Stephen Tobolowsky is one of the preeminent “That Guys” in American film and television , a man with over 200 roles in his career, from “Deadwood” to “Glee,” from “Spaceballs” to “Dweebs,” although he’s most recognized as Sammy Jenkins from Memento and Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day. But he’s also an amazing and gifted storyteller, a man that can draw you in with his kind face and the promise of Hollywood gossip — he’s worked with everyone — only to steer you toward the unexpected, away from movies and television, away from Hollywood, and smack dab in the middle of epiphany. It’s a late career gift for Tobolowsky, but it’s an even bigger gift to an ever-expanding audience given the privilege of listening to Tobolowsky’s touching and profound stories.
Last year, Dave Chen — Senior Editor of Slashfilm, the man behind the site’s popular weekly podcast, and one of the more genuine and intelligent film writers on the web — ordered a DVD copy of Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, an little-seen 2005 90-minute documentary in which Tobolowsky shares a series of personal and professional stories with friends at his birthday party. Unsure if his online order went through, Dave called up the customer service line and the director of the documentary, Robert Brinkmann, answered the phone. One thing led to another, and soon thereafter, Tobolowsky arrived as a guest on the Slashfilm Podcast. And then he became a guest again. And again, and soon, Tobolowsky was no longer talking about film or television; he was talking about things of a more personal nature. Chen, seeing an opportunity, spun off a separate podcast devoted to Tobolowsky’s life stories, and “The Tobolowsky Files” was thus born as a way to memorialize Tobolowsky’s life, the tale about the death of his mother, as well as a 17-year-relationship with Pulitzer Prize winner, Beth Henley. The show has quickly gained steam over the course of the year. It’s regularly one of the most listened to podcasts on ITunes, it airs on several public radio stations around the country, and next year, Tobolowsky’s stories will be availble in book form.
Last night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tobolowsky told a few of his stories in front of a rapt audience in Harvard Square’s Brattle Theater. As a critic hardened by years of Adam Sandler and Martin Lawrence films, too much television, and a popular culture obsessed with celebrity, the show offered one of those rare magical nights of entertainment that had nothing to do with any of that, or with anything that would likely show up in the pages of the web’s film and celebrity blogs. It was just one man on a stage telling stories, and it was somehow more flooring than the special effects of Tarsem Singh, and more touching than a Jason Katims’ drama. More remarkable still is that these stories are all real.
Fans of “The Tobolowsky Files” already know this, but Tobolowsky has an amazing ability to find the extraordinary in the smallest of minutia, to pile events — both big and small — on top of each other, color them wth details, weave all these strings together, and extract the profound. They’re like “The Simpsons” episodes: They start in one place and wind up in a completely different one, but he finds a through line, hits upon a number of universal themes, and breathtakingly brings it home with kindness, and with humor. He seems almost as amazed by his own stories while telling them as the audience is listening, which makes the experience even more enjoyable. I’ve heard a number of his podcasts now, and I’m consistently amazed with his ability to penetrate daily life and pull out the nuggets of wisdom, or find something in these bizarre, almost unreal events with which we’re able to relate. There are stories of courage, of inspiration, and of miracles. Stephen Tobolowsky has led a remarkable life, and a prolific acting career that’s spanned decades is only the tip of the iceberg. These stories are about life, and about love, and about finding inspiration in anything, and they are told with enthusiasm, and optimism, and joy for life. I hate to sound like I’m overselling it, but I think anyone who has listened to a “The Tobolowsky Files” will agree: They are a goddamn pleasure.