Interview: Stephen Tobolowsky on The Tobolowsky Files

You know Stephen Tobolowsky. You may not know the name, but you know the face, and the voice, and at least one of the many indelible characters he’s played over the past 25 years: goofy Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day” (one of the few actors to ever consistently draw more laughs than Bill Murray in scenes opposite Bill Murray), as frightening Klan leader Clayton Townley in “Mississippi Burning,” as amnesiac Sammy Jankis in “Memento,” bath-loving Hugo Jarry on “Deadwood” or, most recently, former glee club leader Sandy Ryerson on “Glee,” to name just a few.

He’s a quintessential Hey, It’s That Guy!: talented and versatile, and more closely identified with one or two specific roles than a more familiar leading man. After “Mississippi Burning,” he was typecast as a heavy for a while, then “Groundhog Day” made people view him as a comedian, then “Memento” reversed field back to the drama side. “And now with Sandy Ryerson,” he told me, “people think of me as a pedophile.”

But as much as I love some of those classic Tobolowsky performances (“Bing!”), the most impressive one may not be in any movie or TV show, and it doesn’t involve him slipping into a new kind of character. It’s on a podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, where the only role being played is Stephen Tobolowsky himself.

And it’s fantastic.

(More, obviously, after the jump.)

I was turned onto The Tobolowsky Files by friend of the blog Myles McNutt, who raved about it a couple of months ago. As someone who does a podcast himself, and as someone who needs outside stimulus in order to complete any kind of simple task (lawn-mowing, dish-washing, commuting), I’m always on the lookout for new ones to add to the iPod, so I downloaded a few early episodes to sample.

The idea for the show, produced and co-hosted by David Chen from the /Filmcast, came from a 2005 independent film called “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” which largely consists of Tobolowsky telling stories about his career, and about his life.  (You can see a few clips at the official website, including a very funny one with Tobolowsky doing man-on-the-street interviews to see if he can find anyone who’s heard of him. It suggests that my “You know Stephen Tobolowsky” theory might apply more to the readers of this blog than the populace at large.)

Chen adored the film – “I love a well-told story,” he said in a joint interview with Tobolowsky earlier this week – and invited Tobolowsky onto the /Filmcast for what turned out to be a marathon show, with Tobolowsky participating in spite of a broken neck he’d suffered in a horse-riding accident. (The broken neck becomes a running thread on The Tobolowsky Files.)

“He was fantastic,” Chen recalled. “He was very funny on the show, and he did the most research of any of the guests.”

So Chen had a brainstorm: given how many films Tobolowsky has been in, and how well he tells stories, why not try to continue “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” in podcast form? As luck would have it, one of the few things Tobolowsky could do with the broken neck was write, and he had begun writing a series of short stories about his life.

“When David talked to me about if I’d like to do ‘Birthday Party’ part two as a podcast,” he recalled, “I had several story ideas formulating in my head, and at that particular time, I wasn’t working. I had to ask myself, ‘Stephen, what are you waiting for? David is offering you an opportunity.’ And I had to be willing to walk through the door.”

No one quite knew how the show would go. The first episode features three monologues about Halloween: Tobolowsky musing on the holiday in general, then describing a Halloween night from his childhood, then a very disturbing Halloween night spent while he was filming “Great Balls of Fire.” The second show, about Tobolowsky’s childhood fixation on Davy Crockett, and then about the story of an escaped hippo that briefly captured the national imagination, had no showbiz content at all.

But Tobolowsky was such a compelling storyteller, as both a writer and speaker, that the show proved equally entertaining whether he’s dishing about misadventures on the set of “Wild Hogs” or talking about the beginning of his tumultuous 17-year relationship with ex-girlfriend Beth.

“The expectation of my boss at /Film was that it would probably be movie stories frequently,” said Chen, “but I knew Stephen. I knew it wouldn’t end up like that. If you watch ‘Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,’ yeah, there are a lot of stories about movies, but the quote-unquote ‘best stories’ are about those moments that Stephen is able to take and fashion significance out of.”

“What happens on movie sets is actually often really boring,” argued Tobolowsky. “People really care about lives, not about what happens in films.”

The thing you discover about Tobolowsky, whether listening to the podcast or, in my case, interviewing him on Skype, is that the man has stories to tell – many, many stories. Our three-way conversation opened with Tobolowsky apologizing in advance for any technical problems that might be caused by having his cats in the room, then going off on a digression about a Russian cellist he met while in Dallas, all to illustrate a point about needing to be able to work with distractions.

“That was a long walk, Stephen!” Chen told his partner when he was done. It became clear that you have to be prepared for many long walks when you talk to Tobolowsky – the phrase “Okay, here’s a story” comes up early and often – and that the time spent listening to those tales is almost always worth it, whether they’re goofy ones about helping to rewrite the silly climax to the 1996 TV-movie “Night Visitors”(*) or moving pieces like the fourth episode, about the death of Tobolowsky’s mother.

