The pandemic has given actor and Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky a lot of time to think. Mostly, at first, his thoughts were that he might have the COVID-19 virus.
“I was wanting to kill myself every day,” Tobolowsky says from his home in Los Angeles. “I was convinced I had COVID several times a day. I dreamt about COVID and had all this time to write … such an extent that [producer and co-host David Chen] said, ‘You need to stop writing. We’ve got enough podcast here.'”
The Tobolowsky Files started back up in late September after a three-year hiatus, with streams of deep, personal stories from his hometown and home life, and about his hike into the heart of the Hollywood machine.
The last few years, and even months during the pandemic, have been very busy for Tobolowsky. He made some memorable moments in the storylines for hit shows like Silicon Valley as the tenacious tech entrepreneur Jack Barker; Norman Lear’s revival of One Day at a Time as the nebbish Dr. Leslie Berkowitz, which ran on Netflix; PopTV; and a short primetime run on CBS as well as a live episode of the TV classic The Jeffersons as George and Weezy’s neighbor Mr. Bentley (originally played by the late Paul Benedict).
He even got the rare chance to reprise his most memorable role as the obnoxious needle-headed Ned Ryerson in a mini-remake of Groundhog Day alongside Bill Murray in a Super Bowl commercial for Jeep.
These days, he’s doing more voice-over roles for shows like Nickelodeon’s Loud House and FX’s Archer — far safer, given the virus’ constant public presence — and is constantly getting tested and quarantining on set with his new recurring role on The Goldbergs as William Penn Academy’s Principal Ball.
“There is a refiguring,” Tobolowsky says. “On One Day at a Time, the cast would be chatting so much after four to five years together. It was a close cast. After CBS aired six shows, we didn’t hear anything from anybody. I learned something years ago: It doesn’t matter how good or bad a show is, there’s always a closing night. You need to know that when you walk into it.”
Tobolowsky’s stories are worth your time. They aren’t just about studio sets that most of us will never get to see or personal stories that every human will someday experience, either. They are personal, but layered with wisdom, humor, sadness and triumph; these stories aren’t always separate from each other.
Tobolowsky says one of the “through-lines” in his newest podcast season revisits an eye-widening story from a chapter in My Adventures with God, the memoir the actor published in 2017. It circles around the book Psychology and Alchemy by Carl Jung, in which the noted psychologist and conceptualist of the collective unconscious theory describes a face in a painting — an instant that Tobolowsky says he found eerily familiar.
“It’s a dream I had in the 1980s,” Tobolowsky says. “I’m falling to Earth, thousands of feet to Earth. I can’t even scream because the wind is blowing so cold and so hard and before I’m about to hit, I’m in a park and a gorgeous woman in a gown and veil comes to me and says not to worry but I’m dead. Am I in heaven? She said, ‘No, you just wait. All the people who loved in your time will be here in a minute or two and you’ll see them here. You’re not going to miss anyone.’
“I had this dream and as sure as I tell you, I will always remember the face of that woman in the park.”
The stories Tobolowsky tells are also unmasked truths about commonalities between people. They don’t just support Jung’s theory about archetypal structures being passed down through generations’ unconscious existences. They make you realize just how alike and connected we are, especially in a time of tribal gamesmanship that seems to permeate every moment of our lives.
“Because I tell true stories or try to make them as true as possible about my past, they become universal elements and I get emails from all over the world saying, ‘The exact same thing happened to me,'” Tobolowsky says. “You begin to understand the connections from humanity and the connections in your life that came from things before you were born.”
Truth is important to Tobolowsky, not just because he makes his living trying to recreate certain realities on stage and screen but because he doesn’t want the stories to end with him, he says. It doesn’t matter if the story is about something mundane, life-affirming or even life-threatening like his open-heart surgery in 2011, the broken neck he suffered in 2017 in a horse-riding accident on an active volcano in Iceland or about the time he was a hostage in a Snyder Plaza grocery store holdup back in 1976.
“I’ve had a few meetings with the Grim Reaper, and I realized it is important to tell a true story, as true as you can tell it,” Tobolowsky says. “If I change this one little thing, oh, it’ll be oh so clever. If you leave it the way it is, you have the possibility of the story continuing.”
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