1/22/15

Meeting Tobolowsky

The LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD Series

Bill Murray and Stephen Tobolowsky in 1993’s Groundhog Day.

Everyone remembers Ned Ryerson. My theory is that it’s because everyone’s had a Ned Ryerson in their lives, or perhaps – Lord help them – several Ned Ryersons.

Mine was a guy named Don. We were roommates back in the eighties, in a household of five single dudes, and Don was the bumbling, well-intentioned but annoying-as-hell roommate who’d try to do nice things like wash all the dishes when it wasn’t even his turn – but he’d end up breaking something your mom gave you when you left home.

When my wife and I were married in 1990, Don came to visit a few weeks after our honeymoon and he ended up setting our kitchen on fire while kindly trying to make us dinner.

So it goes with the Ned Ryersons of this world.

The great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky brought the memorable Ned Ryerson to life in 1993’s Groundhog Day, directed by the late Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray. Ten years after the movie’s release, he said it seemed to be all he was known for, despite numerous other film roles by that time and quite a bit of stage work.

I was sent to the Universal lot for the filming of Garfield in 2003, to be a businessman walking down the street during some scenes involving Mr. Tobolowsky’s character (Happy Chapman) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (sigh).

Generally speaking, extras don’t engage the principal actors in conversation on sets, but I knew a guy, and the guy knew Tobolowsky. I don’t remember the guy’s name so I’ll call him “Charles,” because I recollect that he was kind of like a “Charles” should be when you think of that name.

I’d worked on a couple of other things with Charles before this shoot, so running into him on the Garfield set resulted in a hearty handshake and a bit of catching up. It turned out that Charles was a “real actor,” in that he did theater. Not community theater either, but the big stuff where you have an agent and you’re a union member and all of that. Charles was just telling me about a show he’d been rehearsing for when Stephen Tobolowsky walked up.

“Hey Charles!” he said. God, he sounded so much like Ned Ryerson, I started looking around for a puddle. He shook hands with Charles in a heartier fashion than I had, which told me they knew each other better than we knew each other, and a rousing conversation about theater ensued.

Not having risen above the community theater level, I felt entirely unworthy to even be listening to this conversation, but Charles had introduced us a few moments earlier and Stephen seemed to be a pretty nice guy, so I decided not to excuse myself. Jennifer Love Hewitt had even arrived on set and there was a bit of buzz going on about it but, Stephen’s anecdotes were so interesting, even she couldn’t pull me away. Those who know me know that’s saying a lot.

Somehow the character of Ned Ryerson was mentioned and I don’t know if it was Stephen or Charles who brought it up, but I know for certain it wasn’t me because I was standing there in dumbfounded silence; I was thinking, “Damn, I’m being all chummy with Stephen Tobolowsky, who I’ve seen in a billion things – including one of my favorite comedies of all time.”

Stephen told a story that he’d probably told for about the hundredth time that week, and it was a good one. I’m not surprised because, in doing a little background research on him for this post, I’ve noticed that he’s quite the storyteller, not only at his own blog but on his IMDB page as well.

He told Charles and I about a fan who kind of stalked him one afternoon while he was grocery shopping, but in a good way, in that she kept her distance. While he was cruising the aisles of the Studio City “Ralph’s,” he noticed that she kept looking over at him and smiling. “No big deal,” he said. “That happens all the time.”

The interesting part came after he’d checked out and was loading his groceries into his car. She’d checked out too and her car was parked only a few spaces from his, so she finally got up the nerve to approach him and ask for an autograph. “I just love your work!” she said.

“Thank you very much,” Stephen replied. He told Charles and I that people would engage him in conversation at least once a day, though usually more, so it was quite common and this was just a typical fan encounter. I remember him saying that even though it’s sometimes an energy drain, and he might be pressed for time, he always appreciated someone telling him about their favorite character and how much they liked it.

He also said that, “just about one hundred percent of the time,” it would be Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day.

So, as he autographed something for the nice lady in the Ralph’s Supermarket parking lot, he asked her, “What’s your favorite movie of mine? Is it Groundhog Day?”

Her reply: “Oh, are you a film actor too? I wouldn’t know, dear, I don’t go to the movies.. my husband and I saw you last year at The Geffen Playhouse in “Waiting For Godot,” and you were wonderful!”*

In glancing at Stephen’s blog and seeing that he has quite the podcast, I’d imagine he’s told this story before (and probably correctly – I’m attempting to recollect a brief conversation from almost 12 years ago). So, if you’re a Stephen Tobolowsky fan or friend, please forgive the redundancy.

The point is, this never happens. Theatrical patrons usually just ask for autographs on their Playbills, and that’s if they do the waiting-at-the-stagedoor thing after a show. They don’t ask in supermarket parking lots a year later, and besides.. WHO HASN’T SEEN GROUNDHOG DAY?

Apparently, that lady.

I never saw Charles after that, so I hope he took Stephen’s advice and stopped working as an extra on movie sets. I didn’t see Stephen Tobolowsky again either, except for on the screen in my living room in about a thousand other things he’s done since Garfield.

Now I have a blog to subscribe to. What an interesting guy.

* Twelve years is a long time to remember the details of a story. It may not have been The Geffen Playhouse (in LA’s Westwood), but it probably was, and it might not have been “Waiting For Godot,” but only Stephen really knows for sure.


Bill Murray’s “Phil” encounters Stephen’s “Ned Ryerson”
in a doozy of a scene from Groundhog Day.

Stephen Tobolowsky’s BLOGPODCASTIMDB

Get Groundhog Day via Amazon Instant Video or DVD/Blu-ray.

The Life In Hollywood Series continues with:
The Day I Almost Killed Gwyneth Paltrow



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