(*) Whether during the stories, or during the intro to each episode where Chen lists a role from Tobolowsky’s long filmography, what’s remarkable is how gracious Tobolowsky always manages to be about the projects he’s done and the people he’s worked with, even if they’re as bad as “Night Visitors.” In an episode where he discusses his time on “Heroes” as Company Bob, he acknowledges that his story arc within the show made no sense whatsoever, but finds a way to make that sound like it was a positive attribute of the show – that in order to make a show like “Heroes,” you have to be prepared to throw logic out the window. Early in our conversation, I mentioned that he was actually one of the very first professional interviews I did, for a bad 1996 NBC sitcom called “Mr. Rhodes,” and he said he loved his time on that show because he became good friends with executive producer Peter Noah. There’s a magnanimity of spirit in the podcast that becomes really infectious.

Tobolowsky has in some ways lived an extraordinary life, getting to travel across the world and interact with movie stars through his film career, and on another level has had a very familiar life, dealing with love and loss and comedy and tragedy and hassles with real estate and pets and childcare. He manages to invest both halves of his autobiography with the same amount of import and passion, so that I care just as much about finding out what happens to the stray, sickly dog he finds as I do about the time he auditioned for “Glee” with the aforementioned broken neck.

The stories from episode to episode unfold in a seemingly chaotic order. You may spend three episodes in a row on Stephen and Beth’s time as grad students in Illinois, then abruptly shift gears to travel nightmares that came with filming “My Father the Hero.” He sandwiches two episodes about his college years around one about the brilliance and insanity of “Deadwood” creator David Milch.

“What I wanted the stories to work as was the way memory works,” Tobolowsky explained, “which is that it’s not necessarily chronological. I think we all have this Google in our brain, and my Google pops up and five things come up. I didn’t want to tell the story of my life in any chronological way, but rather in how the importance of that intruded itself in that particular moment.”

As he revisits his life in this unstructured way, Tobolowsky often becomes audibly moved in the middle of a story, like discussing the college acting teacher who took his side when another professor was angling to have him kicked out of school. Though those are some of the most memorable parts of the podcast, Tobolowsky said that they aren’t planned, and they aren’t necessarily his favorite.

“I’ll get on with David, and then out of the blue, it’ll be like a truck hits me,” he said. “It ain’t acting. It’s what it is. I asked a friend of mine, ‘Is it distracting in the stories if I get moved by what I’m saying?’ And he said, ‘No no no. That’s one of my favorite parts.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s good,’ because for me, I don’t like doing that. I want to just get through the story and let the audience be affected or not affected as they want to be.”

“When Stephen’s telling a story for the recording, he’s there,” added Chen, “as opposed to when he’s rehearsing by himself. And I think that’s what causes a lot of the emotion. And I honestly think that the final product, when you hear the story affect Stephen, it’s refreshing in some way. We live in a world where people rarely express emotion in public in this way.”

Because these stories are from his own life, written by him, Tobolowsky has no shield to hide behind if people don’t like it. He can’t blame the script or the director or the makeup department. This is him. But that also means that when people do like it, the praise means even more to him.

“I have been very moved that people recognize me for me, whether good, bad or indifferent,” he said. “Whether people felt there were great tips in it for acting, or if people who have loved and lost, or people who are going through what I went through. It’s moved me a lot that the podcast has reached people on so many different levels.”

(A while back, Chen began publishing letters from readers – some praising the show, some sharing their own stories – on The Tobolowsky Testimonies.)

For the first time in his life, Tobolowsky is being recognized, at least on occasion, not as That Guy from a movie, but as Stephen Tobolowsky, liver of life and teller of tales. A few weeks ago, he was called up to say a prayer at the torah at his local synagogue,  “The cantor turned to me, after I’d finished the blessings for the Torah and whispered in my ear, ‘I love the story about “Glee.”‘ And I have never told anybody at the synagogue that I do this podcast!”

A few NPR stations have started airing the podcast, and Tobolowsky and Chen are hoping it might lead to a book, or some live performances, or possibly even one or more of the stories being adapted into a movie itself. But ultimately, both find the project fulfilling in and of itself.

“The ultimate endgame, for me, is to have a kind of memoir that is created in the form of memory,” said Tobolowsky. “This would be a great gift, for example, for my children. But I’m playing with the idea of writing something the way the mind remembers it. The only person I can think of who’s kind of done that was (Maxim) Gorky, when he did ‘My Childhood,’ ‘My Apprenticeship’ and ‘My Universities,’ in that he did a series of short stories that didn’t necessarily follow chronological order. For me, there’s an importance to that that I can’t answer to, but I feel it’s important.”

You can hear The Tobolowsky Files either at the show’s official website, or by subscribing to it on iTunes.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at