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 played by 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, played by 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. 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 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.
After a near-fatal skiing accident in December, 1993, Danza became a song-and-dance man. He appeared in concert and stepped into the role of Max on Broadway in the blockbuster musical The Producers.
Last week, he began previews at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey in Honeymoon in Vegas, a new musical by award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade). Danza is playing James Caan’s role as a professional gambler.