That Guy File #3: Stephen Tobolowsky

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December 15, 2010 by abbyo

Where you’ve seen him: Pretty much everything, including: Groundhog Day, Spaceballs, Glee, Deadwood, Single White Female, Basic Instinct, Bird on a Wire, Thelma and Louise, Memento, That 70s Show, Freaky Friday, The West Wing, CSI: Miami, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Failure to Launch, Desperate Housewives, Entourage, Heroes, the Time Traveler’s Wife, Wild Hogs, Mississippi Burning, Buried (yes, you read that right)

There are two types of “That Guys” in this world. There are the ones who give memorable performances in smaller roles (your Clancy Browns or Keith Davids, for example). Then there are the ones who tend, with a few exceptions, to blend into the background, but are always, always there. This is the category Stephen Tobolowsky belongs to. He’s been around for a while, and has been in just about every movie and TV show you can name. He even managed to find his way into “Buried,” a movie whose only visible stars are Ryan Reynolds and a cell phone. But he’s not usually memorable. He tends to blend into the background playing characters like bumbling principals or whiny neighbors. But once you’ve seen him, you notice when he pops up in other places. His recurring role as disgraced former music teacher Sandy Ryerson on “Glee” has probably given him the most exposure of late, but his real standout performance is as Ned Ryerson, Bill Murray’s obnoxious former classmate in “Groundhog Day.” You know the one:

But, in a vein similar to fellow “That Guy” James Urbaniak, Tobolowsky has an off-screen presence that’s just as interesting (if not more interesting) than his career as an on-screen “Where’s Waldo?” Here it is: the man is a spectacular storyteller. The 2005 film “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” features anecdotes from his many years of experience as an actor, as does “The Tobolowsky Files,” a podcast he’s hosted on SlashFilm since 2009.  Tobolowsky has collected so many interesting experiences in his life both on and off movie sets, and worked with so many directors (Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Paul Verhoeven, to name a few) that he’s got a tale for just about every occasion, and reveals such a diverse array of interests and deep thoughtfulness that he can make any story connect to a theme. The podcast’s latest episode, “The Moment Before Zero” is a fabulous example, winding together the Big Bang, the Book of Genesis and fundamental lessons in acting together to tell what’s ultimately a story about filming a fight scene with Mel Gibson on the set of “Bird on a Wire.” Have a listen. It’s amazing.

Guys like Brown and Urbaniak might be the reason we love “That Guy” actors, but guys like Stephen Tobolowsky are the reason we have them. He may not be the one who steals the scene, but he’s the understated glue that holds it together. One or two-line roles in a movie like “Freaky Friday” may not be the most glamorous gig in town, but they’re totally necessary. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it, and the man you want for that job is Stephen Tobolowsky.

Christmas Extra: A very special Christmas episode of “The Tobolowsky Files.”

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3 thoughts on “That Guy File #3: Stephen Tobolowsky

  1. […] determined by the way they look. Yes, I mean typecasting. Some people just can’t escape it. Stephen Tobolowsky, for example, often plays sad-sack losers and frustrated, cartoonish characters. James Urbaniak […]

  2. […] as with the likes of other great “that guys” like Wallace Shawn, Peter Mullan and Stephen Tobolowsky, Schiavelli’s professional life wasn’t only limited to acting. He was just as accomplished in a […]

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