December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

It’s a challenge few would undertake: Erase all traces of actor Tony Danza’s heavy-as-lead Brooklyn accent for his current four-episode stint as a smooth-talking lawyer on ABC’s The Practice. Even the former Taxi star, who has made a career out of saying “don’t bodder” instead of “don’t bother,” knew it wouldn’t be easy. “PEOPLE magazine once called me the preeminent dese, dem and doser,” Danza, 47, admits with a hearty laugh. “I was looking for someone to take that out of my speech, so it wasn’t the only thing I was known for.”

Who did he call? Speech pathologist Sam Chwat (pronounced schwah), a modern-day Henry Higgins who de-Brooklynized Danza’s diction in just a month. As good at adding accents as he is at vaporizing them, Chwat conjured up a Cajun accent for actress Fairuza Balk, costar of the Adam Sandler smash The Waterboy, and has also worked with such stars as Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio. “He’s one of the best teachers of dialect in the U.S. right now,” says acting coach Harold Guskin, who has sent Matt Dillon, Jon Bon Jovi and others Chwat’s way. “It’s amazing the number of dialects Sam knows.”

Yet A-list celebrities are not the only ones paying up to several thousand dollars to have Chwat, 45, tinker with their tones. The founder of New York Speech Improvement Services, which employs eight therapists and treats some 200 clients a week, Chwat spends most of his 50-to 60-hour weeks working with executives, broadcasters, diplomats and politicians. “People discriminate based on speech,” says Chwat, whose own accent betrays no trace of his Brooklyn roots. “I get clients who are tired of people thinking they’re going to blow up a building because they have an Iranian accent.”

Chwat’s secret? Hard work, he insists, plus a trusty tape recorder and a keen ear for cadence. “I’ve always had an inclination for playing with speech,” says Chwat, “and I’ve been a pretty good mimic since I was a boy.” Raised in Brooklyn’s working-class Williamsburg section by a trucking-company owner and his homemaker wife, both deceased, Chwat turned his avocation into a master’s degree in speech pathology from New York City’s Columbia University. His first job was tutoring hospital patients with speech disorders and hearing impairments.

Then, in 1978, a colleague referred him to an executive who was seeking to mask his Spanish accent. Chwat isolated sounds in the man’s speech that differed from Standard American English and devised innovative drills that enabled him to alter his pronunciation. He then helped another executive’s daughter lose her southern accent for a TV commercial. “That’s when the business took off,” says Chwat. “Six months later I was doing this full-time.”

One of his first celebrity clients was actress Andie MacDowell, who came to Chwat after her southern drawl had to be dubbed over in the 1984 movie Grey stoke. “Word got out in the industry that I could help actors,” says Chwat, who has also recorded three audio books about accent elimination. “Sam’s a workaholic,” says his wife, Susan, 45, an audiologist in her husband’s office. “But he also has the good fortune of loving his work.” And he has passed his affection for inflection on to daughters Alexandra, 13, Joanna, 9, and Elena, 6. “My kids like to imitate people on TV,” says Chwat, “and of course they imitate me.”

So consumed is Chwat that he even puts his craft to use at parties. “If a person I’m talking to is boring,” he confesses, “I start analyzing their speech patterns.” It’s that kind of focus that makes clients like Danza glad they boddered—er, bothered—to sign up with Chwat. “He makes it easy,” says Danza. “And that’s what a great teacher does.”

Alex Tresniowski

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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