Stephen Tobolowsky is best known as a character actor, one of those guys on the periphery of a movie scene that fills in all the gaps. Think of Commissioner Hugo Jarry in the television series “Deadwood.” Or Ned Ryerson in the movie Groundhog Day. In fact, his list of screen credits goes on for pages and spans decades, which is a good aspect of being a character actor. You can occupy a lot of gaps.
More recently, Tobolowsky has developed radio and podcast pieces highlighting the life of a guy who is born Jewish in Dallas, Texas, attends a Methodist college, and becomes a success in L.A. In 2013 he came out with his first book, The Dangerous Animals Club, a memoiristic collection of pieces about life, love, acting, and adventure. This month a second memoir is being released, titled My Adventures with God. The actor-turned-author will appear at the Woodstock Book Fest on Friday, April 28, to talk about the book and the life behind the stories in it.
The title hints at one man’s on and off relationship with the deity, but this memoir is about so much more than a simple statement of belief. I talked with Tobolowsky about his upcoming visit to Woodstock. And so much more…
Ann Hutton: At one point you write, “We are drawn to stories of survival.” Does this feel like the ‘wisdom years’ for you? Are you compelled to write stories and produce podcasts because you have something to impart?
Stephen Tobolowksy: That’s a great jumping off place. The real beginning of it all is a story in the book, the afflictions of love, when I broke my neck. What’s not in the book is when the doctor told me I had a fatal injury, and I’m thinking: what a terrible thing to tell a living patient, a terrible use of the word ‘fatal.’ I went home, and there wasn’t a lot I could do in a neck brace, and [my wife] Ann had to do everything for me. I thought, what if what the doctor told me was true, and I’d died on the mountain and would never see my family again? What would be the stories I’d want my boys to know about their father? While I was healing, I began to write these stories as messages from the future back to my two children. So, they’d know about their dad’s first love and first successes and first failures, and when I met [their] mother and all of that stuff. I always told stories my whole life; what triggered these stories was that injury. They became the Tobolowsky Files and the radio show and the Dangerous Animals Club, and now they’ve become My Adventures with God. It was the accident that triggered everything.
AH: You’ve made a substantial career in acting. Did you always consider yourself a writer?
ST: When I came out to L.A. everybody wrote screen plays, so I did, too. Everybody was involved in writing. I never really thought of myself as writing stories with any kind of narrative. But I kind of always wrote. Always kept notes, even when I was a child. I have books and books of notes that I kept, details that happened in my life that I’m able to refer to in these stories. It’s one of the things that give the ring of truth. Maybe the details were written by a twelve year old, but they’re true to a twelve year old’s eyes. You could say I was not adverse to writing.
AH: When you decided to put them all in a book, did you concern yourself with structure, did you rely on an editor, or what?
ST: I wrote The Dangerous Animals Club, and then my editor at Simon and Schuster called up a year later and said they wanted me to write a second book. What they gravitated to in the first book was that I had this spiritual element in some of my stories. They wanted me to write a book about faith. I immediately said yes without knowing I could do this, because if Simon and Schuster asks you to write a book, you just say yes and think about it later. I came up with the idea that just about every person’s life falls into the template of the old testament. Everybody has Genesis — the stories of who we were and our family and forefathers and where we came from and what our dreams and goals are. Then all of us seem to go into slavery, but instead of building pyramids — certainly, in my college years so many people were enslaved by alcohol and drugs, first loves, first employments that were so meager and pathetic and not what we dreamed of doing with our lives. Some people stay in graduate school forever. We all go through these periods of slavery before our lives start.
We escape at some point and find, like in the bible, we’re still in the desert. And then we have this Leviticus moment sometime in the middle of our life when we say: this is who I am, this is what I want. In my life, that’s when I married Ann and became a father, when my career really started, and when I came back to Judaism. And we’re all shaped by mortality as dear friends and members of our family pass away. We view our lives shaped by that enormous horrific gravity of loss.
And then if we’re lucky and live long enough and don’t get hit by a bus, we end up in the Deuteronomy section like Moses, telling our stories to our children and others to try to make sense of what the entire journey is. If you recall the story of Moses and slavery in Egypt, and then they get out and go to the ‘promised land.’ But in the bible they never make it. Moses dies on the mountain, the Hebrew people stop at the border and that’s the end. In Judaism, you go back and read it all over again. It’s the greatest cliff hanger ever written. People don’t get to the holy land until the book of Joshua.
It’s brilliantly constructed at about 444 BCE. Think what was being written at that time on earth — the era of Plato and Aristotle. There’s so much genius happening in the world at the time the bible was formulated. I used that as a template to create stories. The emotional premise that I had — it’s difficult to write about God and faith because it’s very difficult to define. When I was a little kid, one of my first visions of god was the Michelangelo guy with the beard.
I lost that vision when I was about nine or ten, and thought God was this invisible force of good that punishes the wicked. Later I thought that wasn’t true because of the Kennedy assassination. It didn’t make sense. Later I fell away, even though I had a love of God and of religion, but I fell away in the 60s and 70s going to college. That little place in my brain reserved for God was taken up with my girlfriend’s eyes. I’d look into her eyes and said, ‘Man this is it. I am there. I feel complete.’
