Local News
9:58 am
Sun October 7, 2012

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky on Playing Small Parts and Gathering Stories

Stephen Tobolowsky has a long career in film, television and stage acting. You may know him from his role as Ned Ryerson on Groundhog Day...or as Sandy Ryerson on Glee...or as Hugo Jarry on Deadwood...or as the plumber in You May Not Kiss the Bride.

He's played so many roles, he doesn't remember all of them.

"I think I counted and it's been over 120 movies and 200 some-odd television shows," he said on WFPL's Byline.

That's a lot, but it trails Christopher Lee (another name you may not know, but a face your recognize), who holds the world record for film appearances with about 275. Lee was an early idol of Tobolowsky's, and has about a 30 year head-start in his career.

"We've got to stop him," joked Tobolowsky, adding "When you play character roles, you do have the opportunity to be in lots of different films. There's always a place where they need an expert in geology or a serial killer."

This wasn't the career Tobolowsky had in mind.

"When I was very little, I thought the whole idea of being an actor was you got to hang out with monsters. I thought the Wolfman and Godzilla were real...it was only later I thought being an actor meant I'm going to be on Broadway," he said. "I did not know it would be playing Buttcrack Plumber on 'You May Not Kiss the Bride.'"

Tobolowsky's theater bona fides have been well established, and his writing work for the stage and film (he co-wrote True Stories with David Byrne) has earned praise. And apart from a string of appearances on popular TV shows in the last decade, it's Tobolowsky's storytelling that has introduced him to a new audience.

Sharp-eared listeners likely know Tobolowsky from his podcast, the Tobolowsky Files, in which he shares stories from his life and career.His new memoir, the Dangerous Animals Club, is a collection of true stories, the likes of which he shared on the Tobolowsky Files and in the 2005 film Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (you can watch the whole movie online). 

Tobolowsky says the book "isn't a showbiz book." He wanted the stories to be more relatable for audiences. All of the stories are true, and to listen to the podcast or read the book is to marvel at the author's ability to turn tales from his life into intriguing stories.

"There's always a difference in my head between an event and a story," he says.

Tobolowsky's stories often span decades, with childhood memories bumping against modern backlot anecdotes. It can take years for a story to truly develop, and for all the pieces to come into place.

"I want the stories and the construction of Dangerous Animals Club to work the same way the human mind does, so the reader puts the parts together the same way they would a memory," he says.

Public Radio International has picked up the rights to develop The Tobolowsky Files as a radio show, so more stories are on the way. The writer Jonathan Ames once said that he found himself going on adventures strictly so he could write about them in a regular column he had at the time. But Tobolowsky says he waits for stories to happen to him.

"I think it's a little like the uncertainty principle. The more you look for a story to occur, the less likelihood there is something interesting will happen. I think it's a matter of something happens to you, then you begin to see the pieces around it," he says.