“Toma” and the Unthinkable Decision of Tony Musante

Do you remember Toma (1973-74)? I do. I was just a kid, but I watched all the cop shows, and this was a successful one. Tony Musante (1936-2013) played real-life Newark cop David Toma, an officer with a legendary arrest record putting away drug dealers. Simon Oakland (later of Kolchak: The Night Stalker) was his superior officer in the department. Susan Strasberg played his wife. Unlike the majority of television shows, Toma did not flop. After a moderately successful first season, a second one was ordered. There was only one problem: Musante wasn’t interested. He never had been. When he had agreed to do the series, the actor had announced his intention to do only one season, and he stood by his original declaration. The producers had assumed that stance to have been a negotiating tactic. After all, wouldn’t you? What was he, crazy?

Toma undercover as a real cool construction worker

And that’s always been my overall feeling whenever I thought of this well-known incident (we’ll get back to why this incident remains well-known): “What was he? Crazy?”. Most actors would KILL for a successful series. It’s the goal. You have a steady gig for a lengthy period, you’ll get residuals, you have a high profile that helps with later casting, etc etc etc. That’s how most actors think and operate, which is very sensible.

But there is another path, one that is often discussed, but seldom taken, and this is the one Musante took. What if you really love acting for its own sake, and you prefer the challenges of taking lots of roles so much that you don’t want to be locked into one thing, and that’s not just bullshit, but you really mean it? Such was the case with Musante, and he proved it. He wasn’t in it for the fame, but for the love of the work itself. I’ve never been one to particularly regard that stance as the intrinsic virtue everyone loves to pay lip service to. But on the other hand, Musante’s years of solid performances don’t deserve to be dismissed either. It’s a body of work to be proud of, even if most of it has to be excavated nowadays.

Musante studied at HB Studios and worked in off-Broadway theatre before breaking into films and tv. One of his earliest projects was the TV movie Ride with Terror (1963), which was adapted into the cinematic release The Incident (1967), a fascinating time capsule I stumbled onto a few years ago because of its all-star cast. Musante and Martin Sheen play a couple of hoodlums who terrorize the people on a New York subway car late at night. The train passengers are Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Ed McMahon, Gary Merrill, Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, etc. Following a role in The Detective (1968) with Frank Sinatra, he also began to take roles in lots of Italian films (which gave him bigger roles), such as Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968), and Argento’s The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970). He’s 3rd billed in Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971), with Kim Darby, Scott Wilson, Connie Stevens, and Robert Lansing. After leaving Toma, Musante didn’t just drop off the face of the earth. His biggest profile was immediately thereafter, when he did a couple of Broadway shows, and starred as the title character in the TV movie Judgment: The Court Martial of Lt. William Calley (1975). He was nominated for an Emmy for a 1975 episode of Medical Story. Most of the time he was cast as mafia thugs in things like Origins of the Mafia (1976), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and Oz (1997).

And what of the show Musante left behind? When life hands you lemons, make a limonata. A new actor was brought in to play the part — Robert Blake. Once he was cast the series was retooled entirely, and it became Baretta. This wasn’t the only other hit detective show spawned by Toma. The series that became The Rockford Files began its life as a script for an episode for Toma’s second season. (Ironically, Musante would later appear as a guest star on The Rockford Files, in an unrelated character). But this is why Musante’s decision became sort of legendary — his decision to leave resulted in two monster hits.