former Who’s the Boss? actor Danny Pintauro is staging a Hollywood comeback with his first major role in 30 years — a part in a Lifetime Christmas movie.
But it was a sci-fi series that inspired him to revive his career, which had largely faded since his eight-season stint playing Judith Light’s son on the ABC sitcom ended in 1992. While streaming Star Trek: Discovery at home in Austin last year, he watched as stars Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp, both openly gay, “had this beautiful kiss,” he says in the new issue of PEOPLE.
The moment resonated with Pintauro, 46, a self-described big believer in fate and signs from the universe. He had been publicly forced out of the closet by The National Enquirer in 1997, a time when there were hardly any out gay actors at all, let alone gay actors kissing on TV. As he marveled at how much has changed, Pintauro “was jealous,” he says. “It made me want to participate.”
It took it as a sign. “Something just clicked,” he says. “I finally felt ready.”
For years he wasn’t eager to get back in the game. “I had a lot of trauma from my time after Who’s the Boss?” he says. He became addicted to drugs, was diagnosed with HIV, struggled financially and faced professional rejection again and again.
He recalls thinking “maybe I was a child actor, and that’s all I was supposed to be.” But he now has the outlook of someone who’s survived the worst and knows better days lie ahead. “Possibilities,” he says, “are out there.”
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He was right to have faith. After telling his husband, Wil Tabares, 54, about his goal to get back into Hollywood, Pintauro quit his job as a veterinarian technician, called his former manager, secured his first audition and landed a role on A Country Christmas Harmony, playing the best friend and assistant to a country singer (Brooke Elliott) trying to boost her sagging career. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says of getting the very first gig he tried out for.
It had been decades since the New Jersey native had that kind of luck. His late mother, Margaret, a hairdresser turned talent agent, and father, John, who worked at a lumber store, got their only child into acting early. “Every single thing, I would get,” says Pintauro: commercials, the horror movie Cujo and, of course, Who’s the Boss?
The hit comedy (in its heyday it had 30 million viewers per week) about a live-in housekeeper (Tony Danza) for a successful ad exec (Light) turned Pintauro into a household name. But during the show’s later years when he was a teen, the actor says, producers “didn’t really know what to do with me.”
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Though he wasn’t yet out, Pintauro says his sexuality was obvious to others. “They didn’t feel like my character dating a girl was believable,” he says. So he was stuck with banal story lines like accidentally scratching a car. “I didn’t understand why,” says Pintauro, who thought, “They don’t want me to be here.” (Pintauro makes it clear that the feeling didn’t vote from his costars, including Light, Danza and Alyssa Milano, who were all “great,” he says.)
At the same time, he struggled socially at his LA school. “I just wanted to be a normal guy,” says Pintauro, who attended class in the morning before going to set. Once fellow students realized he wasn’t going to live up to a “celebrity vibe,” they ignored him. “I didn’t have friends,” he says. “So you’ve got two instances of me just not feeling wanted, and that stuck with me.”
When Boss wrapped its run in 1992, Pintauro threw himself into schoolwork and went to Stanford University, where he studied to become a veterinarian. By then, “acting was not in my realm of thought,” he says. But he failed chemistry and shifted gears into the theater program.
Then came the call from the inquirer threatening to reveal his sexuality. Pintauro, who was by then out to his friends and family, gave an interview to help control the narrative. “I’m trying to study, and suddenly I’m having to deal with this,” he says.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Though he says he was initially “angry,” he calmed down after fans let him know how much he inspired them following the publication of the article: “I’ve still got a box of letters from people across the country.”
After college he moved to New York City but struggled to find work as a theater director. He’d depleted much of his child-star savings by paying for Stanford, so he found odd jobs acting in plays or waiting tables. He also fell in with a bad crowd, partied at clubs and started doing drugs. “I was lost,” he says. “A year goes by, and I’m doing a lot of crystal meth.” During one sexual encounter while high on drugs, he contracted HIV.
New York “became an ugly place” with bad memories, says Pintauro, who began taking medication to treat the virus. For a fresh start, he moved back to LA, weaned himself off drugs without going to rehab and tried to get back into acting.
Alas, “auditions were very few and far between,” he says. Another ego blow: He was a punch line on a 2003 episode of Will & Grace. When his rep contacted the show to get Pintauro an appearance, they rebuffed him. “I said, ‘Well, if you won’t invite me on, I’ll buy my way on.'”
He bid on and won a walk-on role at a charity auction. But after what he terms “months of runaround” from the show, he decided not to film, he says. “It brought back all of that trauma of not feeling wanted.” It took it as a sign from the universe to move on from show business.
Pintauro tried his hand at random gigs: manager at a PF Chang’s, casting assistant and Tupperware sales consultant, which is how he met Tabares at a Tupperware party in 2012. An attraction sparked, and within two years they were married. “My husband,” says Pintuaro, “means everything to me.”
The pair settled down in Austin, where Pintauro trained to become a vet technician. They weren’t wealthy — “We’ve always just been getting by,” he says — but they were happy. “I certainly had a great life,” says Pintauro, who is healthy (his viral load is undetectable) and shares three rescue dogs with Tabares. “There was no reason to upset the balance.” Still, after seeing the Star Trek: Discovery kiss, Pintauro couldn’t get acting out of his head.
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Milano, his friend and former costar, is thrilled he’s making a comeback. “I’m very proud of Dan,” she says. “Not only for following his lifelong dream but even more so for being a good person and staying true to who he is despite the hardships he’s faced.”
The two may share the screen again on Amazon Freevee’s upcoming Who’s the Boss? sequel series, which will focus on Danza’s character and his daughter Samantha (Milano). Asked if he’ll appear, Pintauro is coy. “I’ve been involved in some conversations,” he says. But he’s also eager to prove he’s not just the kid from the sitcom: “I can play all kinds of parts.”
Pintauro, who recently relocated to the LA area with Tabares, is at peace with the idea of things not panning out, but he’s confident they will. “I can feel it in my gut,” he adds.
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A Country Christmas Harmony premieres on Lifetime Nov. 18.