Stephen Tobolowsky is a well-established character actor with hundreds of roles under his belt; he’s most often remembered for his appearances in Groundhog Day and Memento, but just over the past decade, he’s had recurring roles in Californication, Deadwood, Justified, Glee, Heroes, and CSI: Miami, plus one-offs on Community, Entourage, Desperate Housewives, and many, many more, to the point where he’s achieved “Hey, it’s that guy!” ubiquity.
Over the past few years, though, he’s become known far more specifically and personally for his podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, in which he tells achingly intimate stories from his life. The podcast began in 2009 when /Film editor David Chen saw Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party—a low-key film where Tobolowsky tells autobiographical stories directly to the camera while preparing for a birthday party at his house—and contacted Tobolowsky to suggest a podcast of similar stories. The Tobolowsky Files has since grown into a series of essays collectively telling Tobolowsky’s life story, but often focusing on his long, fractious relationship with playwright Beth Henley. It’s available via iTunes, RSS, or at /Film; it’s been picked up by public radio stations in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky; Public Radio International is creating its own version of the show with Tobolowsky; and he’s been doing live performances of some of the stories in theaters. Recently, Simon & Schuster published a selection of edited versions of the podcast’s stories as The Dangerous Animals Club, a book named after its first essay, in which 8-year-old Tobolowsky and a friend spend weeks collecting tarantulas, scorpions, and poisonous snakes, with surprising success. Tobolowsky recently talked with The A.V. Club about the book, the PRI version of his show, discussing the podcast with Henley, and the story about her he won’t tell without permission.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that whatever this book is, it isn’t a celebrity memoir. Why avoid that label? And if it isn’t that, what is it?
Stephen Tobolowsky: The first has an easy and more complicated answer. The easy answer is that I’m not a celebrity. People recognize me everywhere, but they don’t necessarily recognize me as an actor. I was in line at Starbucks and someone looked over at me with that knowing look, like, “Oh my God, I know who you are.” I was starting that kind of practiced humble smile and nod, and then she came over and said, “You used to work here, right? You used to make my lattes.” And I go, “No, no, that’s not me.” I’ve been recognized as a box boy at a grocery store. The most recent one was in Dallas—a guy came up to me and thought I was this fellow he knew that sold professional plumbing equipment. So people recognize me, but not as being an actor. So I don’t want to claim that it’s a celebrity memoir, just because that’s untrue.
But the other reason is that if you say something is a celebrity biography, the reader automatically assumes that it’s a book of gossip about who you knew when, and what happened. And I think that is the shallowest of shallow graves. I don’t like gossip. I think it’s generally untrue, and even if it is true, it’s unhealthy. It does not inform or enlighten. And I really don’t think it amuses in the long run.
When I did Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, the storytelling movie I shot with Robert Brinkmann, Brinkmann wanted me to do a lot of movie stories. He said “This is going to be the big hook of this film, is that you’ve worked with Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan and all these people.” And I said, “Robert, people think that they’re going to be interested in hearing movie stories, and sometimes they are amusing. I recognize that. But after a very short period of time, the listener or reader goes, ‘Well, what does this have to do with my life? What does this have to do with the world?’” So even though in the book I tell stories that relate to movies, I try to put it into a larger context that can apply to life in another way. When I started the podcast with David Chen, it was the same thing. David wanted stories that were movie-related because it was on SlashFilm.com, which is a movie website. This is a tribute to dear David: The fourth story I came up with, early on in the game, happened to be about when my mother passed on. I call the story “The Alchemist,” and it’s in the book. I was panicked because I’d written a story, and it had nothing to do with movies. I called up David beforehand and I said, “Should I send you this story to read? Because it may be something you don’t want to have on the podcast. It has nothing to do with movies.” He said, “You don’t have to send it to me to read.” He said, “If it’s important to you, we’ll do it. And we’ll see if the public responds to it or not.”
AVC: What was the impetus to write it in the first place, if you were worried it wasn’t what he was looking for, and that it was going to be an issue?
ST: What prompted me was this: You probably know the story from the podcast about when I broke my neck, around four years ago now. So during that period, there was not a lot I could do. I could sit down in different places. If I sat by the piano, I could pretend to try to work on a piano piece. If I sat outside, I could read. If I sat at the computer, I could maybe write. And it kind of dawned on me—I’m saying all this now. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m kind of adding my 20/20 to what was a perfectly innocent, unplanned moment when I did it. I recognized that there was a moment when I was thrown from that horse and had what my doctor called a fatal injury, which seemed to be a terrible misuse of the word “fatal.” [Laughs.] But I realized I could never have seen my kids again. And certainly never see my wife, but it really hit me that I never could have seen my children again. So I thought, “Maybe what I’ll do is, I’ll write some stories so they’ll know who their dad was.” I hate to use the word “legacy,” but I knew they would appreciate it at some point after I was gone, because I knew how much I appreciate every letter my father and mother had written to me. It could be the most meaningless letter in the world, but it makes me so happy to read it. So I thought they would maybe love this.
