You wouldn't consider casting Tony Danza in the role of a high school English teacher, so why on Earth would you give him the job in real life?
"Teach," a new documentary series, challenges audiences to accept a sitcom veteran as a Philadelphia instructor without acting on the urge to call child welfare services
The good news: The students seem relatively unharmed by the experiment. The only victim appears to be Danza himself.
The 59-year-old actor best known as the happy-go-lucky boxer in "Taxi" and the prototype "manny" on "Who's the Boss?" seems so overwhelmed by the challenge -- sweating profusely, nonsensical rambling, emotional breakdowns -- that a prescription for Ritalin wouldn't be out of order. One student even declares that her new teacher is the most nervous person she has ever met.
"I cried three times the first week," Danza said a couple months after his one-year stint at Northeast High School. "I thought to myself, 'Would I want my daughter in this class? Am I doing something wrong? Am I just trying to make my career better?'"
Those concerns were certainly shared by the school system. Because Danza is not certified, he shared the classroom with a "co-teacher" whose role was to counsel Danza and keep an ample supply of tissues. It appears that Danza had only one class a day, leaving him plenty of time to help out everywhere from the football field to the school dance.
Getting Danza's assistance is both a blessing and a curse. His star wattage is certainly not lost on the impressionable youths (although none of them were born when "Who's the Boss?" went off the air), but he also has the habit of hogging the spotlight, yapping when he should be listening, tap dancing when he should be standing still. He continually pesters staff members and students with his self-penned birthday song, and an attempt at rapping is more embarrassing than his appearance in "Cannonball Run II." One of his brighter kids correctly points out that Danza steers the class off course with inane tangents.
In written evaluations at the end of the year, one student urged him to "have more control of your class. Please stop dancing." Another noted that he "wasn't that horrible" and that there was "always room for improvement."
One thing not in question is Danza's commitment. He even turned down a part in Broadway's "La Cage Aux Folles," which ended up earning Kelsey Grammer a Tony nomination, just so he could finish his obligation at Northeast. If he's faking his desire to truly help these 26 sophomores, he's a better actor than I thought.
"I was blown away by the passion for the work," said Principal Linda Carroll, who signed off on the series. "We have thousands of intellectuals, but you're not teaching until somebody's learning. What Tony brought to this was not only his intellect but his ability to transfer knowledge to students in a way that made them hungry for more."
Carroll admitted that she was very apprehensive about bringing a reality show into her hallways, but she and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter finally saw the potential for a show that portrays teachers as positive role models, people to both sympathize with and celebrate. (A similar effort is being made by the big-screen documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.'")
"The kids hear the saying 'Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach,'" Danza said. "They hear that teachers don't make any money, that schools are failing, and it puts the teachers at a tremendous disadvantage. Hopefully, we can inspire some people who have had great careers to think about doing this."
Give Danza credit for putting off Broadway and his song-and-dance show to take up this cause. He may get a C in aptitude, but he's earned a solid A for effort.
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