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What kind of a man is Monk?

Detective skills have come in handy as Tony Shalhoub explores, connects with his heritage.

January 01, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

BEFORE Tony Shalhoub broke through as the obsessive-compulsive detective Monk, the Lebanese American actor had compiled a long list of supporting characters with widely diverse names: Haddad ("The Siege"), Kwan ("Galaxy Quest"), Scarpacci ("Wings"), Reyes ("Primary Colors") and Riedenschneider ("The Man Who Wasn't There"). Now it's the talent, not the ethnic look, that people notice. This year, he has again been nominated for a Golden Globe, and he won his third Emmy for "Monk," USA Network's highest-rated show, which will start Season 5 1/2 in January.

Lately, Shalhoub, 53, has been adding to his resume not only as an actor but also as a producer and advocate, reaching back to his Arab American roots. One of his projects, an upcoming independent film called "American East," tells about ordinary Arab Americans in Los Angeles whose everyday lives and plans have been altered by 9/11.

"Spike Lee had his agenda and his vision. It's been done in the Hispanic American community," Shalhoub said. His own 1996 film with Stanley Tucci, "Big Night," dealt with Italian American restaurateurs who had nothing in common with underworld stereotypes.

"If ever there was a time for it to be done for the Arab American community, it's now," he said. "It's now or never as far as I'm concerned."

If he hadn't succeeded as Monk, an everyman character of indeterminate ethnicity, it might have been more difficult for him to be a successful advocate, said Hesham Issawi, director of "American East." "People don't even realize he has a Lebanese background. He has the money, the artistic power and the influence in Hollywood to make some change in the image. And he's not afraid of doing it."

Yet Shalhoub had already helped improve the public image of Arab Americans simply by being himself, Issawi said. "He's an inspiration," he said. "You can see it on the set. They all look up at him. He's a generous guy. He doesn't walk in as a star."

In a modest neighborhood near Hollywood and Vine, lights and cameras were trained on the star, standing nervously on a cracked sidewalk. Dressed in his detective's trademark buttoned-to-the-throat shirt, he squinted and blinked, his mouth struggling in vain to form words to defend himself from a barrage of verbal abuse from a fellow actor playing his part.

Beaten, he turned and shuffled off, a sad shadow of the usually sharp-eyed detective.

It's the sort of physical performance that stage actors like Shalhoub are trained to do and one reason Emmy voters like him. This year, they surprised him with his third honor for comedic acting despite expectant buzz surrounding Steve Carell ("The Office").

Critics admire his ability to shift moods on a dime, a trait the show's writers like to exploit. "Writing for Tony Shalhoub's voice is like writing for Bob Newhart," said co-creator and executive producer Andy Breckman. "It's all about pacing, timing, the pauses."

He said that after five years the writers try to come up with situations just to see how the actor will handle them. "We throw different pitches at the plate to see if he can hit it. It's like a game for us. We did an episode where he went through all five stages of grief in 30 seconds."

In "star math," the relationship of an actor's ego to his talent, Shalhoub also comes out on top, said Jeff Wachtel, USA's senior vice president of original programming. "Tony has the best ratio I've ever seen," Wachtel said. "It's so little about his ego and so much about the quality of the work and his fellow actors, it just makes people want to vote for him."

Shalhoub said he's never considered himself a comedian. "The beauty of 'Monk' for an actor is that it presents the ideal challenge, which is doing comedic stuff and dramatic stuff all together," he said. Monk's humor comes from his being a tragic clown along the lines of Charlie Chaplin, Shalhoub said.

Sometimes, Shalhoub thinks viewers aren't sure why they're laughing or even if it's OK to laugh. "Like Chaplin too, he's kind of alone. He has his assistant and people he works with, but he doesn't have that soul mate that completes him. He feels incomplete."

In recent years, Shalhoub branched out from acting to direct ("Made-Up" with his wife, Brooke Adams) and produce (as a creative force in casting, writing and editing on "Monk"). Still, he said, he can't quit acting. "I just love it," he said.

During a break in shooting, he spoke in a normal voice but carried on Monkish characteristics as he shifted on his tall director's chair, hugged his chest and twitched. Was he, perhaps, uncomfortable? "No ... no," he said in Monk's hesitant, half-polite, half-shy manner. And then, "Yes."

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