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Pathbreakers of Arab America—Tony Shalhoub

posted on: Apr 24, 2024

Tony Shalhoub — Wikiphoto

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the forty-third of Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our forty-third pathbreaker, Anthony (Tony) Shalhoub, was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on October 19, 1953. His father immigrated from Lebanon, while his mother was Lebanese American. The family was raised in the Lebanese Maronite (Christian) faith. Tony was a budding actor by the sixth grade, and from there, he rose to stratospheric fame on both screen and stage.

Tony Shalhoub, born to act, rises to fame and stardom the old-fashioned way: buckets of talent and tons of hard work

Settling in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Tony’s father, Joseph, from Zahle in Lebanon, was a mere child when the country was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Joe, as he was known, came to the U.S. following his parents’ deaths in World War I. In Greenbay, he was adopted into another Lebanese American family, whose young daughter, Helen, Joe later married. He worked as what was known as a meat peddler. That was someone who drove a refrigerated truck to stores far and wide in the Greenbay area. They had ten children, of whom Tony was the ninth born.

In an Arab America interview with Shalhoub, Tony talked about those early days in Greenbay and the difficulties his Dad faced. Tony reminisced, “Talk about pressure. My father came to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1920 when he was eight without knowing English. He traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin, married, bought a house, and he and my mom, Helen, raised ten kids. Everything depended on his one-man business driving a truck.”

Tony (l.) — Family clown — Photo — Tony Shalhoub collection

As Tony’s older siblings eventually left home for their futures, he spoke of being “upgraded to a larger space,” meaning his own bedroom. He noted, “For three years in the ’50s, I was the youngest and the center of attention. I was spoiled silly. One of my first memories is standing in the foyer as a crowd came through the front door. Normally, I’d be swept up in someone’s arms. But this time, a series of legs breezed past me. They were bringing my mother and new sister, Amy, home from the hospital. I remember thinking, ‘It’s over.’”

Tony noted that “Performing felt natural. Whenever my brothers and sisters came home from college, I’d run upstairs to where they were sleeping, wake them up, and try out some lame sketch I had made up or stolen from TV. I was in my first play when I was 6. My older sister was in a high school production of ‘The King and I.’ They needed children for a scene, so she brought me in. I had a costume and a couple of serious lines that got a laugh. I loved the feeling.”

From public school, Tony attended the University of Southern Maine, where he planned on becoming a teacher. He took a drama class, and that was the beginning of a whole new life trajectory in acting. He then attended the Yale School of Drama, followed by four seasons with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving to New York.

The rest is history with one exception. Dad was not convinced, thinking acting was not real work. Tony described that his Dad “first saw me perform when I was in a female version of ‘The Odd Couple,’ starring Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. We were performing in Florida before bringing the play to Broadway in 1985, and my father was spending time down there in the winters after my mother died in 1983…My father had been a big ‘All in the Family’ devotee, so I invited Sally to have dinner with us after. That’s the moment I knew I had finally won him over.”

Tony’s record of performance and his honors are literally too numerous to account for her. His breakout role was as Antonio Scarpacci on the sitcom ‘Wings’ from 1991 to 1997. He later starred as Adrian Monk in the USA Network series ‘Monk’ from 2002 to 2009, earning three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. For his supporting role as Abe Weissman on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

Shalhoub’s film career has been highly successful, including roles in films such as ‘Quick Change’ (1990), ‘Barton Fink’ (1991), ‘Big Nigh’t (1996), ‘Men in Black’ (1997), ‘Gattaca’ (1997), ‘Paulie’ (1998), ‘The Siege’ (1998), ‘Galaxy Quest’ (1999), ‘Spy Kids,’ ‘Thirteen Ghosts,’ and ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (all 2001). He has also provided voice work for the ‘Cars’ franchise (2006–2022), ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (2014), and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ (2016). For his work on Broadway, Shalhoub won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Tewfiq Zakaria in ‘The Band’s Visit’ in 2018. Other Tony-nominated roles were in ‘Conversations with My Father’ in 1992, ‘Golden Boy’ in 2013, and ‘Act One’ in 2014.

Tony as ‘Monk’ — Wikiphoto

An ”interesting” role Tony took was as a Jewish-American math professor, Abe Weissman, father of protagonist Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), in the Emmy-winning, Amazon-produced television comedy series ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series in 2019. Cristina Escobar of ‘Roger’ declared, “[Shalhoub] came close to stealing the show.”

Shalhoub counters negative stereotypes in Hollywood, adapts his Lebanese roots to play a New York Jew on TV, and plays the leader of an Egyptian band lost in Israel

According to an Arab America review, Tony has rejected racial and ethnic stereotypes throughout his movie career. “He has turned down scripts when he felt there were negative or racist overtones in the storyline… 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 to put a different spin on it.”

Based on that conviction, Shalhoub and the Network of Arab-American Professionals established The Arab-American Filmmaker Award Competition in 2005. The contest aims to allow young Arab-Americans to write their screenplays, trying to change the prevalent unfavorable stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims presented on film.

Tony avers, “Helping Arab-Americans tell their own stories…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.”

Speaking of versatility, Shalhoub was able to adapt his Christian Lebanese background as an immigrant in Wisconsin to play New York’s Upper West Side and Jewish Abe Weissman. Tony said he drew on his father, Joe, for his role as Abe in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ The Times of Israel noted, “As Abe Weissman, a neurotic but lovable Columbia math professor, and the titular Mrs. Maisel’s father, Shalhoub steals most of the scenes he’s in. His character’s tone ranges from comically flustered to darkly serious, and he can elicit laughter, anger, or sadness in quick succession.” Bravo!

Tony as Abe Weissman in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ — Photo Prime Video

Tony’s role in a musical based on an Israeli film about an Egyptian police band that gets lost and ends up in a small Israeli desert town where he plays the bandleader, Tewfiq Zakaria, is legendary. Known by its revised title, “The Band’s Visit,” swept the Tony Awards in 2018. He recalled “how much fun he had alternating between the two roles: the Egyptian general Tewfiq and the Jewish mathematician Abe.”

As a first-generation American Arab, Shalhoub was raised as a child in a typically “melting pot” fashion, not speaking Arabic and being uninvolved in Middle Eastern culture. According to a Los Angeles Times article, “It happens a lot. The first generation wants the child to be part of the melting pot. They’re tired of the politics back home and don’t want them to go through their own experience. Then the person grows up and wants to find their roots. It happened to Tony later on in his life, after his father died…he was lucky to have found the medium of film and cinema to help him explore.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” the L.A. Times continued. “He succeeded as an American, and now as an Arab-American, he is returning to his history. The Middle East is now very much a part of America. Americans need to understand what the Middle East is about. He’s one of the people building that bridge.”

Shalhoub married actress Brooke Adams in 1992. They have worked together in several films and have two children. He is a true Arab American star!

– “Anthony Shalhoub,” Wikipedia Biographies of Arab Americans, 2024
–“Tony Shalhoub Counters Negative Stereotypes in Hollywood,” Arab America, 9/10/2009
–“How Wisconsin-born Tony Shalhoub’s Lebanese roots help him play a NY Jew on TV,” Times of Israel, 12/6/2019
–“Shalhoub explores his Arab American roots,” Los Angeles Times, cited in HeraldNet, 1/5/2007

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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