It is 8 a.m. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and David Toma feels lousy. The former cop, whose daring undercover work inspired both Toma and Baretta, hit shows on ABC in the ’70s, continues to pay the price of his punishing calling. His body is decorated with scars and his face partially paralyzed from wounds inflicted during his 21 years with the Newark police department. He suffers from vertigo, he says, and a herniated disk in his lower back. Yet pain has not dimmed his flamboyance. His puffed, weary eyes are hidden behind Christian Dior sunglasses; his drip-dry shirt is unbuttoned to his sternum and a diamond the size of a cat’s eye sparkles on his left pinkie.
An hour later he arrives at a local private school to face a squirming audience of 450 preadolescents and teenagers. Easing himself gingerly out of a station wagon, he hitches up his slacks and spits in the gutter. Toma is ready to go onstage with his message: a shattering harangue against the dangers of drugs. “In 1961, when I was a cop,” he begins, “I saved a 3-year-old black boy from choking to death. When I got home, feeling so good because I had saved a life instead of locking someone up, my 5-year-old son, David, said, ‘Daddy, how did you do it?’ As I was showing him, I put my finger in his mouth and he began to gag. I became hysterical. I shook him and turned him upside down, screaming, ‘Please, baby, breathe!’ We called an ambulance and rushed him to the hospital. Within the hour that I had saved one small boy from dying,” says Toma, “my own son was dead.” (The child is believed to have died of acute edema of the larynx, a condition resulting in swelling which cuts off air supply.) Toma turned to tranquilizers, building a 100-pill-a-day addiction that jeopardized his job and marriage. “Finally,” he says, “one of my nephews, who had been an addict for 16 years, came to me and I said, ‘Ronnie, I need help.’ He stayed with me for seven, eight weeks, and it was an uphill struggle. Every time I got to the top I’d slide back down.”
Eventually, says Toma, he beat the habit, but that is not the lesson he is teaching today. “I used to box,” he tells the kids. “I played professional baseball. I was in good shape. I had a badge and a gun. I had it all together, I thought, and then one day it was gone. That’s how quickly it comes upon you, my friends, if you’re not ready for it.” For the next two hours he holds his audience spellbound—stabbing at the air, his voice rising to a shout and falling to a whisper, sometimes even choking back sobs as he recounts grisly horror tales of the side effects of drugs and alcohol. “Marijuana destroys your memory,” he roars. “Do you think God’s going to put another brain in there? Anytime you’re getting off through artificial stimulation, there is something wrong. It drags you down. It makes you lonely, depressed, suicidal…”
Toma may not be telling the kids anything they haven’t already heard from someone else, but because his approach is so wrenchingly personal, he is a difficult man to ignore. When, finally, he announces, “I’m here because I love you, and I’m not going to let you kill yourselves—you’re too precious,” the gym is filled with thunderous cheering. Throngs of children rush to touch him. Some beg for a word with him privately; a few sheepishly hand over their drugs. “I’ve heard a lot of b.s. lectures,” says one student, “but he made an impression on me I’ll never forget.”
The youngest of 12 children, Toma was born in a Newark ghetto, the son of an Italian immigrant tailor and a mother who was a Pentecostal missionary. “I knew what it was like to sleep with bedbugs,” says Toma. “I thought it was natural to be poor. I didn’t think about being unhappy.” After high school and a stint as a Marine drill instructor, he joined the police force at 22. “I became a policeman because I had three nephews who were heroin addicts,” he explains. “I lived in one of the most drug-dependent areas in the world, and I thought I could help.”
In 1961, after five years on the force, Toma began working undercover as a detective. Over the next 11 years he made some 7,000 arrests, compiling a phenomenal 98 percent conviction record, but did not endear himself to his colleagues. “No one wanted to work with him,” recalls one former cop. “He had his own little ways of doing things.” Explains Toma: “I was very creative. I developed about 30 disguises so I could mingle with the crowd. Some people asked, ‘What are you, a clown?’ ”
Filled with missionary zeal, Toma began speaking at schools free of charge. Frustrated when the kids didn’t pay attention (“I didn’t have a big enough name”), he phoned The Mike Douglas Show, gave the talent coordinator a phony name and told her about a cop named Toma who was a master of disguises. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll give you his number,’ ” he recalls, ” ‘but don’t tell him I told you because he doesn’t like things like this.’ A week later I was in Philadelphia doing the show.”
No sooner was he in front of the cameras than Toma’s robust ego broke free of its moorings. “I said, ‘Mike,’ ” he recalls, ” ‘someday I’m going to have a television series based on my life.’ Needless to say, everybody laughed at me like I was an idiot.” Back in Newark, however, no one was laughing. His family was embarrassed, and the chief of police ordered him to see a psychiatrist. “I told him, ‘I’m not crazy,’ ” he says. ” ‘I just have a dream.’ ” A month later Toma was invited to Hollywood. “I was there for five days and I learned something,” he says. “Want to see perversion? Want to see drugs? Go out there. That’s where it’s happening.” Disillusioned but not discouraged, Toma took a two-month leave of absence from police work, borrowed as much as he could from his family, and continued pushing his idea for a series. The result was Toma in 1973, starring Tony Musante, followed when he quit a year later by Baretta, with Robert Blake.
After taking another leave in 1972, Toma began a full-time career as an author and lecturer. “When our son passed away,” says his wife, Pat, “David felt so helpless. But this is a way he can reach people.” Living now in central New Jersey with Pat, 45, and their four surviving children, Toma is on the road 200 days a year and commands $2,500 per day. It is good money, but not taken casually. After each engagement, he counsels dozens of kids individually, and refuses to accept any date that does not include a session with parents as well. “If you want to see your kids, look in the mirror,” he tells them. “You can’t walk around with a cigarette and tell them, ‘Don’t smoke.’ You can’t get bombed and tell them, ‘Don’t drink.’ ”
Given the emotional pitch of every appearance, it seems remarkable even to Toma that he hasn’t burned himself out. But he sees no alternative to the spellbinding style that threatens to consume him. “I’m reliving it all as I tell the story of David,” he explains, “and it’s very painful. But how else am I going to get my message across? If I went out there and said, ‘Listen, kids, hi, how are ya? I want to talk to you about marijuana,’ I’d lose them. Let’s face it,” he adds, “I’m an actor. Not an actor like in Hollywood. I can only do what I feel in my heart. I’m motivated by saving kids’ lives.”