Tony Shalhoub got hooked on acting when he was six years old, and his elder sister volunteered him to play an extra in her high school production of The King and I. His father, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon as an orphaned young boy, hoped that Tony and his nine siblings would stay in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and work in the family's grocery business.
From Green Bay to Broadway
But Tony ended up at the prestigious Yale School of Drama, and recalls his acceptance there as a turning point in his professional life. "When I left Yale and graduated and I worked at a theatre, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was another kind of turning point," Shalhoub says. "Now as a working actor, getting paid."
Shalhoub made his Broadway debut in 1985, in The Odd Couple and was nominated for a 1992 Tony award for his role in Conversations with My Father. But it was his portrayal of Italian cabdriver Antonio Scarpacci in the popular TV sitcom Wings that introduced him to the nation.
"Wings was certainly a great thing that gave me exposure to a larger audience," he admits, but points out, "I had already done some films at that time and I was continuing to do films during the years of Wings, and I was continuing to go back to New York and to do Broadway plays."
Shalhoub is best known today as the obsessive compulsive detective Adrian Monk. The popular TV series, called Monk, is starting its seventh season on the USA Network, and Shalhoub has won several Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the title character.
A versatile actor
On the big screen, he's played a variety of roles: a lawyer in The Man Who Wasn't There, a Cuban-American businessman in Primary Colors, a sleazy alien shop owner in the Men in Black films, a former TV star in Galaxy Quest, and an Italian-speaking chef in Big Night.
In the 1998 thriller, The Siege, he finally appeared as an Arab-American: an FBI agent named Frank Haddad. In the film, a terrorist attack on New York City by Islamic militants prompts the U.S. government to declare martial law and round up all young men of Arab descent and put them into internment camps, just as the government did with Japanese Americans following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"When we did this movie, some people dismissed it as preposterous," he recalls. He stresses that The Siege was not just a movie about terrorism or explosions. "It was also trying to make the point about what kind of reaction we would have to a horrible incident, in other words, how do we respond as a country." Shalhoub says the message of the film was "we have to be careful that our country and the Constitution does not begin to unravel in our response."
Rejecting racial and ethnic stereotypes
Throughout his movie career, spanning over 20 years, Tony Shalhoub has turned down scripts when he felt there were negative or racist overtones in the story line… whether it was toward Native Americans, Jews, or Arabs and Muslims. "I have always tried to avoid those kinds of things and if there was a role that seemed to have those kinds of elements in it, I try tp put a different spin on it."
Out of that conviction, Shalhoub, along with the Network of Arab-American Professionals, established The Arab-American Filmmaker Award Competition in 2005. The goal of the contest is to allow young Arab-Americans to write their own screenplays, trying to change the prevalent negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims presented on film.
Helping Arab-Americans tell their own stories
Shalhoub feels strongly that Arab Americans must produce movies that tell the real story of their heritage and showcase the human face of Arab-American families and their values… dramatically showing that they are not so different from their fellow citizens.
"I have always wanted to help and give support there, because these are stories that need to be told," he says. "We are kind of like 'the unheard-from minority,' especially after 9/11. There was a large effort on the part of these people to get their work out there before 9/11, and since 9/11, it is a whole 'nother chapter."
Shalhoub appeared in the post-9/11 drama AmericanEast, about an Arab-American family living in Los Angeles. The film was produced by Arab and Muslim American companies, with Shalhoub serving as executive producer. He plans to continue his support for Arab-Americans in the film industry, making sure that their stories are be