IN HIS LONG and storied career, Stephen Tobolowsky has made us believe he has sold insurance, been a high school principal, represented the interests of a corrupt county in an outlaw town, been a detective, and even led the KKK, but when he appears at the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Book Festival this November, the noted actor and author will just be playing simply Stephen Tobolowsky. His personal stories of a childhood as a Jew in Texas, his early adventures in Hollywood, struggles with drugs, and eventual embrace of his Judaism, form the backbone of a new memoir, My Adventures with God, a story of life, faith, struggle and brushes with death.
If you don’t recognize his name, you probably recognize his face. In a career spanning nearly forty years, Stephen Tobolowsky has had turns in some of the best movies and television shows of our times. “Mississippi Burning,” “Spaceballs,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Groundhog Day,” “Memento,” “Deadwood,” “Glee” and “Silicon Valley” are just a few of over 250 projects he’s appeared in. His recognizable bald and bespectacled head pops up in picture after picture.
“Because my look has remained the same for decades… it has become kind of my brand,” said Tobolowsky on the phone from his home on a recent Friday morning. “People see me now and they say ‘oh, you never age,’ because when you lose your hair in your mid-twenties, you look the same until your mid-sixties.”
Breaking into the business wasn’t the easiest, though. Tobolowsky fondly recalled how a particular agent wouldn’t represent him unless he changed his last name. “Well, what name would you be able to represent me as?” asked Tobolowsky. She said Steve Adams. “Why don’t you tell people you represent Steve Adams, then,” Tobolowsky told her, and if she got him work under that name, he’d keep it. Luckily for him, the name didn’t stick.
“I think the first time I realized the glory of Stephen Tobolowsky was probably in “Thelma and Louise,” because when my name came on the screen it went all the way across the screen,” said Tobolowsky, laughing. “Real estate is important in show business too.”
Tobolowsky credits much of his success to the kindness of several casting directors who championed his work, particularly the late Howard Feuer, who cast him in classics like “Groundhog Day” and “Mississippi Burning.” His role as Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day” has remained a favorite after all these years. “I loved Bill Murray. I just think he’s a spectacular actor. One of the best ever and underappreciated. And I think his performance in “Groundhog Day,” in my book, goes down as one of the great comedic performances of all time.”
His role in “Mississippi Burning” as Ku Klux Clan leader Clayton Townsend might have seemed like a tough one for a Jew from Texas, but Tobolowsky took to it easily. “Everybody views themselves as a hero in their own right, and your job as an actor is to find what that heroism is,” said Tobolowsky. “What I went to… was classical music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schuman, Chopin, Liszt. My heroes. All White. All White, European males.”
Tobolowsky took that love of classical music and turned it into a twisted world view, and Townsend came alive for him.
That’s not to say that Tobolowsky will play just any role. He recalled a time in which he refused to take a role as a child molester in a film he wouldn’t name out of respect. “I have no problem playing the head of the Ku Klux Klan, because in one way, you are shedding light on something… you are shedding light on an evil. But when you are using violence… as entertainment, you are not shedding a light on anything, you’re exploiting.”
It was a violent incident in his own life that lead to Tobolowksy’s decision to begin writing books. While on a horseback riding trip in Iceland with his wife, Tobolowsky was thrown from his horse and broke his neck. “The doctor told me I had a fatal injury,” said Tobolowsky. The doctor was wrong, but the thought stuck with Tobolowsky. “What if what the doctor said was true, and I’d died on that mountain? What would I have wanted my two boys to know about their dad that I never got to tell them?”
Tobolowsky began telling those stories on a podcast he named “The Tobolowsky Files.” The podcast became a hit, and got picked up by public radio. Simon and Schuster asked him if he could create a book out of the stories, and it became his first memoir The Dangerous Animals Club.
The Dangerous Animals Club sold well, and Tobolowsky’s editor approached him about creating a sequel. Apparently many people were responding positively to the spiritual stories in the book. Could Tobolowsky, the editor wondered, create a sequel focusing on the spiritual side of things? And so, My Adventures with God was born.
