|BING!: Stephen Tobolowsky stars in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party. Imagine that.|
During the opening night gala of Austin’s SXSW film festival in March, Stephen Tobolowsky and I find ourselves shouting over the live music and getting bumped by strangers in an increasingly crowded bar as he tells me stories about the couple from Philadelphia who go to a Broadway show and eat cheesecake every year on their wedding anniversary, the time he and his wife went to Iceland to ride horses, and the makeup artist who thought she saw Sir Lawrence Olivier touching himself.
We are interrupted more than a few times, like when a passerby stops to wag his finger at Tobolowsky and me and asks, “Are you two related?” There are a couple of photographers who snap our picture, undoubtedly captioned wherever they will appear as “Actor Stephen Tobolowsky (left) and unidentified party guest.”
And there is Shauna, a SXSW volunteer who apologizes for interrupting because Tobolowsky and I look so engrossed in conversation, but she just has to tell him what a big fan she is, and will he please sign her badge? As he does so, she explains that in the 10 years she’s worked at the festival, the only other luminary whose autograph she’s asked for was Dr. Demento. I nod approvingly, as if to underscore the significance of that.
But perhaps the most telling anecdote from our first meeting happens very soon after we sit down. A guy at the next table looks over his left shoulder and sees Tobolowsky. Recognition is quick and confirmation swift. The guy asks, “Groundhog Day, right?”
For years, I, too, knew him only as “the Groundhog Day guy,” the insurance salesman Ned Ryerson from the 1993 movie. The guy who says, “Bing!” But I kept seeing him in bit roles in movies big and small, as recurring characters on obscure TV shows, and in guest appearances on hit sitcoms. That was him in The Insider. He played Sammy Jankis, the protagonist of the story within the story of Memento. Wasn’t he in The Grifters? I think I saw him in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle.
A couple of years ago, I finally decided to look him up on the Internet Movie Database so I wouldn’t have to say, “Hey, look! It’s that guy from Groundhog Day,” every time I saw him. I could say, “Hey, look! It’s Stephen Tobolowsky.”
As I learned more about him, I felt a sort of kinship. He’s from Dallas; I’m from Dallas. He went to SMU; I went to SMU. He’s a dorky-looking white guy; I’m a dorky-looking white guy. Granted, he’s 53, married, and a father of two, and I’m 32, married, and years away from fatherhood. But still, I felt like I knew him before I had even met him.
Tobolowsky is a consummate character actor, toiling in relative anonymity in an industry in which people thrive on recognition. Whether he’s delivering an impassioned firebrand speech in Mississippi Burning or getting eaten by piranhas as Bad Guy No. 2 in Bird on a Wire, Tobolowsky fills the screen. He has appeared in nearly 100 movies and twice as many TV shows, not to mention Broadway productions, in a career spanning three decades. Yet people still confuse him with their pharmacist.
Now comes Tobolowsky’s most ambitious role to date: himself. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party is 87 minutes of pure Tobolowsky and just Tobolowsky. It’s him telling stories, sharing tales about his audition for the role of Ronald McDonald while a student at SMU in 1970, about being held at gunpoint at Snider Plaza for nearly an hour, about the process of making Buzz magazine’s list of 100 Coolest People in LA, about discovering he was going to be a father for the first time, and about the death of a dear friend. Part documentary, part spoken-word performance, the movie is a low-budget labor of love currently making the film-festival circuit, including SXSW and Dallas’ USA Film Festival in late April.
Even if the movie fails to find wide release-Tobolowsky and the director are still searching for a distributor-it proves two things. One, Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller, with a natural sense of pacing and body language and pertinent details and overarching themes. And two, there’s hope for dorky-looking white guys everywhere.
Cinematographer Robert Brinkmann and Tobolowsky met in 1987 on the set of a movie called Two Idiots in Hollywood, a movie Tobolowsky directed based on a play that he wrote. The two became fast friends, and the idea for Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party was born. Brinkmann wanted to film Tobolowsky in his element: telling stories in front of friends. Tobolowsky figured, if nothing else, the project would be a gift to his children. When they were mature enough to understand youthful indiscretions, they could hear their old man tell stories of his wilder days, back when he had hair, as he says. It took about 15 years for Brinkmann and Tobolowsky to have corresponding breaks in their schedules and for the idea of the movie to become a reality.
Not surprisingly, Brinkmann ended up with more footage than he could use. The first cut of the film was nearly four hours long. Tobolowsky’s story about his date with a stripper ended up on the cutting room floor, as did the aforementioned Sir Lawrence Olivier anecdote. (He was innocently cleaning his glasses.)
The second night of SXSW is much quieter than the first. Tobolowsky and I are in the Austin Convention Center, outside the theater where his movie will have its screening in a little more than an hour. We’re away from the “House of Noise,” as Tobolowsky called the previous night’s venue, and finally able to talk without shouting and without interruption. As Tobolowsky sketches the timeline of his life, he digresses onto tangents. I’m in his private audience for Stephen Tobolowsky stories.
For instance, his parents still live in Dallas but no longer have their Oak Cliff house where Stephen grew up. Lenora, the woman who cleaned it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was a sales representative for Avon. She was eventually promoted to sales manager-and became a millionaire in the process. She bought the house from them, not out of vindication but out of pride. “I worked in this house, and now I own it,” she said.
At Kimball High School, Tobolowsky was on the student council, won many debate awards, was voted Most Likely to Succeed, and took up the piano, mostly to get closer to a girl named Claire Richardson. Tobolowsky still plays piano, about two hours a day, and plays all of the music in Birthday Party, including Bach’s “Prelude #1 in C Major,” Beethoven’s “Sonata Opus 13 in A Flat,” and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
He made money in college as a psychic.
He broke his foot during his last day of a jazz dance class at the University of Illinois. (Tobolowsky was working on a master’s degree in acting, but he quit when he realized, as he puts it, “I needed a master’s degree like I needed another hole in my head.”) Because of a mix-up at the hospital, he ended up with two casts, one on top of the other. To this day, he swears his right leg is slightly smaller than his left.
But the story of Tobolowsky’s favorite role ever is the one I imagine Brinkmann had the hardest time cutting from the movie. It was 1976 in LA, and Tobolowsky was still looking for his first real acting job. After a brief stint with a Spanish-speaking children’s theater company-even though Tobolowsky didn’t speak Spanish-he found work with an English-speaking one, getting paid about $200 a week.
One of his first performances with the company was at a high school where there had been race riots. Tobolowsky and his fellow actors were warned about the dangers of performing there. Sure enough, at the beginning of the production, the kids were throwing bottles and trash. But the show went on, and at the end of it, the kids gave them a standing ovation. The riots stopped.
“That was significant,” Tobolowsky says. What he does for a living rarely is, he confesses. He’s not like his brother, a doctor who has a private practice in Dallas. It’s not like he’s saving lives.
“You know, putting ham and eggs in your underpants and walking three blocks while keeping it all in there is difficult,” he says. “But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.”
Tobolowsky left Austin before the weeklong festival was over to fly home and spend a little time with his family. He had a taping of HBO’s Deadwood in a couple of days, and he was shooting an episode of Miami:CSI the day after that.
He plays the assistant state attorney in that one.