April 20, 2019

Star of Big Night began as Maine collegiate actor

In 1974, Tony Shalhoub, Antonio on the sitcom “Wings” and a star in the film “Big Night,” was playing the role of Sitting Bull in Arthur Kopit’s sardonic, tragic farce “Indians.” In early rehearsals, he was struggling with a speech that set him and the rest of the cast off into fits of hysterical laughter.

In that speech, the Sioux chief is reproaching Congressional representatives, demanding his right to respect and his right to represent his people, noting that his heart is “sweet” and he knows this is true because “whatever I pass by tries to touch me with its tongue, as the bear tastes honey and the green leaves lick the sky …”

It took several days before the play’s cast at the University of Southern Maine could hear Tony’s “lick me” speech without fighting the giggles.

For Tony, the role of the legendary chief proved challenging and frustrating. I remember him telling me at one point in rehearsal: “Sometimes I’m Sitting Bull, but other times I’m still just Tony Shaloub, pretending to be an Indian and saying a bunch of lines.”

Today, being Tony Shaloub and creating characters on television and in films have brought the actor a huge popular following and critical acclaim.

He is seen regularly on television in the hit situation comedy “Wings,” as the character of Antonio, the naive foreigner who drives a cab and fails dismally with women. And he is currently starring in the much-lauded art house film “Big Night,” which one critic hailed as the “Babette’s Feast” (former Academy Award winner for foreign films) for Italian cuisine.

It’s taken Tony many, many years to find commercial success.

After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern Maine in the mid-1970s, he was selected for admission into the drama school at Yale.

I’d lost track of him after that until the early 1990s. My wife Cher and I were watching one of the first films dealing with the tragedy of AIDS, a low-budget but excellent film called “Longtime Companion.” In a particularly gut-wrenching scene, one of the pivotal characters learns the awful news that he has the dreaded disease, delivered in a single sentence by the examining doctor.

But the moment the camera shifted from the victim to the physician I forgot all about the horror of the moment and the film itself.

In a whispered shout, I excitedly jabbed my wife. “Cher, it’s Tony! It’s Tony!”

Within a year or two of that first sighting, we rented the Bill Murray-Geena Davis comedy “Quick Change” and were to be joyfully surprised with Tony’s “break-through” role. In this film, he has a long, comedic sequence playing a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S. who drives a cab but doesn’t speak any English. He proves an hilarious comic foil, innocently thwarting the rapid escape plans from the city of the film’s bank-robbing protagonists.

For this performance, Tony was singled out by a couple of critics. One cited him as a “newcomer to watch.” Another, recalling the sequence, called his work one of the memorable “short supporting performances of the year.”

Clearly the role caught the attention of the makers of “Wings,” because the popular character he plays on the long-running show today isn’t too distant a relative to the role he played in “Quick Change.”

And isn’t it nice to know the cliche is sometimes true: Hard work, perseverance and talent do ultimately lead down the yellow brick road to success.

“Big Night” is scheduled to appear at Orono’s Spotlight Cinemas Feb. 13.

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