Stephen Tobolowsky

Active - 1976 - 2019  |   Born - May 30, 1951 in Dallas, Texas, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Comedy Drama

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Biography by Ryan Shriver

Perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable -- yet seemingly unidentifiable -- character actors to have succeeded in Hollywood, Stephen Tobolowsky's non-movie star looks have enabled the native Texan to portray a wider variety of characters more conventional movie stars simply could not. Born and raised in Dallas, Tobolowsky attended Southern Methodist University for his undergraduate degree and went on to earn a Master's degree in acting from the University of Illinois. While at S.M.U., the young Tobolowsky won his first film role in a low-budget horror film entitled Keep My Grave Open. Soon after finishing his studies, he went west to Los Angeles and started working somewhat consistently in both television and film in the early '80s -- while gaining some notice for his work in the films Swing Shift and Mississippi Burning. After toiling on the West Coast for a few years, Tobolowsky became a bi-coastal star with a role in a 1981 Broadway production of Beth Henley's play The Wake of Jamey Foster. In 1986, he collaborated with Henley -- who also happened to be a fellow student of Tobolowsky's during his undergraduate studies at S.M.U. -- and David Byrne to co-write the script for Byrne's 1986 film True Stories. The multi-talented thespian then went on to write and direct his own play, Two Idiots in Hollywood, which he also turned into a film in 1988. The early '90s brought Tobolowsky his greatest exposure to the movie-going public, with a number of diverse and interesting roles that highlighted the actor's great range and skill -- nearly to the extent of upstaging these films' higher-profile stars. Perhaps the most prototypical Tobolowsky characterization can be found in the 1993 Harold Ramis comedy Groundhog Day, in which Tobolowsky portrayed the hapless insurance salesman Ned Ryerson. Other memorable performances from this decade include Thelma & Louise, Basic Instinct, Sneakers, and The Radioland Murders. Tobolowsky continued creating endearing characters into the 2000s, starting with Christopher Nolan's indy hit Memento. As amnesiac Sammy Jankis, Tobolowsky created one of the most powerful dramatic performances of his career. His next significant film role came via the 2002 Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation, which further displayed the nearly chameleon-like actor's range and talent that make him one of the best character actors in the industry. In the years to come, Tobolowsky would remain active on screen, appearing on shows like Glee and Californication.

Movie Highlights

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  • Was the lead singer and played guitar in Stevie Ray Vaughan's first band.
  • Spent two hours in 1986 staring wordlessly at David Byrne's drawings of ideas for True Stories, then wrote a 30-page treatment for the film that night and was hired by Byrne as a writer on the project. 
  • Turned down the role of Al in the series Home Improvement.
  • Played Principal Flutie in the unaired pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.