Now He's Cooking

IF TONY SHALHOUB’S LIFE HAD A theme song, it would have to be Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” For starters the 43-year-old actor is best known as Antonio Scarpacci, the hapless, sad-eyed Italian cabbie on NBC’s Wings. Then there’s the fact that his first movie role, in 1990, involved playing a taxi driver in the Bill Murray comedy Quick Change. And though he has never driven a cab professionally, he did own one—a battered yellow number that got him around New Haven in the ’70s, while he studied at the Yale School of Drama. “Cabs have been following me my whole life,” sighs Shalhoub, looking more bemused than bothered. “Let’s put an end to that cab thing, shall we?”

His current movie, Big Night, must look to him like a solid-gold Cadillac. The bittersweet comedy, made for a mere $4.2 million, has been a major critical hit, with much of the praise going to Shalhoub’s turn as Primo, a temperamental Italian chef pursuing his art in an unappreciative Jersey Shore town. “Shalhoub,” wrote Terrence Rafferty in The New Yorker, “is one of the few actors who could make us understand the innocence of an obsessive artist like Primo and make us laugh at it, too.” Not surprisingly, Big Night’s cowriter, codirector and costar Stanley Tucci agrees. “Tony is a great actor who’s never had the opportunity to play a great role in a film,” says Tucci, who plays his brother, a maître d’. “This was that opportunity.”

Thanks to Big Night, Shalhoub is also a better cook. To prepare for the part, he studied for six weeks last year with a chef from Chianti Cuccina at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute. One lesson: Don’t worry about utensils. “I was surprised to learn how much chefs use their hands,” says Shalhoub. “Even tasting is done with the hands.” And because about a third of Primo’s dialogue is in Italian, Shalhoub brushed up on the language, which he had studied informally in the past. His accent is flawless, says Tucci, whose family hails from Calabria, Italy.

But Shalhoub is no more Italian than he is a cabdriver. He’s a first-generation American of Lebanese descent who grew up in Green Bay, Wis., the ninth of 10 children born to Joe Shalhoub, a sausage salesman who emigrated from a village outside Beirut in 1920, and his wife, Helen. The family was never poor, Shalhoub recalls, but home was crowded. He didn’t get his own bed until he was 11.

It was the second oldest of his six sisters, Susan, now an actress and mother, who sparked his interest in acting. She had a part in her high school production of The King and I, and the director needed young performers to play children of the Siamese court. “She just took me by the hand,” says Shalhoub, who was 6 at the time. Graduating from East High in 1972, he went on to major in theater at the University of Maine, then at Yale. After moving to New York City in 1984, he found supporting parts in such plays as the distaff version of The Odd Couple, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, and, in 1990, The Heidi Chronicles.

Shalhoub had a crush on Heidi’s leading lady, the striking Brooke Adams, from watching her and Richard Gere play migrant farm workers in the film Days of Heaven a dozen years earlier. Adams was attracted too, but Shalhoub was already in a relationship. “I really wanted to go out with him, but he was honorable,” says Adams. “Which I thought was a good sign.” Their romance didn’t kick in until ’91, when he moved to L.A., where Adams lived. He proposed after two months, and they married in April 1992.

By then, Shalhoub had found a berth on Wings. He turned up on the NBC sitcom in a one-shot role as a waiter but clicked so well with the cast that producers hired him to stay on as Antonio. He is not, by all accounts, the cast cutup. “Tony doesn’t say a word on the set,” says star Timothy Daly. “I get the feeling he’s got a great private life nobody else knows about—a couple of other families around the state.”

Actually he has only one. He and Adams, 47, who has virtually retired from acting, are raising their family in a five-bedroom house in Los Angeles, not far from where Wings tapes. He often goes home to have lunch with their two daughters, Josie, 7 (whom Adams adopted in 1989), and Sophie, 3. Adams’s sister Lynne, 50, an actress-writer, lives with them too, in the apartment above the garage. “I think of my life with Brooke as my days of heaven,” says Shalhoub. “That sounds schmaltzy. But things are that good.”

Professionally he has been squeezing in more movie work (he’s a black-market DNA dealer in Gattaca, a futuristic thriller starring Ethan Hawke, due out early next year). And he now drives an Isuzu Trooper. The cab he drove in New Haven is just a memory. In 1980 or so, he left it in an empty lot, a gift to anyone interested in parts. When he’d come back to visit, he would inventory what had disappeared—”wheels, interior. It took about a year,” he says with a laugh, “but they finally got the whole thing.”


TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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