Sympathetic Vibrations: An Interview with Stephen Tobolowsky

Often when you’re working with an actor, you’re on the receiving end of pre-packaged answers on a range of topics they’re sick of talking about – but this isn’t the case with Stephen Tobolowsky, as David Farrier discovers.

You may not think you know Stephen Tobolowsky, but you do.

He’s been in hundreds of movies and TV shows – compare that to Ryan Gosling, who clocks in at 35, or Hollywood’s elder statesman Clint Eastwood, who’s been in 67. Tobolowsky, or ‘Tobo’ as he likes to be called, has been in 214.

Today he’s driving from his West Hollywood home to meet me at my two-star Santa Monica hotel. I don’t know why he’s agreed to do this: He’s far too busy. One of his shows, Californication, starts shooting its fifth season next week and he’s currently finishing The Dangerous Animals Club, a book based on his podcast The Tobolowsky Files. Speaking of which: he has another of those to record this afternoon.

The 60-year-old is quick to smile and greets me warmly with a handshake, before apologising for having to quickly write an email to one of his acting students. As he types, I take the opportunity to explore his face, which transports me through my entire life as a cinema and television fan: There’s Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day. Sammy Jankis from Memento. More recently, Bob Bishop from Heroes, Hugo Jarry from Deadwood and Stu Beggs from Californication. Then I remember he was in Bird on a Wire: I was eight.

He finishes his email and we begin strolling towards Santa Monica beach. On the way, we pass an upmarket hotel. He laughs and does what he does best – tells a story. “I went scotch tasting there with my synagogue. The guy sitting next to me said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I’m an actor’. And he said, ‘Would you be in anything I’ve seen?’ And I said, ‘Probably a lot of things.’ And he said, ‘Well I don’t recognize you. I work at Paramount – what have you done there?’ And I said, ‘Ah, Glee?’ He said ‘I don’t watch that show.’ Anyway, this guy says, ‘I’m head at legal at Paramount and I think I’d know who you were.’ So we walk into the hotel and who’s there but Steven Spielberg. Steven comes up to me and says, ‘You’re here, you’re here, I can’t believe you’re here! You’ve got to come over to my table!’ It was such an Annie Hall moment, like, it couldn’t have been better.”

His position in Hollywood didn’t come easily, and he struggled like any new actor in LA struggled. He began in theatre, where he still acts and directs to this day. But after successful roles in films like Mississippi Burning, he found that Hollywood also fulfilled his passion to act. Today, his credentials are mind-boggling. Name any cult or hit show of the last two decades and he’s probably been in it. From Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm, Beethoven to Basic Instinct – Tobo’s increasingly bald head has been shining out at you. Although sometimes it isn’t – he’s credited on 2010’s Buried as the voice Ryan Reynolds hears on the other end of the phone line.

For me, walking with Tobo towards the beach is surreal. It’s the first time we’ve met, but after listening to all 55 hours of The Tobolowsky Files podcasts, I feel like I know him far better than I should. I know about his first long-term girlfriend Beth and his old band The LA Slugs. I know he loves horse riding and listening to Nine Inch Nails. I know he had triple bypass surgery two years ago and said goodbye to his wife and two children before he went under the knife. I know he was addicted to cocaine during his twenties, but swapped that out for Saturday synagogue.

I tell him it must be strange to know that I, and all his other listeners, know all this. “Yes. My wife had a great analogy. She says if you open up a grand piano, and you yell into the grand piano, you hear the rapport back of the strings, where the sympathetic vibrations are.” He says he gets emails from people all over the world telling him how his stories have reached out and helped them. “I guess the original story was the origin of the podcast: I had broken my neck. I was riding a horse in Iceland on the side of an active volcano – you’d think it would be dangerous – AND IT WAS! The horse threw me onto a hardened lava flow and I got a fatal injury. That’s what the doctor told me: Fatal. But I realised in that period of time in which I was unconscious I could never have seen my wife or children again. And so while I was in my neck brace and I couldn’t really do anything but write, I thought, ‘I’ll start writing stories so my kids will know who their dad was, what he looked like when he fell in love, what he looked like when he was in trouble.’”

He started recording the podcasts in November 2009 and soon began telling stories about his first love, the award-winning playwright behind Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, Beth Henley. Or as Tobo describes her, “That first girl that’s going to be the love of your life.” As he was recording a story involving Beth, a friend said that he should tell her he was doing this: She had a right to know that personal stories about her were coming out the closet. Tobo sighs. “I hadn’t spoken to her for decades. When you get as old as I am you have decades to make decisions and regrets and all sorts of things, and it weighs on you.” They met, and he told her about the podcasts. Beth wasn’t pleased and she told him she’d be calling her lawyers. He asked her to at least read a few stories first and mull over them. She agreed, and Tobo recalls her email perfectly: ‘I think your stories are a real gift. And I think they are beautiful and I appreciate it.’ “That was a rapport into the piano that I never expected. In a way, it took mountains of anger and hurt and regret off of my back that I never expected to get off my back by telling those stories. Now the stories go all over the world and I cannot tell you the number of people who write me every week, telling me how a certain story helped their life, or affected their life, or changed their life, that won’t even be what the story was about!”

