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Before he became a working actor Tony Shalhoub was - what else? - a waiter, many times over.


“I was always on the verge of being fired because the manager kept saying, ‘You have to go faster!’ I wanted to make sure everything was right. And you didn’t want to throw food at these people. I would say, ‘Are the people complaining?’ They’d say, ‘No, we just see you’re not working fast enough.’ I just wanted to make sure I had it all right ...”


His precision often cost him his job, but not the most important job of his life. In fact, as the obsessive-compulsive detective on USA’s “Monk,” Shalhoub is allowed to indulge his penchant for perfectionism without any retribution.


While he doesn’t confess to many of Mr. Monk’s finicky quirks, he does admit, “I try to be loose. But I’m told, on a regular basis by my kids and my wife, to lighten up a little bit. ‘Let it go.’”


Now with “Monk” into its seventh year and with three Emmys in his custody, it would seem that Shalhoub could at last relax. Not so. Throughout his career he has been the hardest on himself. “I can’t explain why, but think I’ve always wanted to move out of a place of complacency into a place of the unknown,” he says over a lunch of salmon and steamed vegetables here.


“I left Boston - I was doing great roles and loved the people I was working for and had worked my way up to lead parts - but I felt I had to go start over again. And I don’t know why. I went to New York and worked my way up, and I was really feeling pretty confident. Then I came out here and this was like hitting a brick wall. Everything I’d done in New York and Boston for 10 years didn’t seem to count for anything here. I thought I had a pretty impressive resume by this point: I’d done two Broadway plays, I’d done a Coen Brothers movie, but it hadn’t come out yet. And they said, ‘Do you have anything on tape?’ ‘Tape? What’s tape? I’ve got a resume.’ It was crazy. I was feeling like I had to start over.”


Shalhoub was doing a two-character play in Los Angeles that had been brightly praised in both Boston and New York. ‘We brought it out here, and it died,’ he sighs. “I was working for $5 a performance, I’m not kidding. You did it basically for gas money. We had nice reviews from New York and Boston and it didn’t stir any interest. I was auditioning for stuff, and I was not doing well. I wasn’t getting call-backs, let alone jobs. I thought, ‘Where am I? Have I gone to a foreign country? I thought I knew what I was doing?’”


Finally all that work paid off. (He’d even served as a day worker on soap operas back in the day.) “One day I had an audition for a couple days on a sitcom. The show had been on for a year or so and I hadn’t seen it. I had this audition for ‘Wings’ and the writing was pretty good. And I got the job and did a couple days on it. And I liked it because it was in front of a live audience and thought, ‘I could do this.’ The people were very warm, the producers and the cast. A couple months later they asked me to come back as a recurring character,” he smiles.


“Really, a sitcom was the last thing I had in mind. Not that I was pooh-poohing it, I just couldn’t imagine how I would’ve landed there. But I did and it was six years.”


Shalhoub has continued to costar in films like the “Spy Kids” franchise, “Men in Black,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Primary Colors.”


One of the advantages of doing “Monk,” which returns with new episodes Friday, is that he works only six months out of the year. “I get a chance to do film and theater projects. It doesn’t burn up all my time,” he says.


He also serves as one of the executive producers on the show, which means he has his hands in casting, editing and working with the writers and other producers. “You’re always making deals, ‘Well, I’ll give you this if you give me that.’ And, ‘This is more important to me and I’ll trade you two of these jokes for this moment over here.’ And we all negotiate and have a really great collaborative team.”


Shalhoub has been married for 16 years to actress Brooke Adams (who occasionally fills a guest spot on “Monk”). They have two adopted daughters: Josie, 19, who was Brooke’s when they married, and Sophie, 14. He admits that - like Monk - he likes to work in a clean kitchen and claims he’s the “breakfast man” for the family.


“I’m actually now making crepes. I said, ‘Oh, we don’t really have a crepe pan.’ You don’t need a crepe pan. We make it on the griddle on the stove. I’m good at that,” he says.


___


Beginning Tuesday, Benjamin Bratt stars in a new series for A&E called “The Cleaner,” about a former addict who makes a deal with God to help others in similar predicaments if his life is spared. The show is sort of “The Equalizer” with drugs and is based on the life of Warren Boyd, a self-titled “extreme interventionist.” Boyd says sometimes the family pays him as a private counselor but that has made most of his living working with California prisons trying to curtail recidivism among addicts.


Bratt, whose mother is from Peru and whose father is of English and German descent, originally was typecast in Hollywood. “I remember when I first came to Los Angeles to work that those were principally the roles I was going up for, gang members early on I began to win roles as men in uniform for some reason. I’d say the majority of roles I’ve played in my life were cops. I don’t know what that’s all about but I think in part that’s what pulled me away from it. Dick Wolf is a producer I worked with on a TV series called ‘Nasty Boys’ in late ‘80s and I think the change might have occurred when he cast me in ‘Law and Order.’ He called me up and offered me the job and together we sat with the writers and producers and designed the character, his background. I said how wonderful it would be to create a character that is reflective of my own cultural makeup.”


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For those who like their TV rough, it’s a perilous wait for “The Shield’s” sixth season DVD to arrive on Aug. 26. The four-disc set contains the season’s 10 episodes along with bonus features, including three featurettes and deleted scenes. Guest stars include Forest Whitaker, Franka Potente and Katey Sagal.


___


If you think you could be an American Idol, now’s your chance to elbow out the competition with auditions for the next season beginning on Thursday in San Francisco at the Cow Palace and moving on Monday to Louisville and Phoenix on July 25 and Salt Lake City July 29, with other destinations from there. More info can be culled from www.americanidol.com.

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