“The Tony Danza Show” was on a commercial break. There was no need for the star to sing. But that didn’t stop the affable host of daytime TV’s newest talk show from crooning his version of “Good Night, My Love” for the studio audience and crew. It was clear he loves to entertain. His enthusiasm and energy overflowed as he danced a few steps and belted out the schmaltzy lyrics with all his heart.
“I’ve never thought of myself as an actor or sitcom actor or drama actor,” Mr. Danza told me later. “I always thought of myself as an entertainer. When I look back at Dean Martin and those guys, they acted, they sang, they danced, they did skits. They did everything. So that is how I always thought of myself. What makes me different from everyone else is a willingness to practice in front of people and not be embarrassed if you are bad. Because a lot of times you are bad. But there is a joy in going out there and walking the tightrope. That’s really exciting. And when it works … ahh! It’s fabulous.”
Nearly two months after its debut, the syndicated “Tony Danza Show” is off to an almost fabulous start, thanks primarily to the host’s talent, wit, likability, hard work and, most of all, his desire to please in every way possible. In major metered markets where his show plays during daytime or early fringe, he has averaged an impressive 2.3 rating, according to Buena Vista, which distributes the show. He has improved the ratings in key markets such as New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis and often pulls as many viewers as “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which in its second season is considered an established hit. “Danza” is, however, hurt nationally because it is buried in some markets, including L.A., where it plays at 2 a.m.
Success in syndication is a daunting task in the 500-channel era. Recent broadcast history is littered with talented men who tried to host daytime talkers, from Martin Short to Howie Mandel to Wayne Brady, without any lasting success. Why is Mr. Danza different?
“People have history with him,” said John Redmann, the show’s executive producer. “It’s different than certain comedians. Tony is somehow able to make you feel like he’s part of your family and that he’s one of you. Kind of like how Rosie represented the viewer at home, the fan at home, who’s just a regular person. Tony works because, first of all, he shows that hard work pays off. He works hard. Harder than any host who has entered this arena. And he has all those years in which he established good will with viewers. And he’s a natural interviewing people. He’s naturally curious. He’s always asking people questions. It’s the perfect venue for him.”
Mr. Redmann, 36, was previously showrunner for “The Wayne Brady Show,” which won an Emmy but never found a substantial audience. What is the difference? “Wayne off camera is pretty introverted,” Mr. Redmann said. “He’s very nice, but he tends to be shy. Tony is the life of the party. Seriously, he takes 10 minutes to walk down the block [in New York] because he’s talking to the phone repair man, the meter maid and the grandmother. He’s connecting. He connects with everybody.”
Mr. Danza said it is also about his life experience. He believes he could not have done a talk show back in the days he was acting in “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” “When I’m asked why I decided to do this, I say, first of all, I’ve got enough life experience. I’m old. I’ve been in the business a number of years, so this gives me a lot of relationships. This is huge, because if you came to me 10 years ago and asked me to do this, I don’t know if I could. But I’ve been doing my live act. I’ve been traveling the country playing all over the place-county fairs, casinos, performing arts centers. Working live has given me such a foundation. It was such a good training ground.”
Despite his broad experience, Mr. Danza takes direction easily and is willing to reinvent himself. “I talk to other actors about this a lot, especially guys that persevere, that stick around,” he said. “You’ve got to stay in the game. You’ve got to differentiate yourself. You’ve got to reinvent yourself here and there a little bit. You’ve got to stay away from the wrong thing and pick the right things, but you’ve got to stay in the game. I think it’s an American thing. If you stay in the game, maybe something will break for you. So I’m feeling pretty lucky.”
For weeks before his show aired, Mr. Danza was on the road doing promotion, interviews and public appearances, often for days at a time, in city after city. Buena Vista development VP Rob Morhaim called Mr. Danza extraordinarily likable, a quality he believes translates onto the small screen. “Likability is the No. 1 trait you must have to be successful in TV,” Mr. Morhaim said. “He’s got likability in spades. In every city we visited-Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix-it was the same. He’s approachable. Sometimes you can be intimidated by stardom. Nobody is ever intimidated by him because he’s so open. He allows them to embrace him.”
He goes along with all sorts of gags and stunts that his producers suggest, from being carried onstage by someone in a gorilla costume to climbing a wall. But he knows who he is. That is why he doesn’t do a monologue. He doesn’t tell jokes. “I want to do stories,” he explained. “I am a good storyteller. What I try to do is make the jokes seem like they are in the stories. I think it’s more of a host chat.”
He wants the show to be intelligent and topical, even if it is light entertainment. So he mixes political guests and topical subjects with his acting pals and cooking segments. But he knows in the end it is him the viewers tune in to watch.
“You know what’s funny?” Mr. Danza said. “People keep saying, `Just be yourself.’ And I keep thinking that can’t possibly be enough. But it’s like the more fun I have, the better it works.”