First of all, I wrote the story about Halloween, the first episode on the podcast, which never made it to iTunes because of a programming problem. We’re going to redo that one, by the way, so it’s out there in the public. But it was about a Halloween party I went to when I was in sixth grade at that border when I wanted to collect candy, but other people at the party thought it was a make-out party. I was the only person there in a costume. I dressed up like Godzilla, and everybody else was in normal clothes. [Laughs.] I thought we were going to collect candy, and they were collecting kisses. So I wrote this story, and then I added to it a movie story. After I finished, a little voice came into my head saying, “You know what you should do? You should now write a backup story to when you were in sixth grade. Go back in time and talk about what framed your life.” So I wrote the story about Davy Crockett, and that led to writing about other heroes in my life, like Bubbles the hippopotamus. Writing about Davy Crockett reminded me of writing about Wild Hogs—I ran into the granddaughter of [Davy Crockett actor] Fess Parker on that movie. So there was kind of a right-brain connection between everything.
At that time, I was working on another story from my past, and I was teaching a comedy class, and I’d been through this whole thing with my mother. I came back into the comedy class, and everybody asked me, “How was the trip to Dallas?” And I just started telling them about the story of my mother. They were laughing and crying, and I thought, “This is the next story. This is the next story I have to tell.” So I wrote that story next, which was interesting, because it was both modern and past. It mixed the two. And we got such a big response from all over the world when that story got released. It brought up another thing in my mind.
One of my favorite writers of all time was [Maxim] Gorky, who wrote this great autobiography, three different books called My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities. They’re absolutely wonderful stories. Incredible, edge-of-your-seat stories. Happy and horrible stories. But Gorky uses a device in that book of telling stories not necessarily in a chronological sequence. And I thought, “That’s kind of what I’m doing with the podcast. As long as the stories are truthful, the audience will stay with me, because they know what the train track is: The narrative train track, everyone understands, is my life.”
So all I have to do is tell a true story from whatever that little right-brain voice in my head tells me to say next. I’ve been pretty much following that for the last four years. When I told the story of my mother, you would not believe the letters I got from people all over the world. I got letters from people who had lost things in their lives. Some people lost a mother. I got those, of course. Some people had lost a parent, a father, a relative. Some people had lost a wife, a child. I got letters from people who had lost their pets. I got letters from people who had lost inanimate objects that meant things to them. And I recognized that the story, it didn’t matter. It was this incredibly specific story about my relationship with my mother and her passing. The fact that it was true enabled people to make that story be their story.
AVC: You always get asked in interviews, “Are these stories true?” And you often say that the important part is that people recognize the truth in your stories. But so many of them are so far outside other people’s experiences: breaking your neck, traveling to other countries to work with famous people, throwing a party so epic, it drew random celebrities. What truths do people recognize in stories about things they’ve never done?
ST: There’s like two or three little questions in there. Let me handle the most pedestrian one first, and that is the truth element, journalistic truth or whatever. I understand that my recollection of the facts may be different from somebody else who was there. In the piece “The Dangerous Animals Club,” Billy Hart has a dog, George. My sister loved George, and she would toddle across the alley and go pet George. George would lick her face. One day I was over there, and my sister hugged George around the neck and he turned and bit her on the face. Cut her eye. She still has the scar on her eye. And she was terrified. I ran home, we carried her home. If I were to mention today that George bit her—now, I was there, I saw it—she would deny it, deny it, deny it. Because she loved George, George loved her. She is certain in her mind it was Red, the Irish setter that lived across the alley, that bit her. Which it was not. Red didn’t even live in our neighborhood at the time. But my sister’s version of the truth is completely different from mine.
And I understand that’s true with all of my stories, that a lot of times, truth is just a conspiracy of brain chemicals that tell you what you remember and what you don’t. So I understand that there could be some things in my story that journalistically, they’d be incorrect, or that other people will remember differently. But as long as I can remember—and I always took notes, even as a kid. I wrote down little journals and notes about things. I have rooms of notes, of things that happened to me throughout my life with all the details written down.
Getting to the meat of the question. For example, the broken-neck story. Thank God other people haven’t been through that. But I do believe the gist of that story is, to this day, I feel like I was involved with some kind of miraculous activity, whether it’s just coincidence that my neck was constructed backward from a normal human being’s, or however you want to say it, if you just want to say it was a physical anomaly or whatever. I survived a fatal accident. I survived the Christopher Reeve accident and was fine. The emotional impact on me from that event was that I was given an enormous gift, by whom or what, I leave it up to the listener or the reader. I’m a religious person. I respect people who aren’t. A couple of my best friends are atheists, we agree on just about everything. I got no bones to pick about a person’s spiritual life, that’s their own business. But for whatever reason, I felt like I was touched by some sort of miraculous behavior in my life. I think that’s the element of the story people respond to. People hear that and they think about some of the things in their life that they thought were coincidence or lucky, where they dodged a bullet somehow, and they feel elevated by hearing that somebody else went through it too. They’re able to look at their life a different way.
