December 20, 2011

In praise of The Tobolowsky Files.

Until recently, I wasn't much of a podcast listener. And I'm not sure why The Tobolowsky Files became my gateway into the world of long-form digital chatter.

My only guess is that I love character actors. Harry Dean Stanton, James Rebhorn, Fred Ward, Richard Jenkins. Some are a little more well-known than others, but they're all adept at making even the smallest part seem important. Casting Frank Vincent as a mobster can give the role a little more gravitas than going with some unknown Italian guy. In many ways, they end up having far more interesting, and lengthier, careers than big-time blockbuster stars.

Stephen Tobolowsky, of course, is quite the character actor; one of the most prolific of all time. I knew him chiefly from memorable roles in Memento and Groundhog Day, but also from guest spots on Seinfeld, Heroes and Deadwood. He's one of those performers who always looks happy to be there, even in a do-nothing part or a lame children's movie.

And that's probably because he is pleased to be there, pleased to be working, no matter what thankless task he's assigned. Stephen Tobolowsky isn't quite rich, and he's only mildly famous. He's not exactly handsome or dashing. He's a professional actor, yes, and a successful one, but he's also very much a human being. He's not disengaged from reality, and he suffers from the same kind of loss and heartache as we do, the kind that we don't always associate with Hollywood folk.

Even though I don't know the man personally, I can say all this with certainty because I'm 38 episodes deep into his wonderful and illuminating podcast series. In it, Tobolowsky talks candidly, sometimes remarkably so, about his ups and downs in "life, love and the entertainment industry." Listeners who're just starting out may only know him from a movie here or there, but Tobolowsky does not hesitate in welcoming you into his own little world.

Every episode is a new story from Stephen's life. Some are pleasant and occasionally eye-opening tales from his many films and TV shows: the complications of guest starring on a melting-down Heroes, the antics of Bill Murray on the set of Groundhog Day, the joy that comes with being cast on a future hit show like Glee.

But it's not all about the work. Stephen also discusses lost loves, the deaths of friends and family, those dark moments when you can barely get out of bed, let alone go star in movies. He's not afraid to delve into his previous problems with drugs and alcohol, the difficulty of finding a job in an industry built on saying "no," the horrors of having your dreams nearly dashed by a vengeful peer or superior. He's an expert storyteller with tremendous skill at relaying roller-coaster-like tales of the past, and the podcast is a perfect vehicle for these kind of 40-minute, multi-part narratives.

What's most impressive, however, is the clarity with which he describes the events of his life. One of his stories touches on how Jane Lynch, star of Glee, has a supernatural ability to detach herself from personal disasters when relaying them in anecdotes. Tobolowsky's certainly not emotionally detached from his past -- he's been known to break down a bit when relaying a particularly heartbreaking tale -- but he seems to have figured out how each of his life's major moments fits into the giant puzzle of human existence. He can find lessons in both the good and the bad, and illustrate to his listeners how they made him, if not a better person, at least a more complete and satisfied one. At age 60 Tobolowsky boasts a pretty firm, and rare, grasp of the big picture, and an understanding of how each of his many years helped to paint it.

Not only is Tobolowsky still hard at work on The Tobolowsky Files (the latest episode dropped in late November), but he's also writing books, giving live performances and using pretty much every available medium to bring his stories to life. It's been a pleasure to see this truly charming actor -- a classically trained thespian with more range than people give him credit for (here's hoping some talented indie director crafts a Tobo-based lead role in the near future, a la Jenkins in The Visitor) -- tap into yet another creative outlet at this point in his career. The world is a better place for it.

If you're interested in breaking into The Tobolowsky Files, start with The Voice from Another Room. Or check out Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, which is the feature film that sparked the podcast. Since you've taken the time to read this blog post about a podcast in the first place, I suspect you won't be disappointed.

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