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Stephen Tobolowsky

Stephen Tobolowsky

An astonishingly prolific actor in film and on television, Stephen Tobolowsky played outlandish types and bookish roles with equal vigor, which helped to make him one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment for nearly four decades. Born Stephen Harold Tobolowsky in Dallas, Texas, he began acting at a very young age in local drama programs, but his primary interests were baseball and later, geology, the latter of which he honed through summer work at the Museum of Natural History in his hometown. Geology would eventually become his initial major at Southern Methodist University (SMU), but Tobolowsky found the lure of drama too strong, and after a brief break in his studies - due to his being thrown out of the acting program at SMU in his junior year - he earned his masters' degree in acting from the University of Illinois. He soon divided his time between acting, writing and directing assignments on West and East Coast stages, while also making his feature film debut in "Keep My Grave Open" (1977), a low-budget horror movie from Texas-based filmmaker S.F. Brownrigg. Tobolowsky's television debut came nearly a decade later with a minor role in the TV-movie "Cocaine and Blue Eyes" (NBC, 1983); from there, he worked at an almost ceaseless pace, amassing character roles in features like Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift" (1984) and Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" (1987), as well as countless episodes of television series like "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985) and "Knots Landing" (CBS, 1979-1993). He would credit Alan Parker, who cast him as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in "Mississippi Burning" (1988), as his big break, which was soon followed by more substantive character turns in "Great Balls of Fire!" (1989) as Sun Records executive Jud Phillips, and in such critical and box office hits as Norman Jewison's "In Country" (1989), John Badham's "Bird on a Wire" (1990), Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" (1990) and Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise" (1991). During this period, Tobolowsky also found time to co-write, with playwright and then-girlfriend Beth Henley, the original script for David Byrne's "True Stories," though Byrne would later rewrite nearly all of their material; he also wrote and directed the feature film, "Two Idiots in Hollywood" (1988), which he based on his own play. He would continue to cement his position as one of the industry's busiest and most recognized character players in films like "Groundhog Day" (1993), which cast him as the blissfully unaware Ned Ryerson, as well as "Basic Instinct" (1991), "Single White Female" (1992) and Phil Alden Robinson's "Sneakers" (1993) As the decade wore on, television became Tobolowsky's most prominent showcase, most notably as the faux healer Tor Eckman, on a 1991 episode of "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998), as well as appearances on "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000) and "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99) and series regular assignments on such short-lived series as "Mr. Rhodes" (NBC, 1996-97). His feature work also continued unabated, and by the new millennium, Tobolowsky was the go-to player for harried paper-pushers, supercilious authority figures and eccentrics of all stripes, as evidenced by turns as the doomed amnesiac Sammy Jankis in Christopher Nolan's "Memento" (2000); as the spurned English teacher Elton Bates in "Freaky Friday" (2003) and as obnoxious television host Happy Chapman in "Garfield" (2004). Television also offered plum roles like assistant state attorney Don Haffman on "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002-2012), haughty Commissioner Hugo Jarry on "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-06), the malevolent supervillain Bob Bishop on "Heroes" (NBC, 2006-2010) and predatory glee club director Sandy Ryerson on "Glee" (Fox, 2009-2015). Between 2011 and 2014, he was also a recurring cast member on no less than four network shows, playing movie producer Stu Beggs on Showtime's "Californication" (2007-2014), FBI agent Jerry Barkley on "Justified" (FX, 2010-15), Dr. Marc Shulman on "The Mindy Project" (Fox/Hulu, 2012-17) and the exasperated Principal Ball on "The Goldbergs" (ABC, 2013-). When these series or characters ran their course, Tobolowsky simply segued into the next projects, which included recurring roles on "Silicon Valley" (HBO, 2014-) and the revived "One Day at a Time" (Netflix, 2017-) as Justina Machado's boss and boyfriend to her mother, played by Rita Moreno. Somehow, he also found time to host two podcasts - "The Tobolowsky Files," which was picked up for broadcast by Public Radio International in 2012, and "Big Problems - An Advice Podcast," in 2015 - and pen the short story collection The Dangerous Animals Club (2012) and My Adventures with God (2017).
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