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Roles, yes, but always stories

A continuous thread of tales has infused Stephen Tobolowski's career. He's just now getting to the best part.

June 25, 2006|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

"AT 15, I won best actor in the state of Texas in the one-act play contest for 'The Trojan Women.' I played Talthybius -- I think I won because I was eye candy: I came out in a short skirt with armor, with a dead baby on my shield. You know the story? Talthybius is a Greek warrior -- he's not there to kill women and children -- but it's his job to throw this baby off the tower. And I still can remember the line that won me the award: 'I am not the man to do this. Some other without pity, not I, ashamed to be the herald of messages such as this.' "

The effect is mesmerizing -- not just the latent emotion still coiled in a monologue learned 40 years ago, but because it emanates from a tall, balding (OK, bald), vaguely bird-like man whom the film industry has conspired to make seem as ridiculous as he is invisible.

Stephen Tobolowsky, character actor -- he's forever dragging that epithet "character actor" behind his name like Jacob Marley's chains or Richard III's distended hump -- has appeared in roughly 175 screen and television roles since the mid-'80s, but you would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of them. Not because he's not memorable -- he's often the most striking thing on display -- but rather, because in a celebrity-saturated culture driven by a ferocious publicity apparatus, where we know the minutest details of Tom Cruise's nuptials or Brangelina's baby, attention is rarely accorded the myriad working actors who provide continuity to the movies.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name: The last name of actor Stephen Tobolowsky was misspelled as Tobolowski in a headline in Sunday's Calendar.

Yet think back on any era, the '70s, say, and it's rarely the stars that come to define it -- Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand -- so much as the characters or contract players -- John Cazale, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton. They are the glue and cement that connect background to foreground, one film to another and each generation to the next.

In Tobolowsky's case, you may remember him as Ned Ryerson, the insurance agent in "Groundhog Day" who embodies Sartre's notion that "hell is other people." Or guileless Sammy Jankis in "Memento." Or the head of the Ku Klux Klan in "Mississippi Burning." Or for a different demographic, perhaps as Mr. Bates in "Freaky Friday" or Happy Chapman in "The Garfield Movie." Most recently, his talents were on display as "the government man" in the second season of "Deadwood." And yet whether playing goofy comedy or searing drama, he has mastered the character actor's metier of sinking into the tapestry -- an affable, movable prop.

The reason he is reciting Euripides in the garden of the Studio City home he shares with his wife, actress Ann Hearn, demonstrating his actor's prowess in such an unalloyed fashion, is not to show off but rather as the punch line to a story.

It is this secondary skill as a consummate storyteller that seems to underlie everything he does -- from playwright and screenwriter to much-sought-after improv teacher to part-time psychic. And why not, when it's quite possible that the lost art of storytelling -- at least until "This American Life" -- may have been kept alive all these years in the form of talk show anecdotes, the actor's staple.

Now with the DVD release of "Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party," a feature-length collection of Tobolowsky's favorite anecdotes told to friends and family on the occasion of his 53rd birthday two years ago -- which, after a year on the festival circuit, he recently celebrated with a Hollywood-style release party at club du jour Aqua in Beverly Hills on May 30, his birthday -- Tobolowsky has finally gotten what his career has failed to provide him: His first starring role.

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"My daughter was in "Deadwood" -- she plays Tess, one of my hookers. There was a scene with Stephen where he's in a bubble bath, and she was there tending to him or whatever, and I walk in on them and say, 'Go ahead ... and let's get out of here.' The last time he'd seen my daughter was in the hospital, the night she was born."

-- Powers Boothe, actor, "Deadwood," among others

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Tobolowsky was born in Texas in 1951 in Oak Cliff, a section of Dallas, the son of a Jewish doctor in a town where Jews were in short supply (the nearest synagogue was 22 miles away). His aunt, Hermine Tobolowsky, was a (frequently vilified) activist lawyer who was known as the mother of the Texas Equal Rights Amendment, and an uncle, Edwin Tobolowsky, produced films for Dallas-based no-budget horror legend Larry Buchanan, which he learned only long after he had moved to Los Angeles. (Disclosure: Buchanan was my uncle.) In fact, perhaps the only demographic more underrepresented in pre-Kennedy assassination Texas was actors -- a calling that Tobolowsky heard early.

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