Our maiden guest in the Hotel is character actor and master storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky.
There are plenty of superstars out there. The Tom Cruises and Brad Pitts and George Clooneys of this world who, with a sprinkle of their magic pixie dust, can get a film made, with their name above the title on the poster and a big cut of the profits to boot. Likewise, hundreds of films (deservedly or otherwise) have their moment in the sun, awards and box office success lavished upon them as they are admitted to the ranks of “The Acclaimed”.
Then there are the other guys. The other films. Actors who always add something great to the films they appear in, but too often remain under the radar – effective but unsung. Films that are genuinely great but somehow fail to attract the critical or commercial attention they so clearly merit. This series of features is about righting that wrong, about dragging these performers and films out into the sunlight, where they can be recognised and in some small measure acknowledged and congratulated for all that they have done. One such performer is the incomparable Stephen Tobolowsky. You know, Ned Reyerson.
Stephen Tobolowsky has, at the time of writing, 226 credits on IMDb.com. That is a lot. Needless to say, at that kind of volume, quality control becomes something of a problem and it is not being suggested for one minute that everything he has done is 24-carat gold. Failure to Launch, Garfield, National Security and Wild Hogs would be considered high points in only the most desperate CV. But first of all, (before we look at his really memorable, effective big screen work) consider what he has been in on the small screen: Glee, Deadwood, Heroes, Justified, Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s not just being thrown into anything that pays; he is cropping up in high-profile, well-regarded shows and producing memorable, impactful work.
But it is his cinema output that we are chiefly concerned with here and again, he comes up trumps. Despite Groundhog Day being Bill Murray’s film, it is Tobolowsky’s work as “needle-nosed” Ned that sticks with us just as much as anything Phil Connors does. Ned is such a strange, but loveable character – a dufus, but one you would probably quite enjoy spending (a modest amount of) time with. Similarly, his screen time in Nolan’s Memento is limited to a few flashbacks to Sammy Jankis, the amnesiac whose plight either mirrors or is that of Guy Pearce’s Leonard. In a few truncated monochrome sequences, Tobolowsky captures Jankis’s confusion, seeming innocence and tragedy. Sterling work.
With Sneakers, we were presented with perhaps the mother of all eclectic casts – Ben Kingsley, Robert Redford, River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones and Tobolowsky himself – all slotting seamlessly into a fairly light-hearted caper, which still managed to present serious stakes and genuine peril. Tobolowsky appears as a member of staff at a building into which the eponymous team wish to break, leading to a simultaneously awkward, tense and hilarious date between him and Mary McDonnell’s Liz, as she tries to get him to “naturally” use all of the words needed to piece together a voice-ID. As Liz tries to coax the last word out of him (“passport”), it all becomes quite silly and self-aware as Tobolowsky rebuffs her suggestion that he has a sexy voice by stating that he always thought it was a little bit nasal and whiny. Always impactful, even with limited screen time, Tobolowsky holds his own again.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man may be one of horror-meister John Carpenter’s most under-rated films. Of course it is nowhere near as accomplished as Halloween, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from LA, but it still has much to commend it, not least some excellent special effects and a winning lead performance from Chevy Chase. Tobolowsky crops up as a CIA chief, trying to rein in an increasingly desperate and unpleasant Sam Neill, who wants to capture the transparent Chevy Chase and offer him on the open market as an unprecedentedly effective spy. In some ways, like Hollow Man many years later, Memoirs is a showcase for special effects, loosely held together with a passable story, but it has enough going on to be worth a watch, even if it lacks the heft of Claude Rains’ definitive portrayal of the character. Tobolowsky’s role is in many ways unremarkable – the more “by the book” superior of Sam Neill’s more interesting operative – but he still holds our attention during his few moments on screen. As utterly different as his character is from, say, Jenkins in Memento, he remains wholly convincing.
Thelma and Louise is a genuinely great film, as different from Ridley Scott’s most renowned work (Alien and Blade Runner) as one can conceive, yet brilliant all the same. Superbly cast across the board and with scene-stealing performances from (among others) Brad Pitt and a never-more-sweaty Timothy Carhart, it was hard for any of the supporting cast to make their presence felt – it becomes so easy for bit-part players to sink into the background. Thankfully, Tobolowsky came up trumps again, as Max, working alongside Harvey Keitel’s more prominent (in screen time) detective. Of course everyone remembers Keitel from Thelma & Louise, he’s that sort of actor and it is that sort of role. But in many ways Tobolowsky’s work is more impressive – maintaining attention with considerably less to work with, with subtle touches like leaving his napkin tucked into his collar during a conversation helping to cement him in our memories.
We were shown Mississippi Burning after school one day as an accompaniment to our GCSE History studies on race relations in the US. It is a film that has been (aptly) seared into my brain, shocking, affecting and powerful. Again, it is a film chock-full of powerhouse performances, but devoid of histrionics – a perfect assembly of moving parts. Hackman, Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R Lee Ermey, Tobolowsky, Michael Rooker, Pruitt Taylor Vince – it’s no wonder the film made such an impression.
Although this film was made earlier in Tobolowsky’s career, before we came to associate him with more “nerdy” roles, this still feels like a role cast against type for him, as he seeks to rally Anglo-Saxon unity against the imagined rise of non-WASPs in the South. His cold, deluded speeches, delivered with utter belief and conviction are chilling, as he purports to support democracy. His performance is a revelation, very much at the other end of the spectrum from the more verbose, “overtly” racists played by the likes of Rooker and Dourif. Excellent work, as always.
There is so much great work out there from Tobolowsky, not just on the big screen and he seems able to deliver across such diverse material. Hopefully the above has provided either some fond memories, some timely reminders or a helpful prompt as to where to start in (re)familiarising yourself with an unsung hero.