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The Jigsaw Life of Stephen Tobolowsky

After nearly 300 roles, you almost certainly know the actor’s face. And after nearly 100 episodes of his highly personal storytelling podcast, he’s starting to get to know himself.

Stephen Tobolowsky has a story to tell. Or, put another way, Stephen Tobolowsky has many stories to tell, but really, it’s just one big story. It’s the story of a kid from Dallas who grew up learning to entertain himself and then went on to become one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, thanks to memorable roles in everything from Spaceballs to his current jobs on One Day at a Time and The Goldbergs — with especially memorable stops in movies like Groundhog Day (as “Ned. Ryerson! Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head…”) and Memento along the way. 

Except that’s not how Tobolowsky tells it. Toblolowsky’s account of his life, via his books The Dangerous Animals Club and My Adventures with God and the podcast The Tobolowsky Files, never follows a straight line. Tobolowsky’s stories tend to drift — purposefully and meaningfully — across time and space in ways that find connections from seemingly unrelated moments in his life, as if with each memory he’d been given clues in a search for meaning and needed to turn them into stories to figure it out. It’s just how he sees things.

It’s also pretty persuasive. Tobolowsky launched a second career as a storyteller in his early 50s with the film Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party. In 2009, that led podcast host and creator David Chen to ask Tobolowsky if he had more stories and if he could help “get them out into the world.” That led to the creation of The Tobolowsky Files, which has served as an outlet for Tobolowsky’s stories ever since, and has recently returned from a three-year hiatus for a new, 16-episode season, which will conclude with the series’ 99th episode.

If that seems like more stories than one man’s life, no matter how eventful, could produce, its longevity comes as a surprise to Tobolowsky, as well. “When I did the heart surgery episodes, which I think are somewhere in the 50s [in episode numbers], I thought, ‘This is probably it for me,’” Tobolowsky says, speaking via Zoom from L.A. He’s referring to the major open-heart surgery he underwent in 2011, which easily could have ended his life. Instead it became more storytelling fodder, leading to three Tobolowsky Files episodes and becoming another major touchpoint in the story of his life, joining his Texas childhood, his tumultuous grad school experiences, his long relationship and subsequent break-up with playwright Beth Henley, his struggle with cocaine addiction, his marriage to actress Ann Hearn and a 2008 horseback-riding accident in Iceland in which he broke his neck in five places — a story he could recount but also return to and reexamine in the light of other stories.

So why the break? And why come back now? 

As with many of Tobolowsky’s stories, it’s related to a drive to work — and an eagerness for productions to employ him — that’s made his IMDb page approach 300 credits. “The reason for the break was very undramatic,” he explains. “I never got so much acting work in my life. And the reason is, what I tried to explain to David Chen is, if you have a job, would you like to make three phone calls or 50 phone calls? Most people would wanna make three phone calls. If you get paid the same amount of money, give me three phone calls.” 

Specifically, one job has led to another at Sony Pictures Studios, thanks to overlapping gigs at Silicon Valley, The Goldbergs, One Day at a Time and other shows. The pandemic, however, put a pause on that productivity. “It isn’t conducive to sitting down and writing,” he says, “But, the pandemic really is. Physically, I had the time to write, and I had the time to think and write. And I guess in a kind of more spiritual way, I ran into a couple of facts that shook my head up, and I went, ‘Oh, this is what I wanna write about.’”

Listening to Tobowlosky talk about the process of writing the new season is a bit like listening to an episode of the podcast itself, as talk of being locked down leads to a discussion of how “essence” is a “made-up kind of word,” the result of Roman translators of Aristotle straining to translate the Greek equivalent of “The what it was to be” into Latin. “The guys, the Latin guys, had no idea what the hell that was gonna translate as,” Tobolowsky says, “so they called it ‘essentia,’ or whatever, which English people translated later as essence, and that’s how the word came about. But what Aristotle was saying is the only way to really know something is that there are two components: That which is known and that which is hidden. When you know both of them, then you know the essence of a thing.” 

It’s a way of thinking that explains how a horse-riding accident or a memory of working on the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire could become portals to deeper truths. It was on the set of that film that he learned that Hearn was pregnant with their first child. Not knowing anyone, Tobolowsky sought someone out with whom to share the news. “I have to find someone to tell,” he recalls. ‘And I’m looking for someone to tell, and there’s the maid in my room. And I tell her, and that didn’t work. And I tell the bartender. … And then I see [a stuntman named] Dick in the restaurant, and I tell him, and he says, ‘Buddy, you are in it now.’ He says, ‘When you have a child, your life will never be the same again, ever.’” 

