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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 07/ 3/2007

Catching Up with Tony Danza

By Liz Kelly

Tony Danza. (Photo courtesy PBS)

From "Taxi" to "Who's the Boss" to his own talk show, Tony Danza is an American TV institution. So it's only fitting that this Italian-American actor -- who considers himself the embodiment of the American Dream -- host Wednesday's Capitol Fourth Independence Day celebration, to be broadcast live on PBS tomorrow night starting at 8 p.m. ET.

This year's show will kick off with a Danza-led dance number feting patriotic songs and include performances from Little Richard, Elliott Yamin, "Heroes" co-star Hayden Panettiere and former "Cheers" regular Bebe Neuwirth.

Despite his excitement about the show, Danza admits that the war in Iraq is never far from his mind.

"It's really hard at a time of war, I think, to celebrate," Danza said on the phone from New York last Thursday. "That's my only problem. I have a heavy heart. I can't imagine what it's like to have two soldiers walk up to your door and tell you your 21-year-old son's not coming home."

Danza just completed a six-month run in the role of Max Bialystock in the Broadway production of "The Producers" and is set to reprise his performance when the show opens in Las Vegas in August.

In a surprisingly candid interview, Danza opened up about his thoughts about the war in Iraq and more. Read on to find out why Danza loves Broadway, will never watch CNN again, thinks Paris Hilton doesn't need to try, has refused bizarre reality TV offers (celebrity bull-riding, anyone?) and what "The Sopranos" does, or doesn't do, for Italian-Americans.

(Much more after the jump...)

Have you been involved with "A Capitol Fourth" before?

I did it one other time in '98 or '99 and I've done the Memorial Day concert a number of times. One of my favorite moments in my whole career was I think it was an anniversary of World War I and they had a bunch of vets -- there are only a few left -- and they were there and we did a dance number. You know I'm a tap dancer and we got some girls and put together a patriotic number. Well that one we did I was in a Doughboy uniform and of course it poured and they said we can't do this and I said, "These guys fought in the trenches, so this is the least I can do." It's one of the great memories I have. Just being soaking wet and doing this on the Capitol lawn, so it's great fun to be a part of something like this.

So, can we expect a big dance number this year?

Yes you can.... We use patriotic songs. I've got four tap dancers and we're going to try to put together something pretty good. I just got out of rehearsal. I was there all day. We're rehearsing in New York. I spent seven days with my elderly aunt and uncle. My parents are gone and this is my mother's last sister so I was taking care of them and it was fun. I was home in Malvern, Long Island and it was kind of cool.

Do you have any thoughts about spending the 4th in D.C. while the war's going on in Iraq?

I saw your interview with Joe Mantegna and I know he said this is a time to bring everyone together and it's not about [the war], but it's hard to not be about that. You know on Memorial Day this year 11 guys got killed in Iraq so it's pretty hard not to think about it.

I dunno. Look, the great thing about the 4th is maybe on this day we put aside what divides us and remember that we're all Americans and it's the country's birthday. Look, I'd be lying to you if I didn't say it isn't ever-present on my mind, but my job is to go out there and entertain and be the host and I hope to do that.

So who else can we expect to see in this year's show?

We've got a great cast. Little Richard just joined in. Bebe Neuwirth is going to be there and everybody's favorite new show -- my kids love this show -- "Heroes" -- we've got Hayden Panettiere. And they just signed Dierks Bentley, the country music guy. Also the guy from "American Idol" Elliott Yamin, who I really thought was the best that year, so I'm looking forward to meeting him. And there'll be a symphony and Erich Kunzel and like I said, a huge opening number.

So this isn't the only stage thing you've got coming up. I see in August you'll be reprising your role in "The Producers."

Yep. I'm going to go to Vegas and do it there. The Vegas version.

What's different about it?

It's about 70 minutes shorter. The play is two hours and 40 minutes with the intermission, but in Vegas they do it in 90 minutes with no intermission.

I guess they have to get people back to the slot machines?

