Q&A: Stephen Tobolowsky

Photo of Stephen Tobolowsky by Jim Britt

Photo of Stephen Tobolowsky by Jim Britt

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky’s book, “The Dangerous Animals Club,” begins in Oak Cliff, where he and his elementary school buddies prowled around Kiest Park and Five Mile Creek, searching for tarantulas and water moccasins. Tobolowsky’s name might not be familiar, but chances are, you’ve seen the Oak Cliff native’s work on TV and in film. He is legendary for his portrayal of Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman whom Bill Murray punches in the face in “Groundhog Day.” And it’s like he’s been in every TV show since the ’80s, including “Californication,” “Community,” “Glee,” “Heroes,” “Deadwood” and “CSI: Miami.” Tobolowsky was in Dallas last month to host a block of short films at the USA Film Festival, and he took a moment to chat with us.

How is it to be back in Dallas?

It’s always nice to come back to the USA Film Festival because I was at SMU when the whole thing started. Professor Bill Jones was head of the film department at SMU. I was not a film guy, and the film department and the theater department were completely different. But he wanted to start this USA Film Festival, and I remember the first one. I was a student, and I met Frank Capra and Jean Arthur and Sid Caesar. It was really amazing. Of course now, the world has gotten so much smaller that we’re used to having access to people. But back in those days, it was really remarkable to see Frank Capra in person and hear him speak and ask questions. Whenever the USA Film Festival calls, I try to answer because it means so much to me personally.

I know you’re from Oak Cliff, but where did you grow up exactly?

On Kiest Boulevard near Rugged. Watervaliet is the name of the street. We lived on Perryton and then moved the four blocks. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, [Watervaliet] uses so many letters of the alphabet.” I went to Jefferson Davis Elementary, which is now Barbara Jordan Elementary. I guess that’s way better on the appropriate scale than Jeff Davis. I went to Kimball High School, and then I branched out of Oak Cliff and went to SMU, and I found out people actually drink beer in the world. When I was in high school, it was 23 miles to where you could buy beer. So you had to consider if it was worth it to drive 50 miles for a six-pack. Is there still no beer in Oak Cliff?

No, you can buy beer here now, but that just changed about two years ago.

They invited all the student council presidents from the high schools to rush at SMU. The big thing at the party was that they had a keg of beer. One sip and I was almost on the floor.

So you were not the party animal?

I looked up to the kids who carried the slide rulers in their belts. I thought, “How cool is that look?” I was hoping that someday I would be able to use a slide ruler. By the time I was old enough, they were selling this device called a calculator, for $300-$400.

What was it like growing up in Oak Cliff in the ’60s?

As I look back on Oak Cliff, there was this kind of unspoken tension underneath everything. There was a racist underpinning to everything that was just commonplace. For example, Jeff Davis Elementary. Down the street was a bait shop called KKK, Ketchum & Killum on Kiest. We thought it was funny because it had no context for us. There were no black people in Oak Cliff at the time because it was a white-flight area. At the same time, you had this kind of undercurrent. There was this wild undercurrent of creativity. I take a look at Mozart. He had nothing but a violin and a keyboard at the beginning, and all of his brainpower and energy went into those things. The same thing in Oak Cliff. There was not a lot to do. It was beyond ultra-conservative. I think there were three Jewish families, and we were one of them. There were probably more members of the Nazi party in Oak Cliff than there were Jews; it was that radically right. Middle of the road was like Church of Christ.

And you think that oppressive culture led to creative minds?

So many people in Oak Cliff, their energy and their focus went into their particular field of expertise. It created a Jimmy Vaughan and a Stevie Vaughan … So on one hand, you have this very fundamental, even racist, component in the society, and on the other hand, you had this wildly creative energy for math, science, music, art, theater. There weren’t a lot of other diversions. There was church, there was sports and there were the arts.

You graduated from Kimball in ’68 and went to SMU. Then what happened?

I was invited to the University of Illinois. They offered to pay tuition for my girlfriend and I at the time, Beth [Henley]. It wasn’t really where we wanted to be going, but we looked at it as at least moving the peg down the road a little bit. It was a way to stay in theater and earn a living. We went from Dallas, which was kind of the boondocks, to Urbana-Champaign, which was the boondocks. There was only one student in the playwriting class, and that was Claudia Reilly. So Beth thought she would try writing. To me, being an actor was foolhardy, but being a writer was crazy. Beth became a writer. We left Illinois after one year and went out to California together in 1976. In 1981, she won the Pulitzer Prize [for drama for her play “Crimes of the Heart”]. The diversion that we took in life led us to the path we were meant to take. If I could say one thing to young people out there, it’s this: When you feel that life is taking you in the wrong direction, instead of feeling all that despair… (Unless you have a drug addiction; self-destruction doesn’t count.) … but if you’re thinking, “I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost,” just remember that it may be a way to be found, too. Illinois is where we made connections and friends that eventually led to my career and Beth’s career. Don’t despair. There may be clues around you that lead to a happy and prosperous life.

Tell me about your book.

It’s called “The Dangerous Animals Club,” and it’s a collection of short stories. They’re all true, and they all happened to me. It could fall into the category of a memoir, but the stories are not chronological. Most of the book is a good laugh. As you read the stories, as you get about halfway through, you see the pieces connecting, and it creates a narrative. One thing they all have in common is that they’re stories about the beginnings of things. The Dangerous Animals Club is the club I had as a kid in Oak Cliff. But the book is about all the dangerous animals I have encountered in life. The book is ultimately about finding triumph — finding the little bits of triumph in your life even though you feel lost.

What are you working on now?

Now I’m working on a wonderful show called “Californication.” I have the Stu Beggs beard because I’m working on that for the next three months. Then I’m doing a film called “The Men’s Group.” It’s a wonderful script about men and their problems and coming together, but it’s very funny and very suspenseful. It’s a different kind of film. I’m also continuing doing stories for Dangerous Animals Club, readings from the book and telling stories that will be in the next book. It has spawned a second career in storytelling. The next book has plenty of Oak Cliff stories in it because, hey, you know, that’s where I’m from, and it’s what formed me.


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