‘This will be as true as I can make it. True always trumps clever,’ says character actor and podcast raconteur Stephen Tobolowsky at the top of his one-man show
There are good reasons this guy is never out of work. His acting and storytelling skills are focused and intense, plus he gives off the good vibes of someone you’d like to hang out in the backyard with, listening to him spin tales as he marinates brisket on the grill.
Tobolowsky has brought seven different true stories to Edinburgh, spreading them over his two weeks of shows. Some are new; some he’s told before on his top-rated podcast, which is also called The Tobolowsky Files; some are from his autobiographical book The Dangerous Animals Club. At 64, he has decades of movie-set anecdotes, life lessons and psychic experiences to draw from (yep, he’s a bit clairvoyant, he says).
Tobolowsky bounds onto the tiny stage wearing a grey-green, long-sleeved knit shirt, faded jeans and sneakers. His bald head gleams under the stage lights. Tonight his story is about ‘Beth,’ his first great love. They met in the college drama department in Dallas (his hometown) in the early 1970s and landed in Los Angeles together after graduation because, the actor explains, ‘Beth said it’s easier to be poor in sunlight.’
They weren’t poor for long. ‘Beth’ is revealed to be Beth Henley, whose first play, the Chekhov-inspired Southern Gothic comedy Crimes of the Heart (Tobolowsky says he came up with the title), won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981. It ran nearly two years on a New York stage and lead to a $2 million movie deal for Henley and productions around the world. The couple acquired a house with a swimming pool. Henley acquired agents, managers, lawyers and hangers-on.
‘The problems of plenty are plentiful,’ says Tobolowsky as he recounts the break-up of their 16-year relationship. As he talks about his ex, his eyes brim with tears. His voice catches as he says her name.
As great first loves go, this one must have been epic. Tobolowsky is open and generous with his emotions, which seem especially tender as he gets to the end of this night’s story. (He’s been married more than 20 years now to an actress named Ann Mears. He promises he’ll tell that story another night.)
If this sounds soppy, well, it isn’t. There are good reasons this guy is never out of work. His acting and storytelling skills are focused and intense, plus he gives off the good vibes of someone you’d like to hang out in the backyard with, listening to him spin tales as he marinates brisket on the grill.
Tobolowsky’s stories take frequent detours into hilarity. In the Beth Henley saga are parallel bits about their flea-infested apartment – ‘Like I was in a Roger Corman movie’ – his discovery of the ‘tones’ in his head that allow him some second sight into ‘who people really are,’ and the joy he felt as he sat reading his girlfriend’s play, knowing with every page that it was a masterpiece that would probably spell the end of their domestic bliss. Somewhere in there we also learn that Stephen Tobolowsky indirectly coined the name of the band Radiohead.
He doesn’t come to a big finale, just gently coasts to a stop after 65 minutes. ‘Unlike movies,’ he says, ‘life has no ending credits.’