true. You know, I know the moment my life changed. I was boxing in Nyack, New York, at the Nanuet Star Theater. I was fighting a guy named Rocky Garcia(ph), who was the champion of Connecticut. And I thought geez, how tough could he be.
DANZA: And I got knocked out twice in the first 30 seconds, and it looked like it was bad. I - the whole world slowed down. And I looked across the ring, and the other fighter was screaming get up. And I thought: Geez, should I?
DANZA: And then I heard the ref say nine and a half, and I did get up, and then in that same round I happened to hit the guy in the chin, and I win the fight. And somehow after that I ended up in "Taxi." It's crazy.
SAGAL: I want to get to the part you seem to be skipping.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, the funny part is...
ADAM FELBER: Are you sure you didn't get knocked out because...
DANZA: No, I was. I came back and won.
FELBER: It sounds like you woke up in a sitcom right after that.
SAGAL: I've known some boxers, and I've known some actors, and the skills in general are different. So how did you make that - how did you learn to act, basically...
DANZA: Well, I'll be honest with you, I was very lucky. You know a lot of people get a break, but when I got this great show, and I got this great bunch of people who welcomed me with open arms, I think about Judd, you know, who...
SAGAL: This is Judd Hirsch, of course, who was...
DANZA: Yeah, imagine you get this great series, you've been knocking around a long time, you get a great series with the guys from "Mary Tyler Moore." You get the best time slot on TV. You've got everything going for you except oh, wait a minute, there's this fighter we found in New York, we're going to put him in the show.
DANZA: And he - and yet instead of, you know, saying what are you crazy, they welcomed me with open arms, and it was like going to school.
SAGAL: You played, if I'm not mistaken, on the show, a taxi driver, obviously, it was "Taxi," but you were a boxer from Brooklyn named Tony.
DANZA: Yes, so it was a stretch.
DANZA: You know, there is a story.
DANZA: There is a story, you know, it was originally written for an Irish heavyweight named Phil Ryan(ph). And then they met me, and they made it an Italian middleweight named Phil Banta(ph). And then about three days into rehearsal, the producer came down, put his arm around me, walked me to the edge of the stage, and he said to me Tony, we're going to change the name of the character from Phil Banta to Tony Banta.
And I thought, geez, isn't that great, they're doing that for me. And really it was a reflection of my acting ability. They were afraid I wouldn't answer to Phil.
SAGAL: Really? They were afraid that if someone called you Phil on the set, you wouldn't turn around?
DANZA: Yes. You know, I ended up in Jim Brooks'(ph) office reading with Mandy Patinkin, who was reading for Judd Hirsch's part. And this is a true story. I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you this because I feel stupid, but I - after I finished reading, Jim Brooks, who was this wonderful frenetic sort of presence said to me as he walked me out I loved your work.
And I wasn't sure what he meant by my work.
DANZA: And I went down and took a cab, and I told the cab - I was so excited about it, you know, and I told the cab driver, you know, I might be on TV, I took this screen test. And I said but one thing, this guy said to me he loved my work. I said I didn't sweep, I didn't pick anything up. I didn't...
DANZA: And he said, moron, you know, he meant your acting. So here we are.
POUNDSTONE: And that cab driver became your agent. Is that a true story?
DANZA: Yes, and I don't hear from him anymore.
SAGAL: Of course not. I noticed that in your second incredibly big hit sitcom, "Who's the Boss," you also played a guy named Tony.
DANZA: Yes, well...
SAGAL: Did they still not trust you really to still turn around if they called you Phil?
DANZA: I don't know what that's about.
FELBER: I think it had been a thing at that point. It was a thing, like Bob Newhart playing Bob.
SAGAL: Yeah, Tony Danza had to play Tony. And this is very exciting. Just this week, we read that you died.
SAGAL: You died again. I didn't realize you had died before. Apparently according to a news report we got, you died in a fall in New Zealand.
SAGAL: How many - this has happened to you more than once?
DANZA: Yeah, these Internet things come, and you know what's funny, this is a true - you know, with the last time it happened, I got a lot of messages. People bought it. They believed it. And it was like knowing what it would be like after you go to hear what people think. People left me messages.
FELBER: Well, who's leaving you messages after you die?
DANZA: I got, Tony, I heard. I don't know what...
SAGAL: You're like, oh, my God, I'm alive to realize my friends are all idiots.
FELBER: That's great.
SAGAL: This is something I'm very interested in talking to you about, which is that a few years ago, and you've been a very successful actor, and presumably you don't really have to work anymore, you decided to spend a year teaching - let me get this right, math, in...
DANZA: No, no, God, no, no. Worse. More ironically, English.
SAGAL: You taught English, you taught English?
SAGAL: And this was in Philly, in Central Philadelphia?