And for me, the takeaway of that story, if you remember it—I got the Glee script, and I was reading it in the backyard, and seeing all the wild parrots in my tree. That was an apocryphal story I had heard 35 years before that I never believed was true, that there was a flock of wild parrots living in Los Angeles. Not only were they living there, they were living in my tree. That becomes a haiku of some sort. What is it we don’t know? How many times had I seen shadows on the ground and just thought, “Oh, bird flying.” My awareness was, I just didn’t recognize that was one of the apocryphal parrots flying back to my tree. How many other shadows are on the ground all the time that I say are shadows, and that are actually amazing things in my life? Incredible, miraculous things in my life that I just don’t have the ability to see what they are? And to me, that’s the takeaway of that story, and that’s the takeaway people respond to.
I’ve heard of stories that are the opposite. One of these—now, this didn’t happen to me, so I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but it’s the example of the opposite. In one of the gulags in the Soviet Union, a fellow’s job, he was there for like 25 years, grinding wheat. Day in and day out, he had to move this heavy wheel around this grindhouse, around and around and around, and he kept doing it for 25 years. He kept thinking to himself, “At least somebody’s going to be using this wheat to live by.” He went back to visit the place where he had been, and discovered it was all phony. There was no wheat, and there was nothing inside the wheelhouse. For 25 years, he was just turning a wheel that connected to nothing, as torture. You become aware of certain shadows, and you realize something you put your faith in didn’t exist. It was an empty gristmill, and you were doing nothing. The story, as it was told to me, was that the man died. Again, it’s an apocryphal story, I don’t know if it’s true, but I understand the truth of it. Even if it’s not true, I understand how such things could happen.
AVC: Your individual podcast episodes tend to center on one idea, told through two otherwise unrelated stories, with a takeaway moral or philosophical concept at the end. Where do you start in constructing something that complex? Is it also a process of association?
ST: I don’t start off with a moral. I don’t even know, necessarily, where it’s going to go. What I usually start out with is a story that something in my right brain suggests to me, “You’ve got to tell this story.” And as I’m writing—I think a perfect example is one of the recent stories, “Long Distance Relationship.” The story of when I was auditioning for the play in New York, the Broadway show. I had a few weeks between getting the part and going back for an undisclosed period of time, in which we’re going to lose all our money and I’m not going to see my wife and kids anymore. And the title came to me, and I said, “Well, I’m going to describe that six-week period of time. About what that was like.”
What occurred to me first was a story that seemed unrelated to me, and I didn’t really know where it came from. What I wanted to do was say, “The world isn’t what we think it will be. You’d think as an actor, getting a big job on Broadway would be your dream come true. Then it’s not.” So I was telling the story of when my father spanked me when I was a child. That’s when I had the first big wake-up call that the world was crazy. Dad was saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, I get it. He’s nuts. Of course it’s going to hurt me more than it hurts him. [Laughs.] I get it now. The world doesn’t make sense.” So I used that story as an introduction, and I started writing the other story, and then it dawned on me that during that six-week period of time is when we had the big goodbye party where I had to spank my son William. And I went, “Oh! My! God! I didn’t even see this parallelism in telling the first story.” [Laughs.]
Of course, the story of spanking William turned out completely different from my first story. We’re having a big goodbye party, and William is acting up and acting crazy, and bumping into people, and knocking food down, and laughing. He’s just a crazy man, and Ann is saying, “You’ve got to discipline him. You’ve got to do something with him.” So I take him back to the bedroom and say, “That’s it, mister. Lay across my lap.” And suddenly I see my father.
William said, “No, dad. I’m not going to do it.” And I said, “You have to, William. I’m your father.” He said, “Dad, you’re not going to want to do this.” [Laughs.] He’s like 5. He’s a little kid. He’s saying, “If you spank me, dad, you’re going to hate yourself. And it’s just going to make me angry.” And I said, “Okay, William. [Laughs.] You’re right. So what do you suggest we do when you act this way?” And he said, “Well, don’t ask me. That’s your problem.” [Laughs.]
As it turned out, these parallelisms produced themselves as I began writing by trusting the associations that came into my mind. Something seemed like diversion, and I wrote it anyway. The little voice says, “Write this. Trust me, just write this.” And I write it, and then later, I say, “Oh my God, I see how this connects with the other thing. Thank you very much, little voice inside my head.” So it isn’t that they’re cognitively figured out. Some of the stories I’ve written, I know are good finishing stories. “I know it’s good to finish a podcast with this story, now how the hell do we begin?” Those are problematic. It’s very hard to start with one of those gut-crunching stories. But I just kind of trust that the associations will fill in eventually.
