Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, <EM>Monk</EM> Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, Monk

The way Tony Shalhoub (who netted his fourth Emmy nod this week) and Stanley Tucci mercilessly rag on each other, it's easy to mistake them for family. But even though they played a pair of mismatched siblings in Tucci's delectable 1996 comedy Big Night, they're not related (although Shalhoub does affectionately refer to Tucci as "brother"). The two character actors forged a tight friendship back in 1989 at the Yale Repertory Theater, and have ever since gone out of their way to work together. Tucci has already cast his buddy in Big Night and The Impostors, and  assuming the financing gets back on track  Shalhoub will also star in Tucci's next feature, Blind Date. In the meantime, Shalhoub is repaying Tucci with a plum guest spot on his hit USA comedy, Monk (returning for Season 5 tonight at 9 pm/ET).

Tucci plays David Ruskin, a manic Method actor hired to portray Monk in a movie based on one of his cases. As Ruskin trails Monk day after day, he begins to believe he actually is the anal-retentive gumshoe. Tucci's impression of Shalhoub as Monk is hilariously dead-on, and apparently there's a good reason for that. "Stanley has been imitating me for a long time behind my back," Shalhoub deadpans as Tucci snickers in the background. "I don't know why he relishes mocking me and making jokes at my expense. But he's had a lot of years to hone his impersonation. And it all comes to a head in this episode of Monk."

"I wanted to show people that what Tony does is so easy," says Tucci, this time cracking up Shalhoub. "People go, 'Oh, Tony's so great, the show's so great.' He wins an Emmy [two, actually, not to mention a Golden Globe and a pair of SAG Awards] and really, it's child's play."

"I think what he's saying is, a chimp could do it," adds Shalhoub, and the two of them dissolve into laughter.

Although the role of Ruskin may seem tailor-made for Tucci's talents, it actually wasn't created with him in mind. "I had gone to Stanley a number of times over the years to try to talk him into doing a part on the show, but we were waiting for his price to go down," Shalhoub says. "Seriously, the truth is he was always too busy. The writers conceived of this Ruskin character over the last hiatus, and it just so happened that Stanley was available."

While Shalhoub and Tucci are better adjusted than their nutty small-screen counterparts, they both admit to suffering from various random phobias.

"I have a quite a few, which is shocking for someone as masculine as myself," Tucci says. "I don't like water so much, unless it's coming out of a shower. I never liked heights. And I have a terrible fear of bad restaurants."

"I'm afraid of obscurity," Shalhoub admits. "And I'm not comfortable with rats."

"Oh yes! Any kind of rodent," Tucci adds. "And I don't like snakes at all."
 
"Or redheaded women," Shalhoub offers. "Or redheaded kids."
 
"Oooh, fuhgeddaboudit!" Tucci exclaims.

It has been eight years since the pals last collaborated, and they clearly relished being back together again. "It was like being with family," Shalhoub says in a rare serious moment. "It was a really, really productive and creative few days."

"Tony is an incredible actor," Tucci adds. "I love working with him. We have so much fun. I hope that comes through on screen."

"It does," Shalhoub assures him. "We're thrilled with the episode. That's why we're kicking off the season with it. We only do that with the ones we're really confident in."

Perhaps there will be an opportunity to bring Tucci's character back in the future since as far as Shalhoub is concerned, he doesn't want the show to end anytime soon. "I feel like I've got at least a couple more seasons in me. It's one of these parts where I feel like I'm in a constant state of discovery, this season in particular," he says. "There's an episode with a long garbage strike and trash is piling up on the streets, which throws Monk into quite a state. And there's another episode, directed by Peter Weller [who appears in a bit part in the season premiere], where Natalie talks Monk into becoming a Philip Marlowe-style private eye. There's really some nice stuff coming down the pike."
 
Shalhoub is clearly in a really good place, both personally  he and his wife, actress Brooke Adams, have two teenage daughters  and professionally: "My life is very, very full right now," he says before adding, "and I'm looking forward to an early retirement." Tucci chuckles and Shalhoub says, "You wish you could retire early."
 
"Oh, that's so true!" Tucci sighs. And the two of them burst out laughing.