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A Hands-On Actor

January 18, 2007 By:
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It's flu season, Monk -- wash your hands!

As if ...

The USA OCD detective -- whose self-named series resumes its fifth season this Friday on the cable network -- has his hands full once more ... but is it with Purel?

"That's funny, that's all news to me," muses Tony Shalhoub of the rumor that his TV alter-ego considers the popular hand-wash the Product of the Century.

But, then, Shalhoub's cleaned up in Emmy-land by portraying the obsessive-compulsive-disorder detective with a knack for law and order, winning so many awards they just have to be stacked -- neatly, of course -- on some very clean shelf somewhere in the mythical detective's home.

Not that Shalhoub shares the OCD with his crime-fighting partner; just the fame and fortune that comes with playing the straight shooter -- with the occasional odd-ball bounce -- that he is.

As the season series resumes this Friday, Monk picks up where he left off -- using life as a game of 52 pick-up that he'd rather not touch. But, finally after all this time and neuroses, Monk makes nice with another guy, finding a friend.

Of course, that friend is one seditiously essayed by Andy Richter, so losers can't be choosers.

But then one would be at a loss to call the mixed-up Monk a loser. A man who's just a sneeze away from soulful satisfaction, Monk fishes for friendship and finally finds enjoyment at a hockey game with his newfound homeboy, Hal (Richter).

But how will it end? Ultimately, Monk discovers, the puck stops here.

But it's only the beginning for Shalhoub, the "Wings" nut of a romantic cabbie who fared well in the popularity meter on that '90s sitcom, seguing into that comedy from a series of other notable roles. But it is Monk, the most ascetic role of all, that also provides the most aesthetic of portrayals.

Who's Normal Anyway?
"The beauty of the part," says the actor married in real life to the most beautiful Brooke Adams, whom he met when both co-starred in Broadway's "The Heidi Chronicles" a sweet 16 years ago, "is that sometimes I open a script and discover things I hadn't thought of. This whole notion of [Monk] needing a best friend hadn't occurred to me."

But nobody gets the best of Monk.

Maybe, it is suggested, his character can do a cross-over with Howie Mandel, the proudly OCD poster boy of NBC's "Deal or No Deal"?

Deal? Shalhoub chuckles at the notion, but gets an even bigger laugh out of himself. "In the five years I've spent living with the character, I see him as more and more normal. And the more I think about his problem, now it becomes my problem."

Indeed, maybe Monk had a hand in a little dilemma that ate away at Shalhoub in a recent restaurant visit. "It hit me," he recalls of perusing the menu, "think of all the people who handle these menus. And they don't wash them!"

A germ of an idea spreading to the real-life actor? Not enough to distract him from another project at hand, his acclaimed role in an off-Broadway premiere on "The Scene," what he calls "a brutal comedy" in which his character, Charlie, an unemployed actor -- a problem never besetting the always scheduled Shalhoub, who made his Broadway debut 22 years ago, possibly prophetically, in "The Odd Couple," a distaff version of the classic starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers -- who approaches middle age with middlin' success.

What would Monk say? Would he have advice for this forlorn far-gone friend? "Monk has a pretty bleak outlook on life," reminds the actor, and would probably only offer Charlie this nugget of nicety: "Why did you ever have any hope to begin with?"

Far from the shallow end, Shalhoub wouldn't have any problems answering that. Indeed, the American-born actor of Lebanese Christian ancestry is now smack in the middle of Middle East dramas. Two years ago, the prolific and protean performer formed the Arab-American Filmmaker Award Competition in association with other groups, trying to reflect the voice "of a community not heard from enough."

"We're trying to offset the negative portrayals in the news and films," he adds.

Indeed, it's enough to drive one to ... distraction. Four years ago, Shalhoub took a small part in "T for Terrorist," a black comedy about an actor who loses it after winning only roles as an Arab terrorist.

The "T" now, he avows, stands for "time" to change the image. To that end, the actor-director-producer is putting his money where his mission is, bankrolling and starring in "American East," a look at West Coast Arab-Americans trapped in a treacherous light triggered by the 9/11 tragedy.

Though the actor -- raised in Green Bay -- is green when it comes to speaking Arabic -- he, in fact, does not -- he is evergreen as a chameleon-like character actor well-equipped to play the shades of difference in a diverse society.

But then what could be more diverse than his role in "American East" -- that of a Jewish Egyptian American?

Not that Shalhoub can't inhabit a Jewish role; he did so to acclaim and accolades -- including a Tony Award nomination -- and was the talk of the town 15 years ago in Broadway's "Conversations With My Father," a tell-all by the late Herb Gardner about a dysfunctional Jewish family in which Shalhoub's Charlie -- something about that name -- battles his brash and braying father (Judd Hirsch) in a bout that resembled nothing less than an Ali-Forman verbal fist-fight.

"Thrilla from Manilla"? More "Kvetchin' in Hell's Kitchen."

Perhaps the actor can cull from that role -- and that of Scoop Rosenbaum of "Heidi Chronicles" -- and scope something Jewishly germane for "American East"?

Shalhoub takes his directions from similarities not contrasts, says the 53-year-old actor. Whether battling OCD or biases besetting Arab-Americans, Shalhoub gives truth a shout-out: "I'm not one to focus on our differences," he says. "I look at the common ground" between people.

Which makes, as the veteran actor well knows, for the best kind of street theater.

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