AVC: What’s the process like of preparing these pieces for a book, as opposed to being read aloud for a podcast?
ST: Horrifying. Horrifying. I’m about to do [live performances of] stories in different cities right now. When I have to do a story live, I have to walk around the block and do the story out loud, walking. [Constantin] Stanislavski always said, “Distract yourself mildly when you’re trying to learn lines,” not do heavy labor, but do the dishes, dust, or do something around the house, and the mild distraction will help you focus on the story. When I tell a story out loud, I think of walking as that distraction, and I try to tell myself that story. See where my interest flags, see where I feel like the story is too long and it needs to be cut. See where it needs a joke. So it takes months, months, of walking around blocks. Hours of walking, saying stories to myself or the birds or dogs or gardeners. And eventually, ideas come to me, and then it’s go-time. Then I go out onstage and do it, and I have no notes. I do it and hope that all the walking has built up my strength, and hope all the walking with the distractions helped me with the distractions of performing live. [Beat.] It’s horrible.
When I write it as a podcast, there’s a difference, as I know I’m going to be speaking it, because I write everything out very specifically, but I give myself permission to improvise if the spirit moves me in the moment. When we finish the podcast, I’ll go back and rewrite the story again, with things I changed just from saying it, or bridges I felt I had to do in the moment. I feel like when I write it as a podcast, I don’t have to be careful with passive tense, let’s say, or with repetition of words. Sometimes when you speak out loud, repetition helps emphasize a point, but when you’re just reading it on a page, like “The Dangerous Animals Club” in the book, it looks like it needs a rewrite if you use the same word too often. I had a fabulous editor—Ben Loehnen, over at Simon & Schuster—with Dangerous Animals Club, and I would get notes like, “Do you realize that on page 68, you use the word ‘happenstance,’ and now you’re using it again on page 230? I don’t know if you want to use ‘happenstance’ twice in the same book. I don’t know if you want to use it once.” [Laughs.] And I went, “Oh wow, that’s so true.”
I’ve been to some story readings and I hear how quickly the audience gets ahead of the teller. The audience gets way ahead of you when you’re telling a story, and people who tell stories out loud need to be aware of how that happens. When you write a book, the audience is so fast. They get ahead of you so quickly, you have to write in a much more condensed fashion. To me, that’s the big difference of writing a book like Dangerous Animals Club, and writing a podcast.
AVC: Has doing these stories changed how you react to your own life? Do you think, “This is going to make a good story” every time something notable happens?
ST: No. [Laughs.] Totally yes, it has totally changed my life, telling the stories. And it is an example of how you create something, and then the thing you create recreates you. It has totally changed my life. Being in show business, it’s a very stressful, very difficult job, and I do get down and discouraged. Often, in my head, I go back to some of my own stories. For example, the last couple weeks, I’ve been going through a really stressful period, and I go back to my story “Conference Hour,” and the line I wrote, “Many people think that trial is a sign of failure, but it’s not. It’s just a doorway to take you to who you really are.” I’m thinking, like, “I’m going through a trial. This is a thing that is good news for me. This is defining me. It doesn’t feel good. It isn’t non-stressful. But it is a good thing.” But the stories help me with that. The stories completely help me metabolize my feelings over Beth. Completely. We had a very strained relationship for a couple decades, and this was somebody who I loved so dearly and intensely for so long. There was just no outlet for the anger and hurt I felt over our last few years together. It was not a storybook ending. It was not happy. I just felt like, “I’ll just sit on it and grow a tumor.”
And I began to tell some of the stories about Beth from our early life together, and it made me re-honor that period of time. I’d written one story that can never be made public and it’s one of my best stories, but can’t be done. My wife Ann said, “You can’t let anyone hear that.” So I brought a friend over, Fred Bailey, who is mentioned in “Don’t Argue With The Road.” He’s a friend of Beth’s, and he listened to the story and he… [Sighs.] He just started bawling. He said, “You can’t let Beth ever hear this story. You can’t. It’ll kill her. You can’t.” He says, “Have you thought about talking with her now that you’ve been writing these stories about her?” And I said, “Yeah. Kind of a fantasy.” Through a series of emails, we ended up having a lunch together. And I told her about the stories. Eventually, I sent her the book, and she said she couldn’t read it. She said, of all the things she read, she opened it up to “The Alchemist,” the story about my mother, and she said she was in bed the rest of the day, because Beth knew my mother so well.
