May 30, 1951
Dallas, Texas, USA
Actor, Director, Screenwriter, Keyboardist, Songwriter, Painter
Beth Henley, Ann Hearn
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One of the small but well-loved group of character actors whose face was more familiar to viewers than his name, Stephen Tobolowsky was a film, television and stage performer who brought a decidedly left-of-center vibe to his countless turns as socially awkward, often blissfully unaware authority figures. He found steady work on camera almost immediately after arriving in Hollywood from his native Texas, impressing directors and filmgoers alike with small but memorable roles in films like "Swing Shift" (1984), "The Grifters" (1990), "Thelma and Louise" (1991) and "Basic Instinct" (1992). "Groundhog Day" (1993) gave him his widest exposure up until that time as an obnoxious obstacle in Bill Murray's uncontrollable bursts of deja vu, but a dramatic turn as an alleged amnesiac in "Memento" (2000) showed the true scope of his acting skill. Likewise, his role as the creepy but hilarious Sandy Ryerson on Fox's hit dramedy "Glee" (2009- ) showcased his comedic chops. Like all fine character actors, Tobolowsky worked ceaselessly in all manner of projects, but in every case, he never failed to capture his audience's attention, which made him a utility player without peer in Hollywood.
Born Stephen Harold Tobolowsky on May 30, 1951 in Dallas, TX, his name was familiar to fellow Lone Star State residents for some wildly divergent reasons; his aunt, Hermine Tobolowsky, was an attorney and leading figure in the state's Equal Rights movement, while third cousin Edwin Tobolowsky was a lawyer who also co-produced a string of ultra-low-budget science fiction thrillers, including the infamous "Mars Needs Women" (1967). Tobolowsky was raised in a middle class family and showed an aptitude for performing while in high school; he once shared a stage with blues legends Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn as a member of one of their early bands. Acting soon became his primary focus, and he attended Southern Methodist University for his undergraduate degree in theater, where his classmates included actress Patricia Richardson and playwright Beth Henley, with whom he would collaborate several times in ensuing years. While at SMU, he also earned his first film appearance in "Keep My Grave Open" (1976), a low-budget horror picture by Texas exploitation director S.F. Brownrigg. Tobolowsky later attended the University of Illinois for his Master's degree in acting.
In the early 1980s, he relocated to California and began working with some regularity in films and on television. Though his early roles were typically minor, he infused his turns in Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift" (1984) and Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" (1987) with the quirky humor that became his trademark throughout his career. Tobolowsky also scored a personal triumph during this period with a starring role in a 1981 production of Henley's "The Wake of Jamey Foster." The pair would reunite again in 1986 to co-author the script for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's feature directorial debut, "True Stories" (1986). Two years later, Tobolowsky himself stepped behind the camera to direct a 1988 film version of his comic play, "Two Idiots in Hollywood" (1988).
By the 1990s, Tobolowsky's profile was on the rise; he was becoming a regular, if not entirely recognizable face in major features like "The Grifters" (1990), "Thelma and Louise" (1991), "Basic Instinct" (1992) and "Hero" (1992). The typical Tobolowsky character was the button-down professional - a warden in "Wedlock" (1991), a doctor in "Basic Instinct" and "Sneakers" - whose myopic viewpoint occasionally clashed with that of the hero. Perhaps his most substantial role during this period - and the one that gave his quirky comic skills the best showcase - was that of Ned Ryerson, the grating former classmate of Bill Murray's in "Groundhog Day" (1993). Numerous characters along the lines of Ned followed in the movie's wake, along with a few attempts at weekly television series, neither of which - "Against the Grain" (NBC, 1993) and "Dweebs" (CBS, 1995) - amounted to much. Undaunted, Tobolowsky pressed on, adding more supporting turns and bit parts to his growing resume.
The turn of the new century saw Tobolowsky appearing in a staggering amount of films and television episodes per year; in 1999, he was onscreen in nine different projects, including Michael Mann's "The Insider," which cast him as the officious head of CBS. The following year, he received one of his best screen roles as amnesiac Sammy Jankis, whose case causes a private detective (Guy Pearce) to suffer from the same affliction in "Memento" (2000). Other standout appearances during this period included the original Principal Flutie (he was replaced in the series by Ken Lerner) in the unaired 1996 pilot for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003), a recurring role as Assistant State Attorney Don Haffman on "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002- ), and a broad comic turn as a villainous dog trainer in "Garfield: The Movie" (2002). He divided his time between projects like the latter and more serious fare for most of the 2000s, such as his turns on "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-06) as a hard-headed county commissioner who runs afoul of the town's criminal element. Tobolowsky also found time to return to stage work during this period, even netting a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for an all-star 2002 revival of "Morning's at Seven," which co-starred Buck Henry, Estelle Parsons, Christopher Lloyd and Julie Hagerty.
In 2005, Tobolowsky was the subject of the offbeat documentary "Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party," which placed him in the rare position of center stage as he prepared to receive guests at his home for his own birthday celebration. He recounted some offbeat stories from his past, including his tenure in the Vaughn brothers' band, as well as his then-recent citation as one of the "100 Coolest People in Los Angeles" by Buzz magazine. The film, which also featured actors Mena Suvari, Amy Adams and Tobolowsky's wife, Ann Hearn, among the guests, was screened at numerous comedy festivals to generally positive reviews; most of them centering around its charmingly eclectic star.
Tobolowsky cemented his favored character actor status with a pair of high profile TV jobs in 2007 and 2009; the former cast him as Robert "Bob" Bishop, the sinister head of the Company on "Heroes" (NBC, 2006- ) and possessor of alchemic powers, which allowed him to turn objects - or people - into gold. And on the cult favorite "Glee" (Fox, 2009-), he added another hapless character to his gallery of oddballs with Sandy Ryerson - no doubt named in homage to his "Groundhog day character - the terminally square former head of a high school glee club who may or may not be a sexual deviant. The latter series also allowed viewers and longtime admirers to get a rare sample of Tobolowsky's vocal abilities, especially with his delightful spin through the early '90s R&B hit, "I Wanna Sex You Up."
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