Contains Stephen Tobolowsky at the Pleasance
Published in Scotland on Sunday Aug 17
After appearing in more than 200 movies, Stephen Tobolowsky should need no introduction when he arrives in Edinburgh for his one man show. You should certainly know the face.
“There’s no way, in any world that I am famous,” amends Tobolowsky. “I get recognised — but not as an actor. When I was in Canada, people thought they’d played hockey with me,
In Edinburgh they wanted to know if I worked in the distillery. People recognise my face, but they don’t associate me with being an actor until I say ‘well, maybe you saw me in Groundhog Day or something’, and they go ‘Oh my gosh!”.
Tall, smiley, and bespectacled, Tobolowsky is one of America’s favourite character actors. He was legendary amnesiac Sammy Jankis in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, a police psychologist alongside Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, the jeweller seduced by Annette Bening at the start of Stephen Frears’ The Grifters. On TV he’s been on Glee, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, Deadwood, Californication and on and on. “I was channel hopping in Canada when they had three stations and I was on all of them at once, at various stages of getting thinner and hairier, like Dorian Gray in reverse.”
Despite his ubiquity on screen, Tobolowsky has still found time for several other lives. He’s an accomplished musician, stage director and screenwriter who co-wrote True Stories for David Byrne., and remembers two hours where he and the Talking Heads’ frontsman stared wordlessly Byrne’s drawings on the walls of his empty house, while seeking inspiration.
He’s also a great, leisurely raconteur, on stage, screen and podcast. Now the Tobolowsky Files are coming to the Pleasance, each day containing a different set of anecdotes about matters such as love, a mind-altering Christmas party where the dog started talking to him, and how he accidentally came to christen Radiohead.
Tobolowsky is an affable human jukebox of yarns, with such a packed life — and near death on a couple of occasions — that he isn’t sure how many of his move anecdotes will make it into his sets. It may be down to the audience to draw him out during the Q and A at the end of the show, when you can coax him into chat about shooting a simulated Klan rally while making Mississippi Burning or how his demise in a Mel Gibson movie was upgraded from being eaten by jaguars to being devoured by piranhas (the director assured him they were actually “vegetarian piranhas”). It’s his first time onstage in Scotland, but not his first visit. He’s toured the country several times, and his wife Ann is a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street in The Scotsman. Tobolowsky has also worked with Bill Forsyth on one of the director’s late-period Hollywood films, a 1989 vignette about safecrackers called Breaking In.
“Where is Bill now,” he asks eagerly.
I tell him that Forsyth has not made a feature since Gregory’s Two Girls in 1999.
“That’s sad — unbelievable,” cries Tobolowsky. “Bill makes these little, personal stories that contain the whole damn universe. There are few directors who leave you tongue-tied, and he was one of them. I was so thrilled to meet him. On set, I even tried out my Scottish accent. I went [heavy, Grounds Keeper Willy voice] ‘Here is my Scottish, Bill. What do you think?’
And Bill just stared at me then said ‘That’s not Scottish, Stephen, that’s some demented Dutch.’
The chaffing between director and his supporting actor was altogether warmer than the rapport between Forsyth and his Breaking In’s star, Burt Reynolds. “Burt Reynolds is an odd fellow to begin with,” says Tobolowsky, without malice. “It was also a time in Burt’s career when he was moving from being a sex star to a character actor. I think he was finding things tough, and it really took Boogie Nights to achieve that.”
By contrast Tobolowsky seem to be able to bond with the prickliest personalities. His audition for Stephen Frears had a particularly unpromising start after suggesting they discuss the script.
“What do you think this?” snarled the Queen director. “ PBS?
“I left the audition, wringing wet and chucked the script in the dumpster,” recalls the actor. “Then I called my agent and said ‘that audition was like a bad organ transplant. I promise I will never get that job.’”
A week later, Frears called. “That was a wonderful audition,” he told Tobolowsky. “we would absolutely love having you in the film.”
Later he offered Tobolowsky a part in another picture,the Dustin Hoffman picture Accidental Hero. “When I arrived on I show up on the set, and he says ‘I need somebody on this film that I can rely on’. Woking with Stephen Frears was one of the most gentle, creative, positive experiences I have ever had. A real actor’s director but it was such an odd start, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”
Tobolowsky is based in Los Angeles, where his morning room overlooks neat bushels of roses and lavender. Originally however he was raised in Texas where he discovered an affinity with acting at Sunday school paeants. He had other interests too: in high school he played in a folk rock band called A Cast of Thousands. When they decided to record a couple of songs, someone suggested bolstering their sound by bring in a younger kid with a knack for lead guitar.
Tobolowsky was unconvinced. “I said ‘ We don’t want any 14-year-old kid playing on our album.’ But we walk into the recording studio, and Stevie is already there sitting on metal folding chair, with his red Gibson guitar and when we start recording he leads into a blistering, burning, sensational guitar lead, a la Clapton, a la Hendrix.
At the end we were standing there with our mouths open. And that was the first recording of Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
It was a one-off, although Tobolowsky ran into Vaughan years later just before a helicopter accident took the man reckoned to be one of the world’s greatest guitarists. “ I was doing Great Balls of Fire in Memphis, Tennesee, with his brother Jimmy Vaughan. We stop to have breakfast at a little diner, and there, sitting at the diner, is Stevie Ray. I go up to Stevie. I go, “Stevie? Stephen Tobolowsky — Cast of Thousands.” And he said, “Man, we don’t ever talk about that one”
When he arrived in Hollywood in 1976, the town’s general response to the new boy was summed up by the director Bruce Beresford. “He said I would never have a film career because I wasn’t photogenic.”
In spite of Beresford, Tobowsky has played hundreds of characters — although his breakthrough remains Needle Nose Ned, the overeager salesman who doorsteps Bill Murray infinitely in Groundhog Day. The moment where Murray punches out his former classmate showcases one of the best comic spins this side of Tom and Jerry.
“The director Harold Ramis said to me, ‘be as broad as you want. You’re the spice! Bill is the stew’.” In Woodstock where the scene was shot, there’s now a plaque marking the spot as “Ned’s Corner’.
“First day with Bill, a thousand people gathered to watch us. And Bill looked at me and said, “You know what these people need? Danish pastry!”. So we rushed off to the town bakery, and Bill said, “I want every Danish you have.” Then he handed over a wad of cash, and they handed back boxes and boxes of Danish which we went out handed to everyone. And that was my first moment on “Groundhog Day.””
Stephen Tobolowsky: The Tobolowsky Files, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 18–31 Aug, 5.20pm