Just this last week, we lost a mutual friend—I’m at that stage in my life now where you just start losing friends. And I go to the funeral, and there’s Beth, and she’s waving at me from the back row and I got up and went over and sat with her. We sat through the funeral together, and then afterward, our friend whose wife had passed on, that we all knew so well, couldn’t believe it. He started crying and hugged Beth and me, and said, “It’s a miracle. That good things can come out of bad things to see you two sitting together.” So the book has certainly, at this stage, worked to mend some of those emotional tensions, which changed me a lot.
AVC: Given that Beth is a public figure in her own right, as a writer and creator, were you concerned about the fact that you were revealing so much about her life story in talking about your relationship with her?
ST: Yeah. I wanted to make sure that, again, it didn’t become gossip. I wanted the story to be more about her triumphs and the obstacles that were against her, and not just like the things I went through with Joan Potter. [The “Conference Hour” story, referenced several times in this interview, discusses Tobolowsky’s theater education at Southern Methodist University, and how acting professor Joan Potter deliberately attempted to sabotage him and push him out of the program. —ed.] It was very much climbing up a mountain with the things that were against Beth and her reaching her potential. To me, that was a story that was important to be told, not gossipy, and was a story that could inspire people. That here was this person who no one took seriously, who no one believed in, and her relationship with her talent was so powerful that she was able to endure all the slights and condescension she faced. I was witness to that.
I had a discussion with Beth about it, not a pleasant discussion, when at first, she hadn’t heard any of the stories—she had just heard that some of them were about her, and she was offended. And I said, “You know, it’s my life too. The life I shared with you, I can tell my life, my point of view. I’m not going to tell your life from your point of view.” She was very hurt, very upset. And then she read “The Politics Of Romance,” the story about her writing Am I Blue, and the apartment infested with fleas, which is in Dangerous Animals Club. And Beth wrote me back and said, “I’m sorry. I think your stories are a gift. They’re beautiful, and thank you for writing them.” Then I think she also gave them to friends of hers and said, “Read these and tell me if I should call a lawyer.” And her friends read the stories and said, “No. They’re great.”
So I wanted the stories about Beth to be very much stories of triumph, and I think they are. She invited me to her newest play, which I went to a few months ago, and it was brilliant. It was brilliant. I don’t know that it will have a huge commercial life, but it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s called The Jacksonian. I was alive during that period of time, and in her life at that period of time, and I know how much truth there is in her stories, too. I found it a beautiful and horrifying story. Beth has a lot of courage as a writer.
AVC: Your stories circle around the end of your relationship and go backward and forward from it, discussing what a rough time it was, but you’ve never covered the breakup itself. Is that something you’re saving, or avoiding?
ST: Avoiding. The closest I’ll get to it is in “Heart. Broken.” which is a part of the book. That is, it was a takeaway I never intended—you can talk about the end of relationships. There are a million horrible things that go wrong at the end of relationships. And you go to psychiatrists, and you talk about drawing lines in the sand to try and save what is mutually valuable. But the truth of the matter is, the end of any relationship has nothing to do with all of the crimes, petty and great, that are committed against partners, one against the other. It has to do with the fact that somehow, the thing that you felt was mutually valuable, is not mutually valuable. That’s the thing that’s crushing. So you want to get into, “Well, they did this to me, and I did this to them, and they did that to me first, and then they did this to me, and what a victim am I, and blah blah blah blah.” And it’s horrible and interesting and prurient and awful. But the truth of the matter is, none of that would have happened if a relationship was mutually valuable. If you respected and loved the relationship and that other person as much as you did before. But somehow, it slips away from us whenever you find yourself in a relationship saying, “Well, I gotta do this for me.”
That’s why I’m very distrustful of Las Vegas. That’s what all their commercials say. “Pamper yourself. Treat yourself.” Whenever you start saying yourself… Human beings as creatures are basically selfish to begin with. We don’t need a lot of excuse to be selfish. But somehow in a relationship, you end up in a dialogue, “Well, this is something I have to do for me. To find out what I am.” When you get into that place and you don’t talk things over with your partner, then you’re in deep, deep doo-doo. Beth and I hurt each other so many ways. As I look back on it, man. We were like children. And we weren’t. We were grown-ups. And we weren’t! We were in our 30s. But we were in love for so long at such a long age, there were parts of us that were still incredibly naive. Thinking, “This can happen, and there’s not going to be any fallout from it. Or maybe I’ll try this and see how this works. It’ll be easy. No problem.” We were just incredibly, incredibly naive. So it’s amazing we were together as long as we were.
AVC: Do you think you’ll ever tell that story, what specifically ended the relationship?
ST: The only way I would ever talk about it is if I talked about it with Beth, long and hard, first. And if I presented her with a story and said, “What do you think of this?” And then we had a sit-down and a face-to-face. Now, I personally know, just from friends who are close to Beth on a daily basis, she kind of agrees with me on everything. She understands, she feels that the poisoning elements in our relationship—she sees them as the same things as I did, so we have no disagreement there. But she’s an enormously private person, and it’s just not worth it to me to hurt her for the sake of a story. I wouldn’t do that.
