You’ll recognize his face—even if you can’t pronounce his name. Iqbal Theba (for the record, it’s ICK-ball TAY-bah) has been appearing on our TVs for nearly two decades now, starting with one-shot cabbie and doctor roles on sitcoms like ‘Mad About You‘ and ‘Friends.’ Now he’s found a home playing the stern but fair Principal Figgins on Fox’s buzzy musical dramedy ‘Glee.’
Theba can’t seem to get out of the classroom: He’ll also appear as Abed’s father on NBC’s ‘Community‘ this Thursday. Theba took a minute out of his busy schedule to talk about life as a character actor, his road to Hollywood, and whether Principal Figgins will join the kids on stage anytime soon.
Glee fans are crazy about the show; they call themselves “Gleeks.” Have you been accosted in the street by any Gleeks yet?
Yes, every time I step outside my house, somebody screams at me. [Laughs] We went to Oxnard, me and my wife and kids, to get some milk, and I hear, “I’m sending you my love…” I turn around and someone’s singing to me! But I thank them for their love. It’s been a wonderful experience, and the show’s really taken off. Fox just picked it up for a full season [of 22 episodes], and I don’t think I’ve done even 10 episodes of a single show before, so it’s a blessing.
You’ve made a career out of playing small character roles. Ever itch to play the lead?
Well, I’d like to play the lead, of course. But anything different, really, I’m up for. Like, say, a romantic lead, that’d be interesting just because I’ve never done that. I’m doing a pilot for Comedy Central right now in which I play a love interest, which is a nice change for me. [Laughs] But I’m just thankful. I’ve played all kinds of roles throughout my career, so I can’t really complain.
You came to LA back in 1991 with just $37 to your name. How’d you survive on that?
When you’re young and single, you can take a chance like that. When I was leaving, people in Oklahoma asked me, “Do you know anyone out there?” And I didn’t know a soul. But I stayed with a college friend in San Bernardino, and was able to get a job as a waiter at Tony Roma’s. Then I got cast in a play—pretty early on, actually—and I went from there.
Your resume leans heavily towards TV over film. Do you think TV offers better roles for a foreign-born actor like yourself?
When I left college, I thought I’d be cast in everything. But film is much more parochial; it’s even difficult for women to find roles in film. But on TV, you’ll see women in lead roles, like Jenna Elfman on Accidentally on Purpose. TV is much more open-minded like that.
But you know, there’s always been opportunity for me. If the role calls for a forty-something cabbie that doesn’t speak English, I’ll probably get a call, you know? [Laughs] But I get to make a living doing what I love, so it’s great.
We haven’t seen Principal Figgins do any singing and dancing yet. Any chance we see you cut loose with the kids?
It’s funny, our brilliant choreographer on the show saw me and said, “We have to get you dancing!” I said, “Sure, talk to Ryan [Murphy, Glee’s creator].” I’d love it, though. I’ll sing, dance, everything. It’d be a blast. You know, anything is possible on Glee. [Laughs]
You’re back in school this week on NBC’s ‘Community.’ Can you talk about that role?
I play Abed’s dad who is a student in that Community College. He is a Palestinian-Arab who owns a falafel shop. He is very conservative in his thinking and wants his son to follow him into the falafel business. But, Abed has some other ideas, of course, which makes for a very exciting dramatic episode. I am not going to tell you what happens in the end but it was something which even I could not predict.
Can we expect to see Abed’s dad regularly on ‘Community,’ or is this a one-time thing?
You will see him again but I dont know in how many episodes.
‘Glee,’ ‘Community’… are you drawn to TV shows about school, or just a coincidence?
I am drawn to shows that have a possibility of me working with scantily dressed young women but since that doesn’t happen very often I am left with doing [Laughs]. Actually, I am drawn to shows that are well written. Both Glee and Community are written by some brilliant writers. I genuinely love both the shows and would have watched them even if I weren’t in those shows. Please, ask your readers to join my fan page on Facbook… Iqbal Theba Page
You can see Theba on Community this Thursday on NBC, and on Glee Wednesdays on Fox.