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June 05, 2015

In Service to Others, His List Is Long

On TV or in real life, Hisham Tawfiq is a good guy to have around.

Libby Slate
  • Justin Stephens/NBC

"I've always run to danger," says Hisham Tawfiq, who plays Dembe Zuma, devoted bodyguard to Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) on NBC's The Blacklist.

While that would certainly be true on the show, where Dembe has had his share of near-death experiences, it's even more so in real life: Tawfiq has been an active-duty New York City firefighter for more than 19 years and was a responder on September 11,2001.

Prior to that he spent a year as a corrections officer at the Sing Sing maximum-security prison north of the city and served in Operation Desert Storm as a U.S. Marine.

Those calls to serve were instilled by Tawfiq's late father, a Muslim pastor, or imam.

"His motto was service, giving back, community service. He made sure I was a Boy Scout. That influenced me," says the Harlem native. "I was a lifeguard at a Jewish camp, eating kosher food!"

Tawfiq had already started acting when he joined the NYFD in 1996, having discovered performing in high school when he read aloud a Maya Angelou poem before his English class: "The best feeling in the world," he says.

He also took up dance on a dare from friends. Later, he danced professionally and studied at the Negro Ensemble Theater Company.

His TV credits include Showtime's Nurse Jackie and NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing — naturally — a firefighter.

It wasn't until he got The Blacklist — initially, a one-episode gig — that scheduling became a potential problem.

"It was nerve-wracking," Tawfiq admits. "I was on pins and needles," waiting to see if a fire would preclude reporting to the set. "But it's been magical. Through God, every time I've needed time off, I've been able to get it."

Nowadays he works weekends as assistant to the firehouse chief, based in Harlem, and is contemplating retirement this summer.

Acting, he says, has affected his firefighting. "Things touch me more," he reflects. "I've become more vulnerable, more emotionally invested in responding to an emergency."

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