AVC: You’ve referenced “Conference Hour” a couple of times now. Is it true that one of the professors who went around Joan Potter to support you in that story, Jack Clay, showed up at one of your readings?
ST: In Seattle. I had no idea Jack was living in Seattle, and “Conference Hour” played on the radio in Seattle, and at the end, David and I give our email addresses and all that. Jack wrote me and said he heard the story at home, and he was devastated. He said it just brought all that time back to him, and he just sat in the living room crying. That it all came back to him. Then his son wrote to me and said it meant so much to his father that he heard this story, because he never thought he had any effect on anyone’s life, and to hear me tell the story about how really, Jack and [SMU theater history teacher] Tony Graham-White saved me… Jack saved me in terms of giving me extra work, extra attention, and doing it despite Joan’s attempts to pull me into the mud. Relentlessly, for a year and a half, Jack held me up.
When I went to Seattle and performed at The Neptune, Jack was saying he was going to come to the show and I said, “Jack, I’m going to do ‘Conference Hour.’ Will you object to me introducing you in the audience?” And Jack said, “Whatever you want, Tobo. Whatever you want.” So I did the story, and the audience, they love “Conference Hour.” They were applauding, I quieted everybody down, and I said, “We have a very special event. The man who was the hero of ‘Conference Hour,’ the man who saved me, now lives in Seattle. He’s here in the audience. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jack Clay.” Jack, in his mid-80s, stood up, and that audience of 800 people, it was like a Goodbye, Mr. Chips moment. They jumped to their feet and started screaming. It was thunderous. Jack turned around and acknowledged the crowd and sat down. It was amazing. We went out to lunch afterward, and Jack told me his recollections from that period of time. Which were pretty amazing in their own way.
Another piece of fallout from that evening and “Conference Hour”—another person from my class moved to Seattle and was there listening to the show. I had no idea that she was a victim of Joan Potter as well. But she didn’t do what I did. She ended up being run out of the department, and she gave it up. She saw the story that night and she came back as I was leaving the theater and hugged me. “Here I am, I’m Marla. Oh, Tobo, I was so glad to hear that story. I always thought it was me, and now I realize that it was all Joan…” and blah blah blah. Anyway, two weeks later, I get an email from Marla saying her whole life has changed from hearing that story. That she didn’t realize that her entire life, she had this weight on her that she was a failure, and that she was not worthy of her own dream. Now, she said, the last two weeks, she’s been crying, she’s been laughing. She feels like this weight has been lifted off of her, and she realized her worth. That was a side effect of the story that I never expected.
AVC: Have you re-encountered other people from your stories who heard the podcast or heard about them, and either sought you out or ran into you in the industry?
ST: Yes. People who are actually in the podcast… I got an email from J. Ranelli, who directed Peter Strauss in Einstein And The Polar Bear, featured in [the podcast-only essay] “The X Factor.” I had not talked to J. since the evening mentioned in the podcast, and J. was thrilled to have that story told, and he felt, in a way, it set the record straight for him. I try desperately to tell positive stories, and fortunately, I haven’t had many Joan Potters in my life. J. was directly involved in that story. There’ve been other people who aren’t featured in the podcast, who wrote me stories about their lives, and how they were moved and changed by the podcast, who end up following me, or coming to events of mine and meeting up with me. There are several people who have done that, and we’ve met up in cities across the country. It’s becoming a nice little family of people drawn together solely by listening to the podcast.
AVC: Has it changed your interactions with fans in person?
ST: No, but I could see how that would happen. I’m lucky at this stage. I really don’t have a ton of notoriety, and so my fans are not fans of mine because I’m famous. They’re fans of mine because they like the stories. So I have very articulate, high-quality fans. [Laughs.] Not people who mob me because, “Oh, you’re in a TV show we love.” This summer, I went to do an autograph-signing event for Glee in England. When I first met the fans there, they pretty much wanted proximity to somebody who was in their favorite show. But as part of this event, I had to tell stories. One hour one day, one hour the next day. And it completely changed my relationship with those fans. And them with me, vice versa.
Now, on Twitter, I have personal relationships with so many of these people, and we don’t talk about Glee anymore. And I understand that they still are devoted to the show, and I love that, but when they talk to me now, they’re talking to me about elements of the stories I told, and asking for advice. They’re going through this at home with their parents, they’re going through this with a teacher, or they’re about to audition for a show and they’re scared, and how should they deal with it? And they ask me personal questions now that come directly from the stories. In a way, the stories have elevated my relationship from an ordinary showbiz relationship.
AVC: When David Chen first contacted you about creating The Tobolowsky Files, what made you say yes to a project like this with somebody you didn’t know?