That could be the end of the story, and for years it was. To Tobolowsky, that’s what was known. Years later, he found out what was hidden. “Fourteen years later, our little baby’s 14 and [our second child] William is like 10. And Ann and I get a babysitter, we go out to dinner, and I feel these hands come down on my shoulders,” Tobolowsky says. “Boom, I turn around, and it’s Dick. And he says, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to tell. I was walking down the street and I had to find someone to tell. And I saw you in here. I just lost my firstborn, my baby. Steven, when you lose a child your life will never be the same again, ever.’ He says, ‘I needed someone who would understand, and I know you would know.’” 

He cites this as an example of why he only really got into storytelling when he gave up polishing and embellishing the tales he told others. “Now, see if I’d lied about the first story, if I’d lied about Ann telling me about the pregnancy, I couldn’t have told the second part of the story, which is the profound part of the story, because you’ve already screwed it up by making it… Oh, hyping it up or making it more sensational or whatever than it was. And I find if you tell a true story, those stories come back again.”

Finding those connections, however odd and sometimes unsettling, has proven one advantage to creating an autobiography out of sequence. “[TV critic] Alan Sepinwall described it as the serialized man,” Tobolowsky says with approval, “that it’s this mosaic of a human life out of order, in no cognitive fashion that you could recognize, that examines a single life.”

“When you hear stories out of context it allows the listener to become an active participant in putting the story together, like a jigsaw puzzle — which my wife is addicted to,” he continues. “’Wait a minute, I see a little bit of a cat’s tail. I know where that goes.’ I also think for the listener or for the reader, time is an important thing, to not hear it all at once, that you absorb a story the way I experienced it, which is not the facts.” To illustrate this, he points to the opening moments of George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss. Later, he emails that the works of Maxim Gorky provide a better example. “He does it all the time. It blew my mind when I first encountered it. He would begin a story with the young Gorky walking along the Volga river and finding his friend’s severed head on a pike, then he goes back and tells a story that only partially involves his friend. As a reader, I was going nuts as to how he was murdered… Who murdered him? Why?”

It’s not always easy, this business of looking back and looking in, of trying to see both what is known and what is hidden. Recalling a painful story, Tobolowsky grows emotional himself, a familiar sound to listeners of the podcast. Each episode of the podcast begins with a friendly exchange in which Chen asks Tobolowsky about a role from his filmography. (Having long since exhausted work in films like Thelma & Louise, they tend to now touch on roles like “Plumber,” originally “Butt-Crack Plumber,” in You May Not Kiss the Bride.) What follows sometimes stays whimsical and upbeat, as in a yet-to-be-released discussion of Tobolowsky’s love of Taken in an upcoming episode. Other times it tunnels into darkness before heading back to the light, as in an upcoming episode about the death of his cat Belle, inspired by Tobolowsky’s scrolling Facebook and seeing tributes to lost animals. In telling the story, Tobolowsky seems to experience the same emotions he went through with the actual loss. 

So why put himself through this when he could, like so many of us, try to close off the pain of the past and move on? 

To Tobolowsky, whether talking about dead pets or near-death experiences, learning not to forget, and finding enlightenment in remembering, seems to be the point of telling stories in the first place. “I hope the Belle story had no adornment, or [appeared] to be about sentimentality,” he says. “It’s about grief, and grief is something that must be addressed, a real thing that shapes us, that changes us. And if you don’t talk about it, it’s the same thing as like not talking about sex, or not talking about anger, or not talking about being greedy or falling in love. Each of those things has to be honored.”

That’s, in Tobolowsky’s view, is as true when talking about heart surgery or dead pets. “I wrote those stories and I cannot tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten all over the world of people saying they heard that podcast either before they had to go into surgery, or afterwards it was recommended to them, and how it helped them understand what was normal and not normal,” he says. “We’re all so fragile, and we have such unexpected strengths. It’s interesting to explore, at least in my life — understanding that my life is unusual in that I’ve had a lot of weird things happen to me and I’m in show business. But I think a lot of people have things that are extraordinary and unusual happen to them, and they forget them. They don’t remember. They can’t use them to grow. They can’t even know what’s hidden inside of them to know their own essence.”