Preface of a sort. I’m one of those nerds who knows who most of the character actors in films are. I don’t just recognize their faces, I know their names too. This goes back to when I was growing up. There was no cable TV back then, just broadcast. New York City, in the 50s and 60s, had just 7 stations. WOR-TV, Channel 9, had this thing on the weekend they’d call Million Dollar Movie. They’d take some old film and show it 5 or 6 times over the course of the weekend – cheap programming, but usually great films.
At an early age, I realized that most of my favorite films kicked off with the Warner Bros “WB” shield at the beginning. And as much as I loved actors like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (I named my second dog after him), I always got immense pleasure from the Warner Bros stock company – actors like Alan Hale, Sr., for example. Elisha Cook, Jr.! These guys were not stars and were never going to be stars. They came, they did their work, they were always recognizable no matter what the genre or costume, they delivered like professionals.
There’s still lots of great character actors working today. Some of them you probably know, like Steve Buscemi, who occasionally pulls down a lead role and has also directed. How many of you know Stephen Tobolowsky?
This guy is about as average looking as they come. Hell, he defines “average looking.” If you look up “average looking” in the dictionary, well, it’s not there, that’s a phrase and not a word. But this guy is the very definition of that phrase. And yet, this 60 year old guy from Dallas has acted in more than 200 films and TV shows.
Spaceballs, Seinfeld, Mississippi Burning, Great Balls of Fire, The Grifters, Groundhog Day, Thelma and Louise, Basic Instinct, Single White Female, Californication, Glee, Heroes, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Memento … everywhere you look, that’s where he is. But did you know that he also wrote True Stories, the Talking Heads film? I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about him at all.
And then he turned up on an episode of the WTF with Marc Maron, the podcast that has been the soundtrack to my daily commute for the past several weeks. He’s on #147 which came out just three weeks ago. I enjoyed the interview a lot. I discovered that he played guitar with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He tells an extended story in this interview about the time he broke his neck, a tale of some amazing coincidences, a tale about “the other side of miracles.”
He tells the story so well that when I heard he had a podcast of his own, I decided to check it out. The Tobolowsky Files (via the good folks at Slashfilm).
Each episode of this podcast runs for about an hour. Each episode starts with him chatting with Slashfilm editor Dan Chen, a chat that gradually leads into an extended monologue, a short story taken from Tobolowsky’s life. He talks a lot about “unintended consequences” and “the moment before zero.” He chooses his words with care and, as a trained actor, seems to effortlessly hold your attention.
I haven’t listened to too many of these yet, but after listening to the three most recent episodes, I’ve gone back and downloaded them all (44 so far). Listening to Maron every day is warping my little brain too much.
The most recent one, The Voice From Another Room, is a great one to start with. You’ll find out how he came to be involved with David Byrne and the True Stories film. It’s fascinating stuff.
You’ll also find out why the band Radiohead is basically named after him. No shit.
Wisdom and insight often come from unexpected sources. No one in their right mind would expect anything intelligent from Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day. But the actor who played him, that’s a different story indeed.
If you don’t believe me and don’t check this out, it’s your loss. It’s an hour, it’s free (stream via the web site or download from iTunes) and I think you’re gonna like this. I do. A lot.