"I know I have a vowel at the end of my name, which would eliminate me in some circles," Tony Danza says of his star turn in "The Producers," playing fast-talking schnorrer Max Bialystock.
But Mel Brooks' comedy is also a tribute to a city, and streetwise con artists are part of New York's mythology. The 57-year-old actor always thought Max was "less Jewish and more New York -- a New York conniver -- than anything else."
Some people needed to warm up to the idea of Danza playing the role created by Nathan Lane on Broadway. Danza wasn't one of them. The actor was in the musical's audience during its first week on Broadway and "one of the only things I remember, besides liking the show, was going, 'Gee, I think I could play that part.' I always thought I could play Max. I really did."
The "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss" star ended up being Broadway's last Max; the show closed in April, four months after Danza went in. Now he comes to Las Vegas, joining the local edition of "The Producers" on Monday for a contract scheduled at least to December.
But Danza is no stranger to this town, and his past work on the Strip helps explain how he found his way back.
For the past 11 years, the actor has performed a throwback casino nightclub act, which he believes has a direct connection to the old-school charms of "The Producers."
"Playing live changed my whole life," he says. "It made me such a better performer. It made me a better actor. If you can be unself-conscious up there playing live, then you can be unself-conscious anywhere."
The urge to follow in the tradition of classic Vegas headliners goes way back for the Brooklyn-born performer. "This is every Italian's dream," he would tell early audiences. Danza first tested comedy and tap-dancing as an Atlantic City opening act while "Who's the Boss" was still a prime-time hit in the mid-1980s.
But Danza had no early dreams of stardom. He attended college in Iowa on a wrestling scholarship before returning to New York to work various odd jobs and compete as a boxer. Producers of the 1979 action hit "The Warriors" were ringside witnesses to one of his knockouts and suited him up for a part in the flick. But before cameras rolled, Danza bumped into TV writer James L. Brooks, who instead lured the unknown to be part of the ensemble cast of "Taxi."
That show and "Who's the Boss" ran a combined 13 TV seasons, guaranteeing Danza eternal life in syndication. But a serious 1993 skiing accident brought on a period of soul-searching, in which the actor contemplated the things he hadn't yet done in life.
He decided to make one unrealized dream come true three years later, telling his debut audience, "I'm at The Mirage. I'm usually doing this in my garage!"
By the time he returned to the Desert Inn in 1998, the act had noticeably improved. "Nobody can teach you this, you gotta go do it," he says now. "I started at resorts and then I played county fairs. I should have started the other way around. The only way you get good at it is to go out there and fail or do well, and see what worked and what didn't work. You start putting it together."
By the time Danza played the Suncoast and Orleans in 2002 and 2003, he had shorn the act of variety numbers with costumed dancers. "What happens is, we shed the trappings as we get more secure."
Mel Brooks was among those who caught his show at the Desert Inn. And it turns out that Danza once auditioned with "The Producers" director Susan Stroman for a planned stage version of "The Night They Raided Minsky's."
"I couldn't do a Russian accent, so I think I got disqualified, but she remembered me from that," he says. "After I got the offer, I flew to New York to see the play again and to meet with her. She opened the door and said, 'Remember me?' "
Stroman also had decided Danza could play Max by watching his syndicated talk show, which was canceled last year. Danza had been offered the Billy Flynn role in "Chicago" -- one which producers "stunt-cast" with a revolving list of celebrities to maintain interest -- but it didn't strike his fancy.
"But trying to do Max, that's a part," he says. "That takes some chops. And some guts. This is the greatest character, he's the center of attention. He's got a tremendous intention through the whole play; some place he's trying to get to. Everything keeps conspiring against him, but he's trying to get there."
The "Chicago" ploy is very much at work on the Strip, with the real producers of "The Producers" betting on Danza's likability and a fan base that lies beyond Broadway theater, the same traits that motivated the casting of David Hasselhoff (in a different role) before him.
The actor knew traditional theatergoers needed convincing, but the vote of confidence from Brooks and Stroman counted more. "They're very picky about who they're going to put in the play and how it's done," Danza says.
People are "snooty" about stunt-casting, he adds, "but if you sell tickets they're awful happy about it. It's a weird contradiction."