Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

Who is Steven Tobolowsky?

By Julian Wise - December 7, 2006

The name may not be immediately familiar, but if you have even a passing acquaintance with film or television over the past three decades, you've probably seen him. With his rubbery face, round eyes, and sharp acting chops, this versatile character actor has already appeared in 14 television programs and films in 2006, including "Deadwood," "Desperate Housewives," "Ghost Whisperer," and "Failure To Launch."

In the autobiographical documentary "Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party," Mr. Tobolowsky regales his guests with stories of his life as a working actor. More than just a collection of Hollywood gossip and entertainment tidbits, the tales explore Mr. Tobolowsky's experiences with marriage, fatherhood, aging, brushes with mortality, and other ruminations on life at the half-century mark. While the prospect of listening to someone talk about himself for 87 minutes may seem on par with watching a slideshow of a vacation to the Grand Canyon, Mr. Tobolowsky uses his storytelling gifts and actor's tricks to make the film move at a brisk, amusing pace. Throughout the film he comes across as intelligent, articulate, and amiable.

In an interview with the Martha's Vineyard Times, Mr. Tobolowsky explains why his personal stories strike a chord with audiences. "Often, when I'm in a movie I'm playing a part with its own set of defenses. When you play a character, you take on the defenses of the character.

"Telling these stories about my life, the audience is invited in with no defenses, which is why I think there is an accessibility to my personality. Usually I play an everyman kind of character. In comedies that everyman character is a little goofy like Ned Ryerson ["Groundhog Day"]. In dramas, it might be like Sammy in "Memento"."

In an industry where careers are ephemeral, Mr. Tobolowsky has worked consistently since his 1976 debut in the low-budget horror film, "Keep My Grave Open." He attributes his longevity to several wise choices that helped him avoid the pitfalls that derail many careers.

"The reason why careers have the longevity of a fruit fly is typecasting," he says. "The fact that coming out of the gate I had several different kinds of films, it was difficult for people to typecast me."

After giving a searing performance as a racist southerner in Alan Parker's 1988 film "Mississippi Burning," Mr. Tobolowsky appeared in "Great Balls of Fire," "In Country," "Breaking In," "Bird on a Wire," "The Grifters," and more. Before long his face was imprinted into the collective consciousness. He's been in demand ever since, and when he experiences a momentary lull in his work schedule he retreats to directing and acting in theater to renew his creative energies.

Mr. Tobolowsky studied Shakespeare at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign.

"Nobody could have done a course in sitcoms," he muses. "In college you never study the thing you need to be successful, how to takes the no's in your life, and how to give directors what they want. The thing that has served me best is, I never shut down and thought I knew it all. I always figured somebody has a better idea along the way. I always tried to learn from every experience, good and bad. It left me less critical and less bitter about bad experiences."

In the film, Mr. Tobolowsky speaks candidly about his early memories of fatherhood and marriage, voicing the blend of joy and apprehension many men feel but few articulate. He and his wife Ann Hearn are the parents of two teenage sons and Mr. Tobolowsky reports that parenthood changed his priorities away from the pure flash and hustle of a Hollywood career. "Before, the number one thing in my life was my career. Everything was subservient to the career. Afterwards, everything was about the kids.

He intentionally steered "Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party" away from being merely a collection of Hollywood anecdotes and toward stories of real life.

"No matter how much you like movies, it's still just a movie," he says. "It's just passing entertainment. A story about children, love, life, or death, these are stories that stick with you for the rest of your life and have a lot of pull."

Island audiences will experience a flash of recognition when former local actor and WIMP alumnus Elza Minor appears as one of the party guests. Mr. Minor and Mr. Tobolowsky struck up an acquaintance in 1999 when Mr. Minor joined Theatre 40, a Beverly Hills theater company that Mr. Tobolosky and his wife belong to. The two worked together in 2003 when Mr. Tobolowsky directed the play "Blue Silence" at Theatre 40.

"Stephen was great, very encouraging and supportive, even when I thought my costumes made me look like either Suge Knight or Stevie Nicks," Mr. Minor recalls.

When Mr. Tobolowsky invited Mr. Minor to appear in the film, Mr. Minor accepted.

"It's a good thing I'd honed my improvisational skills with WIMP here on the Island, as I was able to come up with my one line of audible dialog on the spot," Mr. Minor says. "I'm heard praising the wine I'd brought as I walk through the front door."

Mr. Tobolowsky is quick to praise Mr. Minor's acting skills, noting that in his role as a drug dealer in "Blue Silence" Mr. Minor brought grace and power to the role.

"It was written to be a street guy, but Elza brought to it royalty and a majesty. He brings that to so much of what he does. Elza is a great listener and a great presence, so I thought it'd be wonderful to have him there at the party. When directing plays, I always think, 'is there a part in it for Elza?' He's a special talent."

"Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party," is available on DVD.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.