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With Broadway's Act One, Tony Shalhoub Celebrates a Life in the Theater

For his performances as Moss Hart, Barnett Hart, and George S. Kaufman, Shalhoub receives his third Tony Award nomination.

What do you do after you conquer a medium? Take on another. When Tony Shalhoub finished his eight-season run as neurotic detective Adrian Monk on the hit television series Monk, the three-time Emmy winner returned to his stage roots. He was not a stranger to the stage before that show — even when receiving a 1992 Tony nomination for his performance in Conversations With My Father — but after, Shalhoub was back and hasn't left since.

After delighting audiences with his hilariously exasperated turn in the 2010 revival of Lend Me a Tenor and receiving another Tony nod for his tear-jerking performance in 2013's Golden Boy, Shalhoub is tugging at heart strings once again in Act One, James Lapine's stage adaptation of Moss Hart's acclaimed memoir. And if one character wasn't enough, Shalhoub plays three: an established Moss looking back on his youth; Moss' father, Barnett; and Moss' mentor, the playwright George S. Kaufman. Before receiving his third Tony nomination, TheaterMania chatted with Shalhoub about what it's like to spend a lifetime — or multiple lifetimes — in the theater.

Tony Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman (left) and Moss Hart (right) in James Lapine's Act One at Lincoln Center Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

You've been involved with Act One for a number of years, right?
I did a workshop of it with [writer/director] James Lapine — it was really just a week of rehearsals and a staged reading on Martha's Vineyard — a year ago last summer. Then I did another workshop of it when I was doing Golden Boy, in January of last year, and then we did a third workshop of it just before rehearsals started. When he first gave it to me, I didn't think there was going to be an actual production. You do a lot of readings and workshops of plays that are one-off and [I thought] it was for him to see if there was something there. And it worked out.

How has the play evolved over that period of time? Did you always essay the roles of Moss Hart, Barnett Hart, and George S. Kaufman?
That was always the way he conceived of it, so that didn't change. The narration changed. It was all changing during previews, like what Hart and Kaufman go through [with the play they are writing, Once in a Lifetime]. We went through some of that.

When did you originally discover Moss Hart's memoir?
It was always around my house. I think it was a favorite book of my mother's. I don't remember if I read it when I was very young, but I was aware it was always there. I think only a person who is on the threshold of entering this world or, like me, who has several decades behind them, can fully appreciate it.

Tell me about your research process. How did you prepare to play a figure as well known as George S. Kaufman?
I read a number of biographies, and I was able to find some footage of the older Kaufman on the television show This Is Show Business, where he was a panelist. That was good for body language. There were a lot of things in Act One, just looking over his glasses and the curmudgeonly vibe that he had. I tried to read his plays, even the ones he didn't do with Hart.

Which one is your favorite?
I really like Beggar on Horseback. [sighs] A lot. There are so many good ones. Dulcy. The Royal Family, which was with Ferber. The Man Who Came to Dinner is what [Kaufman and Hart] probably considered their home run, but You Can't Take It With You was the Pulitzer winner. That was the play I did in high school, coincidentally. I did two plays in high school: You Can't Take It With You and George Washington Slept Here. Both Kaufman and Hart. Complete coincidence.

Whom do you connect to the most: Moss, Barnett, or Mr. Kaufman?
I think I relate to Hart. Not that I grew up in dire poverty the way he did, but I did grow up in an environment where this didn't seem like a very likely or viable path. Like in Hart's life, certain things had to fall in a certain way, and certain people had to come into my life. I had to be in the right place at the right time for various steps along the way to be realized. When the older Hart looks back and reexamines how things went down, and who said what, and how that affected him, I connect to that.

Do you believe in luck and timing as the key to a successful acting career?
Absolutely. I subscribe to…I think it was a quote of Walter Matthau, who said, "All it takes in this business is forty big breaks." You've got to keep showing up and getting lucky. Everything I've read about Kaufman embodies that. He had enormous success way before he met Hart, made lots of money, was highly regarded and esteemed, and lived in fear that he wasn't going to be able to do it again. [He believed] that his successes were flukes and that his failures were more who he was. It's kind of comforting, actually, to know that Kaufman and many others lived with and struggled with and pushed against tremendous insecurity. Because we all have it.

At what point did you realize that a life as an actor is what you dreamed of? And when did you realize that it was attainable?
I think there are a number of places along the way where it got locked in. I went to the Yale Drama School. When I was accepted into that program and started working with my classmates and saw how good they all were, the bar was really raised. That's where I thought, I really want to do this and I think it's possible to do it. Before that, I didn't really see how it was possible. I saw it as a distant dream or fantasy, but once I was there, I realized if I played my cards right, it could happen. I just wanted to have longevity in the business. I didn't set out to be famous or gain wealth, it was really about, How I can do this so I'll be able to do this in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, forty years? That was the goal.