“I was in New York, doing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing yet another pedophile — can’t seem to shake that role — and some guy driving by yelled out, ‘Tobolowsky! Love the podcast!’ ”
Stephen Tobolowsky has had hundreds of character parts in movies and television shows, in everything from Deadwood to Glee, but with a single "Bing!" and then many more exclamations of it, he turned a small role in Groundhog Day into a permanent staple of the cultural consciousness. Tobolowsky is also a magnetic storyteller, a gift on display in his podcast The Tobolowsky Files. Whether he's talking about the loss of his mother or recording a song with a then-unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tobolowsky is never less than insightful, funny, and startlingly personal. He will be performing The Tobolowsky Files live at the Brattle Theatre on November 11-13. Over coffee in Studio City, California, we talked about his podcast, his career, and why he's played so many pedophiles.
WHAT KIND OF ACTING WORK DID YOU DO WHEN YOU MOVED OUT TO LOS ANGELES IN THE '70S? I did a lot of local theater here. I did a commercial for Burger Chef. And, I began to see the way the world worked. I had a burger biter. I remember her name was Debbie, and she bit the hamburger for me because she had a perfect bite. And, she weighed, like, 300 pounds. She would bite the burger, hand it to me, and then I would put it up to my mouth and go, "That's one great burger!" I saw the way Hollywood worked then.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU GOT THOSE FIRST JOBS IN LA? I must have been about 25 or 26. I don't know when the first pangs of failure come in, but as a kid, you always imagine when you go to college, you'll know something, or you'll see the future ahead of you and there will be a clear pathway. And I was really firmly on the road to failure when I was in grad school. I thought, "Oh, I'm losing my hair, it's not going to get any better. I can see if I go back to Dallas, I'll be Stephen Without Hair, and that isn't going to work. What can I do?" And I thought, "I could go to LA." There was just so much more work here. I was lucky. I was lucky in that I was stupid enough to not see the warning signs on the road saying, "Turn back. Turn back now."
Finally, I started getting work, and then one job lead to another, and then eventually you get a kind of big job here or big job there that sustains you and floats you and you keep going. For me, I guess, the obvious big job that comes to my mind is Groundhog Day. After that, people were asking me to do jobs.
ARE PEOPLE NOW RECOGNIZING YOU FROM YOUR PODCAST RATHER THAN YOUR ACTING WORK? I was in New York, doing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, playing yet another pedophile — can't seem to shake that role — and some guy driving by yelled out, "Tobolowsky! Love the podcast!"