ST: The first thing was the saying from Hillel [the Elder] from “Conference Hour.” Telling that story made me rethink that Hillel quotation, “If I’m not for myself, who is? If I’m for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” I always had difficulty with that last line, “If not now, when?” What does that mean? In terms of “Conference Hour,” it meant, “Dude. Now.” And in terms of David Chen, he proposed the idea of the podcast to me, I was still recovering from my broken neck, and I wasn’t really doing much. I got off the phone with him, and I talked to my wife Ann about it, and she said, “The question is, do you want to say yes? And if you want to say yes, when do you want to say yes?” I realized it’s the same damn thing as the Hillel quote. Why would I say no? If I’m going to say yes, why not say yes today, if it’s yes today? So I called David Chen back and I said, “Let’s do the first one at the end of the week. I’ll write something.” It was Monday, and I said, “Let’s see if I can get something done by Friday.” And that’s when we started The Tobolowsky Files.
I said to him before we recorded—because you’re right, I didn’t know this guy—I said, “David, what I write belongs to me, right? You don’t own it. You’re not a co-owner. The fact that you’re recording it, you have no hold on it, right?” He said, “I’ll sign anything you want. Anything we do, all belongs to you. Whatever we do.” And that is David Chen. David Chen is as honest a person as I’ve ever met. His word is his bond. I trust him implicitly. He’s never done anything that violates my trust. Whenever we have done stories, David will give counsel: “I would think about this line in the story. That could offend some listeners.” I’d say, “You’re kidding.” He says, “Just think about it. You don’t have to do anything about it, just think about it. Because all sorts of people listen to the show.” And I would think about it and try to put myself in their shoes, and I would think, “Oh, right. David’s right.” And I would change it.
I listen to David Chen’s advice now; I listen to my wife Ann’s advice. I find that it is rock-solid. I guess the decision to say yes came from the fact that I was doing nothing else at the time, and the decision that maintained it being a yes was the integrity of David. And the dude’s skill set. I mean, the guy has skills. He’s not only a good writer and a good announcer, he’s a whiz at that computer and editing and all that stuff. He’s a whiz at it. He’s professional-grade at a lot of different things. A lot of admiration for David Chen.
AVC: Was there a specific point where you realized that the podcast had crossed over from being an experiment and a side project to something that would have a real impact on your career?
ST: [Laughs.] I guess the first time it dawned on me was, I got an audition, and I was in the middle of writing a story and I called up my manager and said, “Can we change the audition? I’m busy right now.” And I go, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I’m actually putting off a cash-money audition because I’m busy writing to do a podcast for no money, because it’s more important to me.” That’s when I realized. That probably happened within the first year of doing the podcast.
AVC: Do you have a particular favorite among the podcasts or the book chapters, somewhere you’d point somebody new to the whole thing, if you wanted to illustrate what it’s all about?
ST: Well, I’m terrible at that, because I think every story in that book, I’ve read a hundred times, and they’re all good. [Laughs.] I mean it, I go, “It’s good! What can I say? It’s good!” If they were to read one story, just one, man I don’t know. Certainly “The Alchemist” is good, in that it’s absolutely hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s a great story, and it goes back and forth in time, and it’s kind of multiple pieces. To show what I do, that’s great. But as a whole, the thing that the book does for me that takes me by surprise—about halfway through the book, around “Miss Hard To Get” when the Beth story starts taking hold, the book slowly switches from a series of stories to kind of having a narrative. And it picks up this momentum from out of nowhere, and it makes you view the first half of the book differently from the second half of the book. It’s continually surprising to me, even knowing the stories as well as I do, the emotion it has on me in the second half of the book. The book really develops an interesting momentum in the middle that I didn’t expect when I was putting it all together, which really makes me happy.
AVC: The book covers less than half of the stories you’ve told on the podcast so far. Do you have plans for a second one?
ST: I actually have plans for three more. There’s three more arcs. The second one is finished. It will certainly depend on how well this book does. If it doesn’t do well, then there isn’t going to be a second book. I think if the book does well, then there’ll certainly be another book, and I see it as a continuation of working through the stories of the podcast, putting them in a certain order, getting to the next arc. The next arc kind of begins with the introduction of Ann, with our marriage. The middle of the arc is the birth of Robert, our first child, in “The Stranger.” The end of the arc is somewhere along the lines of when Ann told me she was pregnant, and what that day was. That’s what I’m envisioning as the second arc, again with stories of the ridiculous and the miraculous and horrible, all mixed up with the idea of birth, the birth of all sorts of things.
