Actor Stephen Tobolowsky.
Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.
Everyone remembers Ned Ryerson, that annoying schlub of a life insurance salesman from Groundhog Day. My theory is that it’s because everyone’s had a Ned Ryerson in their lives, or perhaps – Lord help them – several Ned Ryerson’s.
Mine was a guy named Don back in the eighties. We were roommates in a household of five single dudes, and Don was the bumbling, well-intentioned but annoying-as-hell roommate who’d try to do nice things like washing all the dishes when it wasn’t even his turn, and he’d end up breaking something your mom had given you when you first left home.
When Dorian and I were married in 1990, Don came to visit a few weeks after our honeymoon and he ended up setting our kitchen on fire while kindly trying to make us dinner.
So it goes with the Ned Ryersons of this world.
The great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky brought the memorable Ned Ryerson to life in 1993’s Groundhog Day, directed by the late Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray. Ten years after the movie had come out, Tobolowsky said it seemed to be all he was known for, despite numerous other film roles by that time and quite a bit of stage work.
During my 4-plus year stint as a Hollywood extra, I was sent to the Universal lot when they were filming Garfield in 2003, to be a businessman walking down the street during some scenes involving Mr. Tobolowsky’s character (Happy Chapman) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (sigh).
Generally speaking, extras don’t engage the principal actors in conversation on sets, but I knew a guy, and the guy knew Tobolowsky. I don’t remember the guy’s name so I’ll call him “Charles,” because I recollect that he was kind of like a “Charles” should be when you think of the name.
I’d worked on a couple of other things with Charles before this shoot, so running into him on the Garfield set resulted in a hearty handshake and a bit of catching up. It turned out that Charles was a “real actor,” in that he did theater. Not community theater either, but the big stuff where you have an agent and you’re a union member and all of that. Charles was just telling me about a show he’d been rehearsing for when Stephen Tobolowsky walked up.
“Hey Charles!” he said. God, he sounded so much like Ned Ryerson, I started looking around for a deep puddle. He shook hands with Charles in a heartier fashion than I’d done, which told me they knew each other better than we knew each other, and a rousing conversation about theater ensued.
Not having risen above the community theater level, I felt entirely unworthy to even be listening to this conversation, but Charles had introduced us a few moments earlier and Stephen seemed to be a pretty nice guy, so I decided not to excuse myself.
Jennifer Love Hewitt had even arrived on set and there was a bit of buzz going on about it, but Stephen’s anecdotes were so interesting she couldn’t even pull me away. For those who know me, that’s saying a lot.
Somehow the character Ned Ryerson was mentioned and I don’t know if it was Stephen or Charles who brought it up, but I know for certain it wasn’t me because I was standing there in dumbfounded silence, thinking, “Damn, I’m being all chummy with Stephen Tobolowsky, who I’ve seen in a billion things including one of my favorite movies of all time.”
Stephen then told a story that he’d probably told for about the hundredth time that week, and it was a good one. I’m not surprised, because in doing a little background research on him in preparation for this post, I’ve noticed that he’s quite the storyteller, not only at his own blog but on his own IMDB page.
He told Charles and me about a fan who kind of stalked him one afternoon while he was grocery shopping, but in a good way, in that she kept her distance. But while he was cruising the aisles of the Studio City Ralph’s, he noticed that she kept looking over at him and smiling. “No big deal,” he said. “That happens all the time.”
The interesting part came after he’d checked out and was loading his groceries into his car. She’d checked out too and her car was parked only a few spaces from his, so she finally got up the nerve to approach him and ask for an autograph. “I just love your work!” she said.
“Thank you very much,” Stephen replied. He told us that he would have people engaging him in conversation at least once a day, but usually more, so it was quite common and this was just another typical fan encounter. I remember him saying that even though sometimes it’s an energy drain and he might be pressed for time, he always appreciated someone telling him about their favorite character of his and how much they liked it.
He also said that just about one hundred percent of the time, it was Ned Ryerson.
So as he autographed something for the nice lady in the Ralph’s Supermarket parking lot he asked her, “What’s your favorite movie of mine? Is it Groundhog Day?”
Her reply; “Oh, are you a film actor too? I wouldn’t know, dear, I don’t go to the movies… my husband and I saw you last year at The Geffen Playhouse in Waiting For Godot, and you were wonderful!”
In glancing at Stephen’s blog and seeing that he has quite a podcast, I’d imagine he’s told this story before (and probably correctly), as I’m recollecting a brief conversation from almost 12 years ago. So if you’re a Tobolowsky fan or friend, please forgive the redundancy.
The point is, this never happens. Theatrical patrons usually just ask for autographs on their Playbills, and that’s if they happen to do the waiting-at-the-stage door thing after a show. They never ask in supermarket parking lots a year later, and besides… WHO HASN’T SEEN GROUNDHOG DAY?
Apparently, that lady.
I lost track of Charles after that, so I hope he took Stephen’s advice and stopped working as an extra on movie sets. I never ran into Stephen Tobolowsky either, except for on my TV in my living room in about a thousand other things he’s done since Garfield.
Now I have a blog to subscribe to. What an interesting guy.
NOTE: I originally posted this almost two years ago, and it looks like Stephen hasn’t updated his blog since that time. Still an interesting read, though.