The issue with doing that, the problem is: every person I’ve ever known in my life is filled with doubt and anxiety and fear and mistakes and paranoia and loss. And when you put one of those entities that we call a person at the apex of your triangle, you’ve basically put a fumbling, imperfect, lost soul to guide your ship. That is why the notion of God being something above us, of being pure and perfect and a source, hopefully, of wisdom — this thing that leads to the creative at the head of our triangle, then we have a star to shoot for.
We have to have something to lead us out of the darkness that we feel surrounded by constantly. So as I got older, I realized that Judaism is a far more profound religion that I ever imagined when I was young and going to Sunday school. You know, they never teach you the real stuff. They feel you’re not up for understanding the depth in the text. If you look at it with an adult brain, you think, my gosh, were these people brilliant who framed and formed this, who created these ideas. If you figure that a lot of the old testament was written at about 1000 BCE, you have Homer and Pythagoras who was exiled from Greece because he was a monotheist, or 700 BCE when you have Confucius and Sun Tzu working at the time — there were so many brilliant and wise souls living on the earth and writing. We got a lot of wisdom back then, and it’s a shame it’s discarded so readily now.
AH: It’s fascinating to think that whatever was in the air or in the water during those centuries produced this brilliance.
ST: It didn’t stop there! If you think about Kepler’s ‘pods of genius’ that have existed throughout the history of mankind, like the one we all love so much, the pod of great composers — Bach, who lived at the same time as Shakespeare, and Haydn who gave lessons to Mozart, and they gave piano lessons to Beethoven. You had Chopin watching Beethoven in a concert and Franz List coming to Beethoven when he was ten years old to get his blessing. And Beethoven kissed him on the forehead. You had this entire cluster — Schubert! Schubert got syphilis at the same whorehouse as Beethoven. These guys! This is a cluster of genius.
Another was Francis Bacon, and Descartes and Galileo — another cluster of genius of the early enlightenment. They all read one another’s works. Look at Einstein and all the atomic and quantum physicists at the beginning of the 20th century. You could write a history text on the clusters of genius that have thrust mankind forward, like a big fireman’s boost. Like, ‘Here you go.’ The rest of the time, we’re just listening to rock n roll. We’re chillin’ in Woodstock, listening to Garth and Levon, and thinking isn’t life good? And it is.
AH: Who’s in the cluster these days?
ST: For better or worse, it has to be Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, the guys who are running the massive internet connectivity of the world and the huge leaps being made, both good and bad.
AH: Did you have to pitch this biblical organizing principle of using the old testament to S & S to convince them of the idea?
ST: No, they didn’t care. My editor came out to L.A. when I was shooting Californication, and I ran over from the set to say hello to him and explained the concept. And he says, ‘That sounds good. Go for it.” I started writing, and it was turning out to be a very long book. And he wrote me back and said, ‘Don’t worry about it Stephen, you’re rewriting the bible after all.’ I think my first draft was about 650 pages. He said, ‘Now cut!’ It took months, but I ended up with about 350 pages.
AH: Your life is your material. Have you had the experience where you’ve written about something in your life, and that’s your story. It’s in print. Then suddenly something will occur to you about that story that makes you think, well, maybe that wasn’t the whole truth. I’m curious to know if your conclusions have ever shifted in either the process of telling the story or in the process of life itself? You perform your stories, telling them on stage repeatedly. Did you ever have the experience that you think, wait a minute, maybe this isn’t the complete truth about this?
ST: The short answer is yes. Absolutely, yes. There are different things about telling a true story. When you tell a true story, it enables the story to continue. When you start to fictionalize your stories — not to say every element is journalistically true; it’s as true as I can remember — the point is how I relate to the facts of my life. When you tell a true story, the story can continue, and you go, ‘Oh my god.’ An example in this book is when I tell of the story about my proposal [at 5 or 6 years old] to Alice ‘Snail’ Allen, and then at the end of the book my brother has run into Alice at a funeral, and she wants me to call her. I talk to her and see that, in fact, the entire story was different from anything I could possibly have imagined. What she was living through was nothing that was part of my consciousness. I was completely wrong. It was shocking.
You’re right, I tell the stories. In Woodstock, I’m going to tell the story of my broken neck and the one about afflictions of love. I have repressed memories because of that accident. One thing that’s happened is, I have been on stage telling that story, and I’m walloped with a memory I didn’t have of riding on that horse over the mountain. I see the ground coming up — and I can’t talk. You get hijacked by these thoughts and feelings.
So the short answer is yes, it happens all the time when you tell a true story. In terms of the good — you hear more of the story. In terms of the bad, you see that your emotions and motivations in this story were not what you thought they were. Maybe you were kidding yourself when you thought you had an altruistic point of view. Then you see the element of need and selfishness in it, the self-interest. You go, ‘Wow. I didn’t even know I was telling on myself.’
Such a revelation, like the biblical chapter of the same name, is not for the faint of heart. With great courage and candidacy, Tobolowsky exposes himself as the compassionate, insightful mensch he is. It’s a good read.
Woodstock Book Fest: Keynote Speaker Stephen Tobolowsky, Friday, April 28, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., $25, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.woodstockbookfest.com.