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Ex-Rep-starís sitcom is in for a battle [ - ]
by mich_l81
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Author: Mike Drew

Source: Milwaukee Journal, The

Date: 09/23/1984

Topic: Judith Light, Who's the Boss?, Tony Danza

Submitted by: mich_l81

Ex-Rep-star's sitcom is in for a battle

By Mike Drew


Making a new TV series would be more pressure than many of us could handle. (Sure, the money would make it easier.)

Waiting out first ratings for her new, “Who’s the Boss?” on ABC, ex-Milwaukee-Rep-star Judith Light has the usual survival sweats. Opposite “Magnum P.I.” and “Family Ties” on Thursday nights, her show needs at last a 25% audience share to last very long.

While studying lines, rehearsing and taping this summer, Light also worried that her co-star, Tony Danza, was headed for jail.

In July, Danza and a friend were convicted of beating up a security guard during a restaurant brawl. Monday, Danza was sentenced to three years probation and 250 hours of community service. The men also were ordered to pay New York’s Mayflower Hotel $1,385 for damage to furniture.

Danza could have gotten a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A jail term would have endangered “Who’s the Boss?”

In a phone chat after the sentencing, Light told me: “I’m relieved and glad. He’s my friend and a man of high moral standing and incredible values. New York will get quality time, and part of him will enjoy giving it. Let’s forget about the series, this is his life.”

Admirable sentiments. But Light would be astounding if she could “forget about the series,” one of the biggest breaks in her 15-year career. Raised in Trenton, N.J., she attended St. Mary’s Hall, a private girls’ high school, and drama school at Carnegie-Mellon University.

After graduation, she spent three seasons as principal ingénue with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Rep fans will recall her brilliant Emily in “Our Town” and Isabella in “Measure for Measure.”

After a season with the Seattle Rep, she felt ready for New York and soon landed a tiny role in a Lincoln Center production of “A Doll’s House,” with Liv Ullmann. Covering the theater scene in New York then, I visited Light backstage after the show. When she asked if I’d met Ullmann, I replied that she wasn’t available.

“Baloney!” roared Light. She jumped up, grabbed my arm, dragged me to Ullmann’s dressing room and knocked on the door. Out walked Liv Ullmann, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Even in that company, Light seemed pretty much at home. But after the good theater roles stopped coming for a time, her agent asked her to audition for understudy work on the soap opera “One Life to Live.”

“Understudy on a soap opera?” she groaned. And though the classically trained actress once said she’d never do soaps or sitcoms, hunger prevailed. (A “One Life” castmate was Erika Slezak, a Milwaukee Rep star in the 1960s.)

By the time Light left the soap five years later, she’d made her character, Karen Wolek, a national favorite. And won two daytime Emmys, two Soapies and the Soap Opera Hall of Fame award.

Then it was off to Los Angeles and a stab at primetime. In “Intimate Agony,” a telefilm about herpes, she co-starred with another daytime product, “General Hospital’s” Tony Geary. Then came guest shots on a string of series and, last spring, “Who’s the Boss?”

It’s a stock domestic sitcom, with two cute kids, a mother-in-law (Katherine Helmond of “Soap”) and a twist: Danza plays housekeeper to advertising executive Angela (Light). He’s hired through the Helmond character’s intercession:

“A man can do meaningless, unproductive work as well as a woman. And we’re talking here about mucho macho!”

Indeed, “Boss” is built around Danza’a appeal, which caused a commotion for five seasons on “Taxi.” An underlying theme in “Boss”: the sexual tension of two attractive, unmarried adults sharing the same house.

Late in Thursday’s premiere, Tony interrupts a passionate clinch between Angela and her boss. It takes place on the kitchen floor where they’ve been picking up a valuable broken dish.

“I care enough to break the very best,” says Angela in one of the show’s several lines straight out of “How to Write for Sitcoms.” In another, Light growls at her son: “I’m warning you, Joan Crawford was my idol!”

How many 7-year-olds, do you suppose, would understand that? Next week’s installment is built around Tony surprising Angela while she’s taking a bubble bath. Light concedes: “This series isn’t ‘Medea.’”

But some lines work, and Danza-Light make an appealing pair. With enough help from “People Do the Craziest Things,” which precedes it, “Boss” could make it.

But what’s a classical actress doing in a sitcom? For that matter, what was Judith Light doing spending five years in a soap opera? Besides making money.

“Money isn’t it,” she insisted. “You can survive doing repertory theater. I’m here to make a larger name for myself so I can do more work. You create your own life. All experiences are for learning and growing.

“One reason that the Karen Wolek character was so strong is that I was theater-trained. And I’ll bring that same thing to this sitcom.

“Tony and I have different backgrounds; he was a boxer who was ‘discovered’ for movies [“Fast Lane Blues”]. We’re learning from each other. Our styles are different, but the chemistry works. And, unlike the soap opera, I’m performing in front of a live audience again; it’s like doing theatrical comedy.”

In Los Angeles this summer when I’d interviewed Danza and Light together, he took over. And when this tough-talking Brooklynite wants to dominate, even a strong-willed actress like Judith Light can’t get in the way.

He said his boxing career ended with a 12-3 record because “my eyes were in the back of my head.”

As he climbed aboard “Taxi,” working with such trained actors as Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito worried him a lot. “But they welcomed me with open arms. That training ground changed my life.”

But not entirely. The day in 1983 he learned that “Taxi” was canceled, Danza got into a public fight with a boxing promoter. Then came the hotel brawl, which Danza said was self-defense. (The judge called that claim “absurd.”)

Despite his “dese-dem-dose” vernacular, Danza seems pretty gentle on the tube. What, I asked Light, is he really like?

“Charming, with the wonderment and aliveness of a child. There are no stops on his creativity, and he’s exciting to watch. And he’s a gorgeous hunk, even better looking in person.”

So he makes a nice match for Light, with her wavy blonde hair and brown eyes. Unmarried, she’s been seeing actor Robert Desiderio, her castmate on “One Life to Live,” for three years.

How would she describe “Who’s the Boss?”

“It’s a show about relationships, using humor to show people learning from each other. There’s some double entendre but it’s all right for kids. There are children in it, and they’re funny, warm and intelligent. But the show is mostly about Tony, Katherine and myself.”

Eventually, Light hopes to do movies and more classics. “I love to act, to reach out and communicate with people, to sculpt with my emotions. I find the human psyche fascinating.”

She’s proud of the learning years she spent in Milwaukee. And of her Rep colleagues also making it in Hollywood and New York: Jeff Tambor, Charles Kimbrough, Raye Birk, Candace Barrett and others.

Here, a ringing phone interrupted.

“I’ve got to grab that,” she said, “the pump in our swimming pool is broken.”

Despite her fond memories of Milwaukee and the theater, it seems clear that, for now at least, Judith Light has gone Hollywood.

But she hasn’t sold out. After years of polishing her dramatic skills on soap opera, Light has changed direction to brush up on comedy. There, she’s always had a light touch.

But there’s peril here. In TV, you’re as hot as your current show. And if “Who’s the Boss?” crashes, Light could get caught in the wreckage. For an actress only about five years away from Hollywood’s disposable 40s, that could be dangerous to her health.

What then? Well, there’s always “Medea.”