Shalhoub embraces Monk’s struggles

Actor calls on comic, dramatic gifts for his role

It’s a blessing — and a curse, as Adrian Monk would say: 100 episodes on any series is worth a celebration, but to have gone all those hours in a tight-fitting suit (but no tie) while suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and an ever-growing array of phobias — and to realize there’s no end in sight to it all — could drive an actor to commit a heinous crime.

Fortunately, Monk is in the business of solving such crimes — and the way to keep Tony Shalhoub in that suit has been to complicate and develop the character he plays within its very specific limits.

“Because of what the writers have given us … it really is ever changing, ever evolving,” Shalhoub says. “I feel like I’m in a constant state of discovery with this character.

“We don’t really have a sort of a set show bible,” Shalhoub adds. “There are certain general rules, but one of our rules is that it’s OK to break our own rules. And the reason we’re comfortable doing that is because we want Monk to be a somewhat real, well-rounded character.”

That might come as a surprise to fans of the show, who expect the detective to always be conflicted and afflicted, both humorously and morosely.

But Shalhoub should know. Although he wasn’t the one who dreamed up the character, Shalhoub certainly has made Monk his own, everything from the unique hand-gestures-as-crime-scene-divining-rods he invented to the ritualistic jerkiness and twitching of his head and shoulders.

And as one of the five executive producers, the star has a direct hand in the pacing and tone of each show, spending “a lot” of time in the editing bay as well as in selecting guest stars.

But you don’t gain three Emmys and six noms (yes, he’s up for another statuette) with mere stunt casting and goofy shtick. So what’s the trick to consistently pulling off the seemingly dicey feat of blending pathos and humor, sadness and slapstick, melancholy and merriment, all in the space of an hour, all the while keeping Monk both human and, in Shalhoub’s words, “a sort of tragic clown”?

The secret is: There is no secret. “It’s a leap of faith,” he says. “You don’t really know, you can never be 100% certain.”

In fact, the Tony-nominated thesp pooh-poohs methodology: “The truth is, when actors want to talk about technique, it drives me crazy! I get really upset, because it all depends on the project, the director, the material.”

That said, Shalhoub, a classically trained actor with a master’s degree from Yale, credits his formal training and 10 years in professional stage productions with helping him prepare for a career in film and TV — and especially to play the most unlikely of TV protagonists. “Even in (Shakespearean tragedies), there’s always a clown,” he notes, adding that early in his schooling and career, “I always looked for the joke in the drama, the funny part. In a comedy, I always looked for the drama.”

That balancing act has allowed Shalhoub to nurture a character who, in others’ hands, might have easily fallen into caricature or parody.

As for reaching the 100-episode milestone, “It’s a reassurance, a validation, that hard work and persistence and bringing dedication to a project pays off,” Shalhoub says, crediting the cast, crew and creatives.

And to top it off, 100 qualifies as Monk’s favorite number: It’s even.