These days, Tobo is happily married to his wife of 23 years, actor Ann Hearn. They have two boys, 18 and 22, and three cats: “A lover, a serial killer, and a compulsive snacker.” He pulls out his phone and shows me the compulsive snacker, splayed out on a bed. By now we’ve reached the Santa Monica pier and he’s onto another story that took place three decades ago. He was fishing off the pier with his friend, a Hollywood agent, Joel. “We used to get stoned on a certain kind of pot that made it difficult to see more than three feet in front of your face.” Not only had they gone fishing in this state, but they’d managed to land a shark. In his stoned state, Joel insisted they release it, so while Tobo straddled the shark and held up its nose, his friend reached into the shark’s mouth and removed the hook. Tobo jumps to his feet, giddily re-enacting what took place. “WE DID WHAT?” he yells, as if he can’t believe it himself.

I tell him that between the shark, the horse and his heart, it’s a miracle he’s still alive. Not to mention the years of cocaine addiction. “In my life I’ve dodged a lot of bullets. I have amazing respect for the bullet and the dodging.” I ask if he’s ever come close to a relapse. “I still occasionally in the day think, ‘Hey, I’d like to do just one line.’ It’s still there.” But he doesn’t. It’s been 23 years. “I think it burns up your life energy very fast and it ages you. Almost everyone I know who did coke is dead or dying and they haven’t had good deaths.”

Tobo’s influence in Hollywood has spread in surreal ways. He once told David Bryne of Talking Heads a story that led to the band naming one of their songs ‘Radio Head’ – and years later, a small group from Oxfordshire fell in love with the title and named themselves after it. But for a man who’s worked with so many in Hollywood, he tells me there’s only a few he’d really like to work with again. He mentions Deadwood creator, David Milch and Brazilian director, Bruno Barreto. And then, perhaps surprisingly, he says Mel Gibson. “He’s become such a pariah in the world now: He is the poster boy of insanity, anti -Semitism, whatever you want to say.” We diverge here, both finding we have a shared love of Apocolypto and Braveheart. I remember when Mel was just Mel, not some crazy guy. Tobo experienced this firsthand.

.“I had such a great time working with Mel on Bird on a Wire. It was a long time ago, but Mel was the guy who gave me advice on how to be a father when Ann was pregnant. We spent a couple of months together shooting, and he was gracious and professional.” He talks about Mel with genuine warmth. He’s not one to jump to conspiracy theories (“Even though they exist everywhere”), but thinks Passion of the Christ “pissed off” a lot of people. “It’s interesting his ex-wife of 20-something odd years, after all of that came out, she spoke on his behalf and said he is a magnificent father. And that’s the Mel I knew. He made a huge impression on me. And everyone knows people go through things and change.”

Tobo is all about redemption – it’s a topic he comes back to again and again. I ask if there’s one bit of advice he’s got after all these years in Hollywood. “Here’s one I just thought of yesterday: It was in an old notebook of mine when I was a single man and I didn’t have any kids. And I said there are two things thing I’d try and teach my children: There’s no such thing as a secret, and everything has a cost. If I can teach those two things to my kids they’ll have a much happier life.”

At 60, Tobo says he’s happy with his lot in Hollywood. He’s living his dream, “And that’s the funny thing about dreams: Dreams change as you change – as you grow older. You know when I was a child, I thought being an actor meant I would have easy access to the Wolfman and the Mummy. Then I got older and thought being an actor meant you would get notoriety and fame, and – this is humiliating – I used to practice Academy Awards speeches in the shower when I was 10. When I was 10! It was like Charlton Heston: If he was going to be in the 10 Commandments, I was going to be in an even longer movie called The Torah.”

Often when you’re interviewing an actor, you’re on the receiving end of pre-packaged answers on a range of topics they’re sick of talking about. With Stephen Tobolowsky, it’s all considered and measured. As if to prove this point, he emails me later in the afternoon, to reinforce a point he’d made at the beach. “Dear David. I had a wonderful time today. It was beautiful out by the sea and I enjoyed the talk. On the way home they had a news story about a middle school teacher here. She was fired when it was discovered she had been a porn actress a few years ago. She is saying the firing is unfair: She has changed her life and she shouldn't have that held against her. Perfect example of: There are no secrets and everything has a cost.”

I think I finally understand why Tobo agreed to meet me at my two-star hotel: I was one of the strings in that grand piano he’d talked about. I’d heard him yell – through his acting and his podcast – and I’d vibrated back. Stephen Tobolowsky enjoys the feedback as much he enjoys telling the tales. He wants to know they’re being heard, and heeded.


Watch David's conversation with Tobo in Santa Monica here:

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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