HOLLYWOOD — You'd never know by watching the cast and crew of USA's whodunit, Monk, that its days are sadly numbered.
After eight seasons the obsessive-compulsive detective, his ministering assistant and pals at the precinct are heading off into the sunset after Dec. 4.
But today on the set at Paramount Studios, they're all in full swing. Executive producer Randy Zisk is directing and watches intently as Tony Shalhoub as Monk struggles to avoid a hypodermic needle prominently poised by a nurse.
Two cohorts hold him down while his assistant, Natalie (Traylor Howard), tries to coax him into submission.
It's just one brief scene in an upcoming episode, but it takes two hours to change camera angles, reposition the needle and remove a wall for a better view.
"It doesn't seem quite real," sighs Traylor Howard, who has been playing Monk's assistant for five years.
Shivering on the sidelines of the drafty set, her feet swathed in wool-lined boots, she says, "Today's our last Tuesday, we were joking. I have a little boy who's almost 3. He's been on the set since he was born and everyone's so lovely with him. And it's been a huge impact on his life. He's a really social, curious little boy. I think, 'God, I've got to get another job so he can be in this environment again.'
"I was trying to explain to him today that it was ending. But he doesn't really get it. It'll be weird not to work with Tony a lot. He's such a lovely man. And I adore him, and it's such a great part for a woman and all that stuff."
Howard came on the show when Monk's original helper, Bitty Schram as Sharona, left. "I was naive when I took on this part," says Howard. "I didn't realize the cult following of the show and Sharona. I didn't know it was such a big deal. So being naive worked in my favor. It wasn't until the press stuff started coming out that I realized, 'Gosh, I hope it goes OK.'
"They took a big risk to make that sort of transition at that time," she says. "Because I was so naive and I'd been at the startup of other shows, which is very hard because you have so many elements — you're trying to find the right tone of the clothes and the hair and the sets and the characters. A lot of times they get canceled and never get up and running. So to come into something that was already pretty fine tuned was actually kind of easier for me."
Howard says she toiled for years before she realized she was an actress. At first she worked in advertising but casually auditioned for a commercial one day when her boyfriend did. Eventually she hawked beer, cereal, cat litter, cars and gum. "Then I started getting little comedic commercials and it started to pique my interest in other things."
The "other things" included an acting class with Joanne Baron. "I took one class and sort of got the bug. Then I got a show called 'Boston Common' and I've been working ever since. I wasn't getting it and the teacher said once, 'It's OK,I was a late bloomer in my class.' Awww. The wrong thing to say to me! But I WAS a late bloomer and I usually am on most things. But I'm OK with it now. I grew up around a lot of boys and I was a prissy tomboy, but didn't really have the (acting) bug."
Howard has been divorced twice and is a single mom to her son, Sabu. She won't say whether she has a sweetheart or not, but acknowledges, "I have no problems with romance. That's a new thing too. Before I didn't really have the time. But now things are good."
Though her working hours are long, Howard says one ritual she can't avoid is meditating. "That's pretty much of a game changer for me. I've gotten pretty focused but it's evolved, trust me. But when I don't meditate, my personality is slightly different. I'm just better. I'm more relaxed, more focused, more balanced, more at ease. I used to not sleep that great so it helps me to sleep. If I don't do it I don't operate in the same way. I used to be really diligent. Before Sabu I'd wake up no matter what my call-time was, a half hour early whether it was 4 in the morning, and meditate. Now it's hard to do it all, but I find time."
Zisk calls for a new setup and Shalhoub is able to take a break. After eight years, it is time for the show to end, he says. "But I think everyone was thinking it was time and we wanted to go out on a high note while the show is doing very well. There are a lot of moving parts to that question but eventually all these things have to end," he says.
"I'm having a little separation anxiety already but looking forward to doing other things and different roles. This has been such a great experience and part to work on and people to work with. But in a way I think for me, it's time to move on."
Shalhoub will take time off during the holidays. "Then there's a very good chance my wife (actress Brooke Adams) and I will go to New York to do a play on Broadway, a revival of Lend Me a Tenor. Stanley Tucci is directing it. It's not 100 percent locked in but looks good. I'm looking forward to going back doing a play. My wife and I met doing a play on Broadway, 'The Heidi Chronicles,' so it'll be exactly 20 years later to do another play together."