DANZA: At Northeast High School in Philadelphia. I talked them into letting me teach 10th-grade English for a year. And I got a real, up-close look at what inner-city American education, public education is like.
SAGAL: And why did you do this?
DANZA: Well, I always wanted to be a teacher. I went to school to be a teacher. And I've always, you know, had this sort of romantic idea about it. But I'm worried about - I'm worried about education. I mean, you know, we drop out a million kids a year in this country. I don't know how you sustain a great country if you continue to do that. So we really have to decide if we're going to commit to educating our kids, all of our kids, or aren't we. I mean, that's really what...
SAGAL: That's very important, but what I really want to know is did any of your students know who you were?
DANZA: No, it was interesting. You know, like the kids would say, hey, I think my mother's a fan, you know.
POUNDSTONE: Tony, did you used to give homework assignments?
DANZA: Oh, yeah. But I'm not a big believer in homework, but you've got to give them just enough.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, did you give reading - I mean, excuse me, writing assignments?
DANZA: I gave writing - writing's the hardest thing to teach them. That five-paragraph essay, forget about it.
DANZA: I'm telling you a topic sentence, you want to kill yourself.
SAGAL: I wanted to ask you about - because you've been really busy lately. Let's see, you're doing this theater project, you're doing a musical based on - tell me, you tell me.
DANZA: No, I'm really excited about it. You know, it's the movie "Honeymoon in Vegas" with Nick Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker and Jimmy Caan, that's the part I play. And Jason Robert Brown has written...
SAGAL: Oh, he's fabulous.
DANZA: ...what I think is the greatest score I've heard. I'm serious, it's "West Side Story." I'm sorry, hyperbole, I'm sorry.
SAGAL: I understand. I have to ask you something because you've done shows before, you've done song and dance before, you've done musicals. You were a boxer from Brooklyn.
SAGAL: Acting I can buy. How did you learn to sing and dance?
DANZA: I'm Italian.
SAGAL: That's all the answer we need. Well, let's see what else you can do, Tony, because we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...
CARL KASELL: Who's The Boss?
SAGAL: This is the simplest game we've ever had.
DANZA: Never heard that before.
SAGAL: We'll tell you about a company, three people that might be the boss, tell us who's the boss, you win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail. Ready to go?
DANZA: Go ahead.
SAGAL: All right, Carl, who is Tony Danza playing for?
KASELL: Tony is playing for Tracy Mikowski of Haines, Alaska.
DANZA: All right, Tracy.
SAGAL: All right, here we go. Here's your first question: The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch has strict rules for his employees. Who is the boss of Abercrombie & Fitch: A, Jeffery Michaels, who requires all executives to have cargo pockets added to their suits; B, Michael Jefferies, who requires that whenever the company jet is returning home, the Phil Collins song "Take Me Home" plays over the speakers; or C, Bruce Springsteen. OK, Tony Danza, who's the boss?
DANZA: I'm going to say B.
SAGAL: You're right, Michael Jefferies is the boss.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
DANZA: Oh, I hope you get a shirt or something.
SAGAL: Oh, well hang on, you've got to win here. Don't get excited. All right, next question. The tech giant Cisco Systems has a remarkable CEO. Is it: A, Sandy Lerner, who on her days off dons period costumes and competes in brutal medieval jousts; B, Creighton Willis, who is able to go sailing every day, thanks to a second boat which blows wind at his yacht when there isn't any; or C, Bruce Springsteen?
SAGAL: All right, who's the boss?
DANZA: I'm almost thinking about C, but I'm going to try A this time.
SAGAL: You're going to go for A, and you would be right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Sandy Lerner. Last question, see if you can go for perfect. Who was the founding president of the National Cash Register Company, or NCR as it became known: A, John H. Patterson, who once fired someone by moving his desk to the front lawn; B, Bruce Foster, who once said I want a cash register in every home in America; or C, Bruce Springsteen.
DANZA: Springsteen, yeah, figure Springsteen. I want to say C, Bruce Springsteen.
SAGAL: You're correct. That's how he got his nickname. No, no, no, you're not correct. It was John H. Patterson. He fired the guy - he fired a guy by the guy showed up for work, his desk was out in front. That guy went on to run IBM, so he did OK. Carl, how did Tony Danza do in our quiz?
KASELL: Two correct answers, Peter, that means he wins for Tracy Mikowski.
SAGAL: Well done, yes.
DANZA: Thank you very much.
SAGAL: Tony Danza is an actor, dancer and teacher. You can see him in the film "Don Jon," the musical "Honeymoon in Vegas." Tony Danza, thank you so much for joining us. What a pleasure to talk to you.
DANZA: Bye-bye, Peter. Bye-bye.
SAGAL: In just a minute, Carl douses himself with coffee in the listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT, to join us on air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.