LOS ANGELES — Tony Danza and Joseph Gordon-Levitt got to know each other 20 years ago on the set of the Disney baseball fantasy “Angels in the Outfield,” in which Danza played an aging pitcher and Gordon-Levitt, then 12, a foster kid.
“I always had a paternal thing about him,” said Danza, 62, who came to fame 35 years ago as the hapless boxer / cabbie Tony Banta on the Emmy Award-winning comedy series “Taxi.”
“When he was in ‘Angels in the Outfield,’ you could tell he was a very talented kid,” noted the former professional boxer, on the phone from New York. “Every once in a while, I would say to him, ‘Let’s go do something.’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m following the director today.’”
“We were having such a blast,” Gordon-Levitt recalled. “We were shooting the movie in a baseball stadium. We would roller blade around the stadium. He was such a good guy, a generous dude.”
Now the two are playing father and son in “Don Jon,” the adult romantic comedy that opened Friday and heralds Gordon-Levitt’s feature writing and directing debut. Gordon-Levitt’s Jon Martello Jr. loves the ladies, but he loves watching porn even more – until he meets the person he thinks is the girl of his dreams (Scarlett Johansson).
Danza steals every scene he’s in as Jon Sr., who doesn’t have the greatest paternal instincts when it comes to his son. Jon Sr. spends his days sitting in the dining room of his family home in his sleeveless white T-shirt watching sports on the big-screen TV while scarfing down the meals his long-suffering wife (Glenne Headly) has made. He’s opinionated, overbearing and toughly funny – and he’s getting great reviews as well.
Danza was the first actor Gordon-Levitt thought of for Jon Sr. because “Tony is just naturally likable. The character he plays in ‘Don Jon’ is likable and charming, but on the other hand his shortcomings are quite apparent. He’s sort of a selfish person. He has a short temper.”
Jon Sr. was a character Danza knew quite well. “I had dinner with that guy,” Danza said, laughing. “If you are Italian and you grew up in New York, you know people like that.”
Danza was 19 and attending University of Dubuque on a wrestling scholarship when his son, Marc Anthony, was born. Danza also has three grown daughters.
“You think if you were a father since you were 19, you would get it right by now – but no,” he said. “In a way, it’s tough when you are a young father like that. But you grow up together.”
And act together. When Marc Anthony was little, he appeared in two episodes of “Taxi” as a kid in a wheelchair who wants a retired boxing champion to make a comeback. Unfortunately, Banta actually wins the fight against the former champ.
“A couple of months ago, I went out to Los Angeles to see my son and his two sons,” Danza said. “His oldest son, Nick, was about to turn 8. I brought out the discs and said, ‘Nick, do you want to see what your father was doing when he was exactly your age?’ I sat him down and we watched two episodes. He was hooked. He watched every episode of the series.”
Danza had success after “Taxi” ended in 1983 with the sitcom “Who’s the Boss,” which aired on ABC from 1984 to ‘92.
But after “Boss,” Danza started spreading his acting wings, appearing off-Broadway opposite George C. Scott in “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” and in Broadway revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” “I think you have to diversify to stick around,” he said.
After he survived a near-fatal skiing accident in December 1993, Danza decided to take the plunge and fulfill a longtime dream to become a song-and-dance man. He appeared in concert – including performing at Carnegie Hall – and stepped into the role of Max on Broadway in the blockbuster musical “The Producers.”
Last week, Danza began previews at the venerable Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” a new musical penned by Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), based on the 1992 hit comedy. Danza is playing James Caan’s role as a wealthy professional gambler.
“We hope we will get a date for Broadway before we finish this run in November,” he said. “I have songs and some tapping. Unlike most shows, where you have to try to find one song that stays with you, in this you’ll have to decide which is your favorite song.”