It used to be that when Stephen Tobolowsky stood on a crowded New York City sidewalk, passersby who recognized his tall frame and cue-ball head would call out appreciation for their favorite roles: “I loved you in Groundhog Day!” as punchable insurance agent Ned Ryerson. Or “I love you in Californication!” as the well-endowed Hollywood producer Stu Beggs.
With more than 200 film and TV credits to his name, the self-deprecating 61-year-old character actor rivals Kevin Bacon for the title of most connected man in Hollywood. But though many people recognize his face, few know him by name. That began to change one afternoon a couple of years ago, the first time a New Yorker slowed his car, rolled down the window and hollered, “Man, I love the stories!”
For nearly 60 episodes, the man who describes the sound of his own voice in the movie Sneakers as “kind of nasal and pinched” has hosted a podcast called The Tobolowsky Files, featuring stories from his life. Co-produced by David Chen of www.slashfilm.com, the show was recently picked up by Public Radio International for a four-episode test run. If successful, it could be distributed around the country. The Dangerous Animals Club, Tobolowsky’s first book of essays inspired by the podcast, was published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.
Now the writer and actor from Memento, Glee, Deadwood and Spaceballs will perform a new piece he has written, titled My Insignificant Year, on Sept. 29 at the second annual Ventura Comedy Festival, which runs through Sept. 30. A book signing will follow.
“I’m one of those people who thinks it’s good for things to be difficult,” Tobolowsky says. “Up until this time, I thought the hardest work was laying my own sod in my backyard. There’s an element about the stories that is much more permanent than film or television.”
Randy Lubas, who founded the festival last year, invited Tobolowsky to perform after seeing his show at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, where both their wives are company members. Though not traditional stand-up, Tobolowsky’s material struck Lubas with its “theatrical approach to storytelling.”
“It’s got nuance and subtlety and payoff and poignancy,” he says. Watching a comedian who can give you misty eyes as well as sidesplitting laughs is not unlike visiting a steakhouse and ordering a little lobster on the side, Lubas says. “It’s like getting a bonus.”
Tobolowsky’s stories run the gamut from the affecting to the absurd. There’s the one about taking a 1 a.m. tour of a Dallas bread factory with his then-girlfriend, playwright Beth Henley, and receiving steaming hot loaves soaked in butter. Another about getting held up at gunpoint while shopping for chicken and mangoes. Not to mention the one about visiting his 90-year-old father in Dallas and finding a prescription pad filled with autographs from the Green Bay Packers.
The stories are hilarious and moving, but more important, they’re true. In an age when live performers like Mike Daisey have been skewered for misrepresenting or altogether fabricating facts, Tobolowsky lives by his motto, “True trumps clever.” It helps that he was an obsessive note taker as a kid, and that he saved stacks of pages he can now refer to as he constructs a story.
Stretching the truth, he says, “hurts everybody. If I explain how I perceived something, to me that is an important truth, not to mess with the facts as I remember.”
That formula has led to a big year for Tobolowsky: his first book, and now the expansion of his show. Earlier this year he performed in England for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in a house so big it could fit a 300-seat proscenium theater. While in England, he found out via a Google alert that he’d been cast in The Mindy Project, the new show from Mindy Kaling, who can be seen playing Kelly on The Office. The man who has made a career out of supporting other people’s stories has finally, like David Copperfield, become the hero of his own life.
But perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Back in 1981 or 1982, when he was still doing theater in Buffalo, Tobolowsky’s long-dead grandmother came to him in a dream. She told him, “Stephen, all life is falling up. You start as a child. Everything rises from the ground up, and then your soul falls up.”
Tobolowsky asked a friend about it, who told him, “Dude, there’s a difference between a dream and a visitation. What you had was a visitation.”
“My whole life now, I’ve been thinking about falling up,” Tobolowsky says. “You plant a seed and the plant grows up toward the sky, and then it grows fruit. Human beings grow up, and then we fall into the sky when we’re done.”
His voice softens with reflection. Suddenly, it’s easy to understand why listeners tune in month after month to hear this man make sense of his life. His tone is personal, intimate. It’s as though he’s musing aloud to a friend.
“I don’t know. That’s what Granny told me.”
Stephen Tobolowsky, The Tobolowsky Files Live, Sat., Sept. 29, 3 p.m., Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, 1559 Spinnaker Drive, 205A, 644-1500. http://venturacomedyfestival.com/; www.stephentobolowsky.com