By Mike Lipton
September 20, 2004 12:00 PM

On the eve of his debut as a daytime talk show host, Tony Danza has a confession to make. “I’m scared stiff, you know?” says the former pugilist-turned-pugnacious star of Taxi, Who’s The Boss? and other sitcoms. Set to start just weeks after fellow daytime newbie Jane Pauley, “I’m up against Maury Povich, Ellen DeGeneres, Judge Judy—there’s a lot of competition. Do I wish everybody else stunk? Yes. That would be easy.” But, he adds philosophically, “you can’t think about that. All you can do is go out and try to do the best show you can.”

Danza is trying hard. Before several practice tapings leading up to The Tony Danza Show’s Sept. 13 premiere in syndication, he has researched the backgrounds of celeb guests like a quarterback poring over his playbook, trying to mine conversational nuggets. He’s even solicited advice from DeGeneres, his direct competition in many markets. Asked what her toughest challenge was, says Danza, “She said, ‘The fourth guest on the fifth day. You’ve got to stay with it. It’s a grind.’ ”

So far, though, it’s been a hoot. At a test taping in his Manhattan studio, the Brooklyn native rambles on about everyday family life with wife Tracy and their daughters Katie, 17, and Emily, 10, back home in L.A., and spars with sidekick Ereka Vetrini (see box), whom he playfully chides about her live-in boyfriend. “She’s living in sin, ladies and gentlemen!” The audience laps it up, applauding even when the Applause sign is off. Yet Danza is angling for an even bigger crowd. “I want to get out on the street,” he says. “I want to show America New York.”

“My dad is an attention hound,” jokes Marc Danza, 33, his son from an early first marriage. “He needs attention.” Following the failures of Hudson Street in 1995 and The Tony Danza Show two years later, recalls Marc, “He said, ‘If people don’t take me seriously, I’ll go back to the theater,’ ” where he got good notices in Kevin Spacey’s acclaimed 1999 revival of The Iceman Cometh. “He really perseveres.”

Now, as he works long hours prep-ping for his debut-week guests (including Regis Philbin, Paris Hilton and Jamie Lee Curtis), Danza, 53, is sweating it out in other ways. Thanks in part to daily 6 a.m. gym workouts (weight-lifting, push-ups—plus, “I’m a big recumbent bike guy”), he looks 10 years younger. “I love it,” he says. “You only get one body. And my body’s so out of warranty ’cause I hit that tree.”

Indeed, he has come a long way from the 1993 skiing accident that nearly killed him. “I was a mess,” says Danza, who spent a year and a half in rehab before he could walk again. “But I didn’t let it stop me. That’s when I decided to become a song-and-dance man.” He went out with a quartet, doing 75-minute sets. “The live act in Vegas was therapeutic for him,” says Marc. And, says his dad, “that ends up being my training ground for the talk show.”

A self-described “talk show junkie” since he first sat on Johnny Carson’s couch in the early ’80s (“I called him John!” he recalls, still mortified), Danza knows the odds of success are steep. “It’s crazy. It just feels right—and that’s scaring me!” he says. At least he has his family behind him. “When he brought this idea [of doing a talk show] to us, we just said, ‘If this is what you decide to do, we support you 100 percent,’ ” says Tracy, 45, his wife of 18 years. “This morning,” says Danza, who commutes home weekends, “I got up and there was a fax from Emmy. It said, T miss you so much. It’s very different around here. ‘And she says, ‘P.S., I got the coolest binder. It has two slots for every subject.’ I’ve been on TV since these kids were born, and she’s excited about her binder! My wife’s probably doing something right, not me, but it’s amazing.”

Mike Lipton. Mark Dagostino and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City