By Tom Gliatto
October 30, 1995 12:00 PM

TONY DANZA LOOKS EMBARRASSED—and, at the same time, slightly defiant. The onetime professional middleweight fighter, who has just returned to prime time in what looks likely to be his third hit series, ABC’s Hudson Street, is frustrated about his reputation as a bully. In fact, he says, “what I have a problem with is discourteousness. I respond in kind.”

Example: On the afternoon of Aug. 20, according to a police report, Danza was talking with a neighbor on the beach in front of his rustic Malibu home with daughters Katie, 8, and Emily Lyn, 2, when he spotted two freelance tabloid photographers videotaping them. After they drove away, an enraged Danza headed them off in his Cadillac and bumped the front of their car. Then he leaped out of his car, kicked in the passenger window and snatched away the camera.

Danza refuses to comment on the incident (no charges were filed against him), but his friend and former Taxi costar Marilu Henner says, “It’s too bad he couldn’t have pulverized them.” Danza just lets that familiar disarming grin spread across his face. “I’m the nicest guy in the world,” he says, sitting on the deck at home and looking out at the ocean. “Why should I be mad? Things are great.”

No one would fight him on that one. Hudson Street, a romantic comedy in which Danza, 44, plays a Hoboken cop learning to love a newspaper reporter (Lori Loughlin of Full House), has earned good reviews and, partly because it’s nestled between Roseanne and Home Improvement on Tuesdays, has become an instant Top 10 hit. Lately, Danza, who is also the show’s executive producer, has been literally tap-dancing with pleasure on the set. “He’s got the energy of an 18-year-old,” says Loughlin.

That he’s on his feet at all is indeed cause for rejoicing. After ending an eight-year run on ABC’s Who’s the Boss? in 1992, Danza faced a year of nearly nonstop trauma, beginning in June 1993, when his mother, Anne Iadanza, a bookkeeper, died of brain cancer at 67. For her last six months, Danza cared for her in the Malverne, N.Y., house where he grew up with his brother Matty, 41, who works in the restaurant business. (Their father, also named Matty, a garbage collector, died in 1983, of lung cancer.) Even now, Danza says, he catches himself absentmindedly dialing his mother’s number, “and I still find myself crying.”

On the morning of Dec. 28, 1993, Danza was musing sadly over having passed his first Christmas without her. He had spent the holiday at his mountain retreat in Deer Valley, Utah, with his wife of nine years, Tracy, now 36, their daughters and Marc, his 24-year-old son by his first marriage, to college sweetheart Rhonda Yeomen. At 9 a.m., when the hills were still shrouded in fog, he headed for the top of the mountain.

The meager snow covering the slopes was hard-packed and icy. Danza got only about 100 yards down Birds-eye, an intermediate trail he had skied hundreds of times, when he skidded out of control. “It wasn’t like I panicked,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Okay, get your feet in front and stop yourself.’ That’s the last thing I remember.” He fell, lost his skis and slammed backward into a tree. His injuries were massive: two broken vertebrae, crushed ribs, a collapsed lung and a bruised liver and kidney. His right leg was pulled out of the hip socket. “It was like having a car accident,” says Danza, “without the car.”

After being rescued by ski patrol within minutes and loaded onto a sleigh, Danza was relieved that he had some sensation in his ski boot. His first fear, he says, was paralysis. He was rushed by ambulance to Park City Medical Center and eventually transferred to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, where a team of spinal specialists decided to operate as soon as he stopped bleeding internally. Tracy stayed close by for his three weeks in the hospital. “He didn’t want me to leave,” she says, “and I couldn’t. We were both very scared.”

In a 4-hour operation on New Year’s Day, surgeons inserted three metal rods into Danza’s lower back. Afterward he was in intensive care for two weeks and dropped 25 pounds from his 5’11”, 165-lb. frame before embarking on what would become a grueling, yearlong physical-therapy regimen. “I tried to be the best patient ever,” he says. “I really had trouble thinking about what my life would be like if I wasn’t me anymore.”

But before he could start rehab, he had to face another crisis. Still dependent on a walker, Danza left the hospital on Jan. 14, and he and Tracy returned to their home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Three days later the Northridge earthquake hit. “The house exploded,” says Danza, who was sleeping upstairs when the quake struck at 4:31 a.m. “The bed almost hit the ceiling. I just hung on to Tracy.” His daughters’ bedroom wall collapsed; the girls made it out with the help of a housekeeper. Danza followed downstairs with his walker. “He was pretty amazing,” says Tracy.

The family relocated to a rental home, then moved permanently to their Malibu beach house. Danza’s gym, located on the site of the demolished Sherman Oaks house, survived the quake, and he now trains there regularly. His rehab started with short walks—first around his Malibu living room, then down the street. He was so slow, he says, that “old ladies used to pass me.” Today he can do 1,000 sit-ups without breaking a sweat.

And, yes, Danza can tell you what he learned from all this. “It’s called the present,” he says, “because it’s a gift.”