“The structural conceit of My Adventures with God is that all of our lives are based on the template of the Torah,” said Tobolowsky. “That we all have a Genesis of first stories we usually tell people on a first date; we all go into slavery like in Exodus, but instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in first loves, first jobs, drugs, alcohol… we all have this Leviticus moment where we say ‘stop’ to the universe… we’re all shaped by mortality like in the book of Numbers when we lose family and friends; and finally, if we’re lucky, we end up at Deuteronomy where we tell our stories to our children to make sense of the journey, like Moses did.”
“If you’re lucky enough to feel G-d at work in your life… I wanted to write stories about that relationship I had throughout my life, and how I changed, and how G-d changed,” said Tobolowsky. “The problem with any discussion of G-d, in our lives, is twofold: We and the listener make the assumption that we remain fixed points moving through time. We are not, we change.”
“We are dealing with a mathematical equation with two unknowns, and if you remember anything from Algebra 2, those equations have no answers, they only have a graph depending on the values for X and Y. Certainly the G-d I knew as a child, from the story from the Bible is different then the G-d I knew when I saw G-d in my girlfriend’s eyes in my 20s, and is different from the G-d I knew when I was playing Rock N’ Roll in my 30s, and I’d play a certain chord on the electric guitar, and with the assistance of a little bit of cannabis, I could see G-d. And it’s certainly different when you have a child. G-d is completely different when you have a child, when you lose your parents, and when you almost die, G-d becomes something completely different as well.”
One of the stories Tobolowsky tells in the book recounts a time that Tobolowsky was at synagogue with his close friend, comedian Larry Miller, when he noticed a strange man in the back of the sanctuary with his tallis on wrong. Tobolowsky sensed something was off about the man, but he left before Tobolowsky could confront him. The next day, the man, a White supremacist, shot five people at the North Valley JCC, in a infamous incident.
“I had no idea, really, what we were dealing with,” said Tobolowsky, who remains shaken by the experience. “Courage is very rare, especially when you run up against the real face of evil. It’s hard to say what you will do.”
The incident was one of several near-death experiences in Tobolowsky’s life, including his horseback riding accident, a time he was held at gunpoint during a robbery, and heart troubles that lead to open heart surgery.
“Quite accidentally, each of the near-death experiences deepened my faith, and changed the way I saw the purpose of faith, and the purpose of G-d,” said Tobolowsky. “It made me appreciate the wild flowers blooming in my yard more. It made me want to help my wife clean the dishes more. It made me want to write more. And it made me not so afraid of my own fear.”
It also drew him closer to Judaism. He’s particularly struck by the wisdom of Jewish teaching. “We took the Ten Commandments seriously – and that being not to have graven images – and consequently the history of Judaism is not marked with great art. We don’t have the great stained glass windows, the paintings of Michaelangelo… we don’t have that… we put our creative energy into thought, into philosophy,” said Tobolowsky. “We spent centuries thinking about this instead of making stained glass windows.”
“Knowledge,” Tobolowsky said, “is having information; wisdom is being able to see beyond information, and to sew unlikely ideas together; and discernment is being able to know what is important and what is not.” That, to him, is the great gift of Judaism, the discernment to find what’s important in life.
Tobolowsky’s life has been enriched by his Judaism, and it’s something that comes through in spades in My Adventures with God. One of his favorite quotes is an admonition from the Talmud that says, “learn to pray on the road, learn to pray fast, avoid ruins.” It’s something that’s stuck with him throughout his career, and become something of a mantra. “In my life, that little tidbit has come in so handy… When you do a Broadway show, guess what, no Shabbat. You just don’t have it. You’re doing a show Friday night, you’re doing two shows on Saturday, that’s just the way it is, pal. That’s what the contract is, I’m not Sandy Kaufax… you learn to pray on the road, you learn to pray fast.
Mr. Tobolowsky will be participating in the 19th Annual Jewish Book Festival on Saturday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Israel of Pomona. For details and to make reservations, go to www.jewishsgpv.org or call the Jewish Federation office at (626) 445-0810.
Jonathan Maseng is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.