I guess the idea of the second book, if such a thing will exist, is that we all have these plans for our life—like, I had a plan with Beth, and then Beth didn’t happen, and what happens when we do plan B. What happens to our life when we go off the tracks and start putting it together in a new context. It’s about relationships and the birth of lots of different things, and how that changes your life when you enter into a more complicated relationship than just boyfriend and girlfriend. Whether it be husband or wife, whether it be working, beyond the balance of love, working on projects. It’s when you’re dealing with personal failure and fighting against it. Obviously, it has the same themes in it. And it’ll follow a lot of the next group of podcast stories with a few new stories that haven’t appeared as podcasts yet.
AVC: What’s the Public Radio International version of The Tobolowsky Files going to look like?
ST: It’s very exciting, because they have a whole different protocol. When I do The Tobolowsky Files with David Chen, whatever we say, goes. When I had to do it for radio at [Seattle station] KUOW, each show had to be exactly 51 minutes. When I do PRI, each show has to be an hour, and it has to be a three-act structure. We’ve done four pilot shows: “The Alchemist,” “Afflictions Of Love,” “Dangerous Animals Club,” and “The Classic,” about Groundhog Day. It required a lot of rewriting and writing of new material for me to create third acts or second acts or whatever, to reshape these stories. For example, knowing “The Alchemist” like you do, knowing that story, what the hell do you do for a third act? The third act turned out to be… I love it. I love it. Because it was completely unpredictable and it had to do with—I asked William, who is now 18, “You remember the story of ‘The Alchemist,’ with the egg? What do you remember from that day and that week?” and the third act comes from William’s point of view.
He looks back at that, and it comes from a Jewish principle. There is a kind of Jewish folklore, or more than folklore. Words to the wise. The most important thing to protect a civilization is the teachings of a grandparent to a grandchild, because that period of two generations is what the sages of 2,000 years ago said was necessary to keep a society intact. So I came forth with stories of what I learned from my grandparents, and William accidentally provided me with stories of what he learned from my mother. It provides a great act three. Just terrific. I think. I love it. But it was interesting having to come up lots of new material. So I’m very excited for the PRI thing, because it’ll be reworking new stuff, big stuff, not just slight reworking or rerecording of the podcast, but lots of new stories and material.
AVC: So what’s the future of The Tobolowsky Files?
ST: Well, David and I are going to continue. We’re going to have more frequency than we have had the last year. The frequency has dropped off significantly due to David’s having to look for a job and finishing up with Harvard and writing papers and going to Microsoft, and then me having a lot of problems in terms of family at home, and my wife having problems with her family, so we weren’t able to record as often. So we only pretty much put out a show a month. But we’re going to try to continue the podcast in the old-fashioned form. Not necessarily doing an hour show at a time, so it’s worthy of PRI or public radio, but doing what we used to do. Maybe doing 20 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever we have, and maybe try to do it more frequently, like every two weeks. And use the podcast as a laboratory to create the bigger stories that are going to be on PRI, if that’s successful.
AVC: Looping back to the beginning of this interview, when people think they recognize you in some mundane way, do you correct them? Are you ever tempted to play along, and say, “Why yes, I was your dentist eight years ago,” just to end the interaction?
ST: [Laughs.] No, I don’t do that. I end up saying, “Oh, I’m an actor,” and then they all say, “Well, what have you been in?” And then I’ll try to say the things I think they’ve seen, which is kind of funny in and of itself. I was talking to this one young woman in her early 20s, and she couldn’t place me. And by the look on her face, I thought “Maybe she’s a Freaky Friday or a Glee person.” And then she turned around to get some paperwork from a binder, and I saw she had a big tattoo on her backside, kind of sticking out of her jeans, so I thought, “Deadwood.” She turned back around, and I said, “Well, I was on Deadwood…” and she said, “Oh, I love that show!” and then, “Oh, you’re on Californication!” So the girls with tattoos are usually Deadwood and Californication. I try not to make a big deal out of it with people who obviously don’t know me. But I do not play along.
I had a terrible situation where I was shooting a movie and I was playing a rabbi, an Orthodox Jew who was running an old folks’ home, so I had the tzitzit, the little undergarment with the four braids coming out and a beard and I had my yarmulke on and I’m walking down the street. This Latino man runs up to me very distraught, we’re on the streets of Los Angeles, and he says, “Father, can you come with me? My mother is dying and she needs a man of God with her.” And I said, “I would love to come, but I’m not a rabbi. I’m just an actor. We’re just here shooting a movie.” I think if I could turn back the clock on that event, I would go back with the mom and tell the people at the movie, “I have to be with this fellow, because there’s a more important part I have to play for a second. For this woman.” I wouldn’t have considered that a goof, I would have considered that a kindness. It’s one of those things they always ask, “Do you have any regrets? What was the part that got away that you regret?” Maybe that one on the streets of Los Angeles. I think, had I had my feet under me a little more and not been so shocked, if it happened to me today, I would tell the people on the movie, “Cool your heels for a bit. I have to do something really important right now.”