Everything Else Random Thoughts — 12 July 2010
Character Actor of the Week: Stephen Tobolowsky


The path to becoming a successful actor is not always a straight line.  This is evident based on some of the roles they select.  Some are accepted by mass viewing audiences and get labeled as “America’s Sweethearts.”  Some make dangerous choices and get labeled as “Rebels.”  And while each of these types of actors are unique in their own special way, that’s not who I am blogging about.  I choose to honor “The Character Actor.”

These fine men and woman are the supporting players- you might not know all of their names, but you’ll sure as “heck fi” know their over the top performances.  The first actor of this caliber with the honor of my first entry is Stephen Tobolowsky.  Mr. Tobolowsky has appeared in over 200 film and television roles, and if his name doesn’t sound familiar, his face surely will.

During the winter of 1993 an amazing comedy was released starring comedy legend Bill Murray.  This little gem was called “Groundhog Day,” and it went on to become a modern day comedy classic.  And although I am a huge Murray fan, he cannot take all the credit for the success of this film.  A lot of the credit has to go to Tobolowsky himself, who nailed the character of Murray’s annoying former high school classmate, “Needle Nose” Ned Ryerson.

The job of the character actor is often to provide an extreme, over the top performance to counter act the mild or dour demeanor of the lead.  Tobolowsky hits this mark on all levels.  As a pushy insurance salesman, Tobolowsky performs with some serious mugging and physical comedy that rivals, and at the same time compliments, Murray’s already flawless performance.

As you may already know (and if you don’t, SPOILER ALERT!), “Groundhog Day” is a farce of a comedy, where Murray’s sarcastic character Phil Conners, is doomed to live the same day over and over until he lives it right.  The supporting characters in the film act to either help lead Phil toward a path of goodness, or provide him with the means to cause chaos.  Fortunately, Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson provides the latter.

Tobolowsky’s most famous scene in the film involves a run in with Murray’s smarmy weather man character as he is walking through town, on his way to report the happenings of the Groundhog’s Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Tobolowsky’s Ryerson comes out of nowhere and gets right into Murrays face, like a bald tornado, gabbering about dating Phil’s sister, and making several odd back handed comments.  Since Phil Conners is doomed to repeat this same day over and over again, his run-ins with Ryerson become more bizarre and the scenes prove how easily Tobolowsky can keep up with Murray’s legendary comedic timing and acerbic wit.

Whenever people I know quote from this movie, a Ryerson quip is never forgotten, meaning he is owed a lot of credit for what makes this film appropriate for repeat viewings. And a comedy needs these secondary characters to be well rounded.  In fact, if you look at any Bill Murray film, you will find a character actor who steals a scene from him at one point or another.

The silver screen is only a fraction of Tobolowsky’s “Character Actory” (coined a new phrase). Over the course of his career, Tobolowsky has starred in a number of wildly successful television shows- Seinfeld and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name a few. Currently, Tobolowsky’s can be seen on shows like HBO’s Deadwood and Entourage, and most recently on FOX’s Glee (as Sandy Ryerson). Much like the other character actors of his ilk, Tobolowsky is unfortunately typecast. For some actors their “type” could be the cop, the villain, or the bitch. These qualities often brand them the moment their career begins, which depending how one views it, can be considered a blessing or a curse. Clearly, Tobolowsky has been typecast as a “jerk.” Not just a simple “jerk,” a “jerk” with the range to play to several different types of “jerks” all at once. But most often Tobolowsky plays the role of the “affluent jerk”- all knowing and often feminine in nature- which makes the audience despise him. Since he typically appears on shows as a “guest star” this gives him the carte blanche to be as over the top as possible, which results in the most guttural reaction from viewers. If you have ever watched a show where a middle aged, balding man with glasses is telling the main protagonist something off-putting and rude; that’s our man, Stephen Tobolowsky.


- Alan Smithee

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(1) Reader Comment

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