Yeah, exactly, back out on the floor. It's one of the great roles to play. Tony Danza playing Max Bialystock, the iconic Jewish guy. By the way, I played Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" on Broadway and for Italians "A View from the Bridge" is "Streetcar." I played the iconic Italian part; I'm playing the iconic Jewish part. Who says I have no range?

And your character's not named Tony.

That's another thing, yes. You know that is an urban legend that is not completely true. I have played other parts.

You used to host your own TV talk show. Considering all the hype surrounding the Paris Hilton interview and the jockeying to score the first one, would you have gone for a chance to talk to her?

I was in an airport [last Wednesday] when that whole Paris Hilton interview was going down. I was watching "The Situation Room" and they were talking about this interview that hadn't happened yet and then counting down to it. I'll never watch CNN again.

I mean it. I think something's happened to news and entertainment. News has become entertainment. They don't give you what you need, they give you what you want. And entertainment has taken a turn, too. People aren't much interested in virtuosity. They just want to feel better when they watch something and that changes it all. So I don't know, maybe that's why Broadway was so great and I'm going to Vegas.

I have to ask -- were you a "Sopranos" fan?

Yes and no. Yes, because it's an amazing series and all those guys are friends of mine and no because I don't think I like the way Italians are portrayed. There's a pang that happens in my chest when I see it. Having said that, I watch it and it is brilliant and I enjoyed it. But I sometimes worry about the portrayal and that's just me.

I've been lucky. I'm one of the few Italian-American actors who hasn't had to do a lot of that mob stuff. I did do one movie where I played a wannabe gangster (perhaps 1980's "Murder Can Hurt You"?) and he died in the end, so he got his. It was great dying on camera. But sometimes I would get a pang of concern [from "The Sopranos"].

But it was brilliant. I can't believe people. That last scene was brilliant. It had me on the edge of my seat and nothing was happening. And Gandolfini's brilliant. We worked together in a movie -- a remake of "12 Angry Men"-- years ago before he was famous and he was just a really good actor and he's just a terrific actor. [Tony] Sirico's a longtime pal. And my ex-fight manager is in the show -- Cha Cha, Albie who is Frank Vincent's consigliere. He's my fight manager. So I have a lot of connections with that show.

I saw a Tony Sirico quote the other day. He was annoyed by fans with cameras in the airport and got sick of it. So he got up and said "I hate all of you" and left.

I'm trying to write something about fame. I remember when I did "Taxi" and no one had seen it yet and I was dying for it to be out there and then it was on and people recognized me and took pictures and wanted autographs, but then I realized, uh oh, that's the way it's going to be no matter what. And I think a lot of those guys are waking up to that now -- and it's funny when you have a job and you're famous. When you don't have a job and you're famous it's a little different. So I just think they're going to have to get used to the fact.

And we're worshipping at the altar of Paris Hilton and CNN does what it did. And everybody was after that. It's not just CNN. Anybody on TV for an hour is tough. To be interesting for an hour on TV is not easy. And she has no education. She should've prepared. She had plenty of time to study in jail. She has all those people around her. Certainly good advisers. But see, the problem is she doesn't need to. We don't care. As an audience, we're not demanding anything anymore. It's really frustrating as a performer. Not so much just her -- in general.

So I'm going to guess that a reality show is not in the offing for you anytime soon?

No, I wouldn't do it. I don't want to be a game show host, either. You know I got a call recently -- would I like to be in a celebrity bull-riding show. I mean -- what the...? I don't know what's happening in this world.

Having said that, I've been around a long time and I continue to work and I love it. I was in a rehearsal hall tap dancing all day and it was wonderful.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your "Who's the Boss" co-stars?

Yeah, we still keep in touch. Judith and I are very close friends and, in fact, I owe Katherine a call. I talk to Alyssa every once in a while -- more notes than speaking. But you know, that kind of relationship, you don't have to see them -- they pass through your mind and are part of your life. Those four people were very important to me.

I hope that people will tune in on PBS and the Armed Forces station. It's really going to be a great show. It's wild to be down there with those people.

"A Capitol Fourth" airs on Wednesday, July 4 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

By Liz Kelly  | July 3, 2007; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Catching Up With..., Celebrities  
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