ONE OF the first lessons Tony Danza taught his students at Northeast High School last fall was to keep their hands clean.
There he is, in the pilot of his new "reality" show, pointing 10th-grade English students toward the hand-sanitizer dispensers he's stationed just inside his classroom door.
When "Teach: Tony Danza" premieres Oct. 1 on A&E, Philadelphians and viewers across the country will finally get a chance to assess the results of an experiment in which the former sitcom star spent a year living in Northern Liberties and teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Julius Caesar" - as well as a bit of hygiene - to two sections of students at Northeast.
Danza, who's 59 and talks about being able to "smell 60," seemed willing enough to shake a reporter's hand - no Howie Mandel fist bump for him - during an interview earlier this month in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he was promoting what he calls his "responsible reality show" during the Television Critics Association's summer meetings.
So what's up with the germ patrol?
"I'm not Howie Mandel, but if you remember, at the beginning of the school year, we were faced with the possibility of a swine-flu epidemic. And I just thought - I am a little nutty," Danza said, looking a little sheepish as he pulled a small bottle of sanitizer from a pocket.
And, OK, yes, he installed the dispensers himself.
"I decorated my room. But I gave everyone a small bottle. And I said, 'If you have this at [the end of] each marking period, I'll give you extra credit,' " he said.
He provided the sanitizer for refills, "and a lot of them did it . . . Don't get me wrong. [It's not as if] singlehandledly we took care of the swine flu in Philadelphia, but we had a pretty healthy class."
Initially, at least, it was also a fairly skeptical one, with students who'd been chosen to be in Danza's classes - and had agreed to be filmed - expressing concern that the actor was up to the job.
They weren't the only ones. Danza, an emotional guy who gets teary more than once in the first episode, recalled one instance, caught on film, in which "I'm crying one night by myself, thinking what have I done and I say, I mean, 'Would I want my daughter in this class?' And at that moment, I didn't know. But now? I think I would be OK."
One thing that made it OK, legally, was the presence in the classroom of a certified "co-teacher," David Cohn, who observed and advised Danza, who holds a college degree but wasn't able to obtain teaching certification before the show began production last year. (It's also apparently why Danza was only able to teach two classes, instead of the full schedule most teachers carry, since Cohn also worked with other first-year teachers.)
Cohn's "job was just to assist him," Northeast principal Linda Carroll said in an interview later the same day in Beverly Hills, where she'd appeared at a press conference to promote the show. Though skeptical herself, at first - she can be seen in the Oct. 1 episode warning him, "If this doesn't work, you're out of here" - she said she "was ready to put him in a classroom alone," if not for the lack of certification.
A year later, she's sold on Danza as a teacher.
"I don't have to be here and tell you anything except the absolute truth. You could feel comfortable with your [child] in this class," she said.
As to the actor's commitment, "The cameras were gone in April. He was there in June, you know what I'm saying, being a teacher in that classroom."
Danza, who has a young grandson and whose younger daughter, Emily, is still in high school, lived in Northern Liberties for the school year, making it back to California for Christmas but not for Thanksgiving.
Over the course of that year, the one-time star of "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss" turned down roles on both Broadway and TV.
"I turned down 'La Cage Aux Folles.' I turned down that Kelsey Grammer part," Danza told reporters. "It's been killing me ever since. Don't think it hasn't."
He insisted, though, that "Teach" isn't really a show about a celebrity teaching high school.
"I'm not a celebrity, really. I've just been sort of out of it for so long. I had the talk show," but high school students, "they don't know me from nobody! They were like, 'I think my mother's a fan,' you know, that was all it was. So they didn't really have to get over that. They Googled me and they found out and I told them stuff, and then I showed them a little stuff later on in the year. But I didn't dwell on that, I stayed away from it. Because this thing about being the teacher was the most important thing, even more important than the show was being a teacher," he said.
"I know you kids signed up for this . . . but you didn't sign away your 10th grade," he said. "It's very important that you learn, you know, '[Of] Mice and Men' and the elements of plot and the who, what and why if someone's a hero, or a flawed hero and 'Mockingbird' and 'Julius Caesar,' it's important that you learn that. And just because we're doing a TV show, that doesn't excuse us. We can't make a game out of this."
Tenth grade was important, he said, because it's "your turning point."
"One of my big lessons was . . . get smart early. Don't get smart late. Don't wait till you're 18 to get smart," Danza said, noting that he himself wasn't much of a student in high school.
Decades later, he still feared some aspects of high school English.
"I was so afraid of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was coming. I was like, geez, how do I do this?" he said. "It was the most fun I had."
Turns out "Julius Caesar" could be used to illustrate one of Danza's favorite life lessons.
"Get smart early, right? 'In the affairs of men, there is a tide. Taken at its flood, leads on to good fortune,' " he said in a slight rearrangement of Brutus' famous speech. " 'Omitted,' " and the rest of your life is mired 'in shallows and miseries.'
"What does that mean? What is he saying? He's saying, get smart early."
The search is on for Daily News readers who'd like to participate in my 16th annual Everybody's a Critic evenings, weighing in on some of the fall TV pilots.
The coupon's in today's paper. Reading online? For details (including guidelines for this year's first-ever Twitter component), see: www.philly.com/DNCritic.