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Small stories, big heart and a genuinely nice guy (alyson hannigan mention)

Tuesday 30 May 2006, by Webmaster

On May 30, actor Stephen Tobolowsky turned 55 years old. Chances are, he and his wife, Ann Hearn, had some friends over for a relaxed dinner and engaged in storytelling with the birthday boy front and center.

Wait. Tobo ... who?

After more than 170 movies, Tobolowsky still requires an introduction.

In "Groundhog Day," he was Phil Connors’ high school acquaintance, the annoying salesman Ned Ryerson. He’s built a huge career out of playing annoying people - obtuse school principals, inflexible middle-management types, persistent insurance salesmen, threatening government officials.

He gets these parts because he can be simultaneously menacing and innocuous. And when he’s neither of those, he’s devastatingly funny. He gives writers lots of wiggle room when it comes to character development because he’s bald, has a Texas drawl, wears glasses and has a big, round, teddy bear head.

A couple of years ago, cinematographer Robert Brinkmann had had enough. He decided he had to get Tobolowsky on film telling his stories - the volume of which could fill an iPod.

Thus, we have "Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party" (Monster Releasing, 3 stars), an 87-minute film-festival favorite that opens a bright window into the life of just one really nice guy trying to make it in Hollywood as an actor. (If that isn’t enough, and I’m betting it won’t be, there is an additional 90 minutes of stories in the DVD’s extra-features section.)

The film follows Tobolowsky from his early morning-ritual visit to the Pacific Ocean to some final candle-lit backyard repartee with the dwindling lineup of guests.

The stories he tells are sweet, funny, sometimes sad, often filled with self-deprecation and invariably entertaining. His guests, to be honest, look like they came from central casting for an infomercial audience. But maybe everybody in Hollywood really is attractive. The only two I recognize are Mena Suvari ("American Beauty" and wife of Brinkmann) and Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for "Junebug").

As an actor, Tobolowsky knows a thing or two about pacing, surprise and voice control - all handy tools for a storyteller. Some stories are hopelessly mundane, like being asked for his autograph and being mistaken for a supermarket box boy within a 20-minute span.

Others, like the time he was held at gunpoint by an obviously distraught and confused man, are by turns chilling and outrageously funny. He was in a Dallas grocery store picking up some last-minute supplies for a dinner party and ended up inviting the gunman home to continue their conversation because it was nearly time for the guests to arrive.

Being nominated to the ultra-hip Buzz magazine’s list of Hollywood’s 100 coolest people - an event that even staggers Tobolowsky’s imagination - is cause for a number of stories that illustrate his resolute un-coolness.

There is a sentimental story about the late actor Robert Darnell, who went from first-rate jerk to best friend for two decades. His remains are now imbedded in an ashtray in the green room of his favorite theater, so he can hear the actors swap stories.

Tobolowsky tosses in an occasional wry observation, like, "L.A. is like Hell, but with good restaurants," and, "My phone calls fall into two categories, my agent and everything else." He’s flown cross-country with three live lobsters strapped into the adjacent seat; been beaten by Buddhist monks for his generosity; been kicked out of two different restaurants because President Ronald Reagan was coming to dine; learned a life lesson from passing a kidney stone; and taken a drink spiked with LSD.

They’re small stories told with a big heart from a genuinely nice guy.

And while he talks about playing in a band, he never mentions that he was in the first band of one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Name-dropping just does not become Stephen Tobolowsky.


"Date Movie" (Fox, 1 star) Writers Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg stretch beyond the spoof-encrusted gold mine that is the "Scary Movie" franchise into semi-fresh territory, exploiting the romantic comedy lode. Lovely Alyson Hannigan dons the Gwyneth Paltrow fat suit as diary-writing, Greek restaurant waitress Julia Jones and falls for blond-haired, dreamy-eyed Brit Grant Funkyerdoder (Adam Campbell). These things always sound funnier on paper. The trouble with this one is the funny bits are few and the duds are many. Maybe romantic comedies have sunk to such a formulaic low that they are spoofproof.

"Freedomland" (Sony, 2 stars) A gratingly unhinged woman (Julianne Moore) claims that her car containing her young son has been hijacked by a black man and it is up to Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) to figure out the truth. If you saw the trailer for this film, be forewarned that it is not an action-thriller. There is much rumination on class and the manipulation of race. Some viewers find Moore’s character uncomfortably over the top, others find Jackson’s character from another planet. So, yeah, the film has problems. Be aware of that going in.


"Marilyn Monroe 80th Birthday Celebration" (Fox) She would have been 80 on June 1 if the government agents hadn’t murdered her to spare the Kennedy brothers major political embarrassment. Did I really say that? No truth to that, folks, just shadows. The real point is, Fox is promoting three of her best: the musical comedy "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the tense murder drama "Niagara" and the sizzling classic comedy "The Seven Year Itch." The same three movies are part of a larger box set that also includes the romantic comedy "Let’s Make Love" and the western "River of No Return" and a bonus disc, "Marilyn: The Final Days."

"The Bette Davis Collection Volume 2" (Warner) Another Hollywood icon gets the box-set treatment. The five films here have all been restored and three are making their DVD debut: "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Marked Woman" and "Old Acquaintance." The last has never been on home video in any format. Also in the box are newly restored versions of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (two discs) and "Jezebel." The box also includes the feature film "Stardust: The Bette Davis Story" narrated by Susan Sarandon.

"Platoon" (Fox) A 20th anniversary edition of Oliver Stone’s definitive war movie comes in a two-disc set with a high-definition transfer and hours of bonus features.


"Joey: The Complete First Season" (Warner) Matt LaBlanc is the namesake actor Joey Tribiani spun off from "Friends" who abandons New York for the bright prospects in Hollywood.

"Rollergirls: The Complete Season One" (A&E) Part reality show, part sports event - lots of tattoos, skin, trauma, drama and booze - roller derby lives on as babes on wheels.

"Numb3rs: The Complete First Season" (Paramount) A surprise hit - who knew a brainiac with a chalkboard could be so popular. David Krumholtz stars as the genius who sees patterns where others see dead ends.

"Will & Grace: Series Finale" (Lions Gate ) Sitcom about a gay lawyer, Will (Eric McCormack), and his interior designer best friend, Grace (Debra Messing).

"ALF: Season 3" (Lions Gate) A furry brown alien with the taste and manners of a Hollywood teamster co-exists with the Tanner family. Sort of.