Today, May 30th, is Stephen Tobolowsky’s birthday. He turns 62 this year, though he’s one of those people who looks like he was born at age 50, in that it’s hard to picture him looking younger. Now, it’s certainly possible that some of you reading this are asking who Stephen Tobolowsky is. You might think you don’t know him, but this is false. You know him. You just don’t know you know him. He’s that guy. You know, that guy. One of those many actors who is never quite the star of the film, but keeps showing up again and again in different movies, often in some memorable scene-stealing role that only lasts a few minutes. He was the helpless Sammy Jankis in Memento. He was the hateful Clayton Townley in Mississippi Burning. He played Werner Brandes in Sneakers. He was Ned “the Head” Ryerson in Groundhog Day. Since 1976, he’s been in 97 theatrical films, a handful of videos, and 117 television productions.
Yeah. He’s that guy. You know that guy.
And in 2005, his friend, cinematographer Robert Brinkman, decided that his directorial debut should be a documentary showing Stephen Tobolowsky preparing for his birthday party, hosting friends, and relating stories.
And if you still haven’t figured it out, he’s this guy.
Tobolowsky’s party guests include a variety of actors and filmmakers of different levels of fame and different ages. There are actors there the same age as Tobolowsky and his wife, Ann Hearn, and some that are decades younger, such as Mena Suvari and Amy Adams. Some were well-known at the time of filming, some would become better known later, and some remain obscure. Some are actors, some are writers, some have other roles in film making. It’s an eclectic mix, and when they arrive, they’re all sitting around listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk. And it’s easy to see why.
Tobolowsky is a gifted raconteur. He’s portrayed a few characters in film who are boorish, boring storytellers, but he himself is an entertaining one. Sometimes you can tell he has a direction in mind with his stories, and other times they’re clearly being told in the spur of the moment, but they always flow naturally and he never has to stop to collect his thoughts. They include stories about acting, about his personal life, and just dealing with various little insanities that crop up from time to time. A lot of the stories are touching, a couple are sombre; the majority are simply funny. His timing, verbal wit, and expressions sell the humor of the situations. Many of the stories tie into each other, directly or thematically, such as the various events he relates when talking about the time he tried to justify his inclusion on a list of the 100 coolest people in Los Angeles.
It’s a fun look at a character actor who is a character himself. With “major” actors, we tend to get a sense of who they are from seeing them in press conferences and interviews on late night talk shows. Character actors, even relatively significant ones such as Tobolowsky, don’t often get that kind of exposure. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party provides a rare glimpse at an actor who normally only gets the spotlight when he’s stealing it from the stars of a film.