How Stephen Tobolowsky Found God

The character actor's character actor — he played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day — appears Monday, April 24 at the JCCSF.

“Everything is a doorway and everything is a prison,” says actor and writer Stephen Tobolowsky, best-known for his role as “Action” Jack Barker on Silicon Valley and from countless films (including a memorable turn as the irritatingly persistent insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, as well as Sandy Ryerson on Glee). His might not be a household name, but he’s the character actor’s character actor — and you’ve certainly seen him many times.

Prisons and doorways constitute one of the themes of his new book, My Adventures With God, which Tobolowsky will discuss this Monday, April 24, at the JCC. It’s the story about his somewhat un-Jewish upbringing in Dallas — he went to Sunday school throughout most of his childhood, sometimes more than once per week — leading up to the beginning of his film (and music) career and his eventual return to the faith of his birth. It’s inflected with more than a little it of math and astrophysics, and along the way, there are many wonderful asides and digressions, including the dinner party when Diane Keaton took pity on him, his involvement in the songwriting process that gave Radiohead its name, and the time he kissed a drug-dealer in Texas to evade the cops. And as the book unfolds, it becomes something of a meditation on death, largely through his encounters with a salty Holocaust survivor and through a few medical emergencies of his own.

Tobolowsky, as his lengthy IMDB profile would suggest, has done a lot of things in his almost 66 years of living, and he has the wisdom (but not the ego) of someone with a long, Zelig-like record in Hollywood. Take the carefully calibrated world-weariness of this axiom about finances:

Success brings many things into your life. Usually money. However, to get that money you often have to make many decisions you never made before and make them in a short amount of time. There is a lot of pressure. As a result, you end up replacing friends with advisors. Lawyers and accountants make regular phone calls to see how you are doing. The cost of doing business with them isn’t the first twenty minutes of a movie. It’s 10 percent to 20 percent of whatever you make, depending on how good a friend you are.

Told My Adventures With God reads like a combination of Wallace Shawn and Molly Ivins, Tobolowsky responds in an almost too-predictable way: by connecting it to his oeuvre.

“Wally is such a dear friend, and [his wife] Ann and I flew to New York to see his latest play,” he says. “Wally and I did a movie together way back when. We were both con men with Ed Harris and Vince Vaughn.”

“You’ll have to Google it,” he adds, unable to come up with the title. “We met each other on that film.”

It’s The Prime Gig, from 2001. Tobolowsky can be forgiven for not remembering his entire filmography, because it could fill up the Dead Sea Scrolls. And not coincidentally, My Adventures is structured to recall the Torah. After the success of his previous collection of stories, The Dangerous Animals Club, his publisher called to say that people responded to the book’s spiritual themes, and maybe he’d be interested in following through in another book?

“So I came up with the template that everybody’s life is kind of like the Old Testament,” Tobolowsky says. “We have a Genesis that we share with people when we first meet them, and then we all go into slavery. But instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves to first love or menial first jobs or graduate school forever, and then we get out. Like in the Bible, we’re still wandering in the desert. We have this Leviticus moment in the middle of life, and for me that’s when I got married, had kids, and returned to Judaism.”

Amusingly, he refers to this format an “Easter egg.” And although written with primarily a Jewish readership in mind, Adventures is easy for Gentiles to follow. But since he’ll be appearing in San Francisco at the invitation of a Jewish organization and before a largely Jewish audience, will he play up certain anecdotes?

“I’m probably going to tell a couple stories from the book,” he says. “One from near the beginning and one from near the end, and there may be a Q&A section — which is always my favorite because I learn so much from the audience’s questions. In fact, it’s very inspiring sometimes, some of the people’s questions have led me to write other stories.”

That it’s a relatively secular venue frees him up to chat about things he might not elsewhere.

“Some of the stories of me selling marijuana and that kind of stuff, I’m probably not going to tell that story in a synagogue,” he says. “Some of my stops are synagogues but, you know, JCC — maybe. Certainly in Seattle.”

Having acquired a very particular level of fame, Tobolowsky gets noticed in and around L.A. often enough. People who snap their fingers, struggling to furnish the name of the man they’ve recognized, tend to settle on the same few roles, he says. One of his more quietly sinister performances is as a high-ranking FBI agent in John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man. As a sci-fi-slash-comedy starring Chevy Chase, the script is a big mess, but the special effects have aged remarkably well. And it’s set in San Francisco. “And Sam Neill, my God!” Tobolowsky says. “What a great performance. He is so good in that, he’s fantastic.”

“The no. 1 is Ned [Ryerson],” he says. “No. 2 now is Silicon Valley, following up very quickly with Dr. Berkowitz from One Day at a Time. People are passionate about both of those shows.”

Then he jumps into “one of the greatest things in the world,” which is getting recognized in a different way.

“I went out to eat Mexican food by myself the other night,” he says. “I got some tamales at 8:00 and a 10-year-old boy with his mother said, ‘Excuse me, you’re Stephen Tobolowsky the writer, aren’t you?’ And I go, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘He loves Dangerous Animals, and we’re going to get your new book.’ He was flustered meeting me, and so I signed his little Pepsi cup or whatever he had, but to me that means a lot more than — I mean, I love Ned, Groundhog Day is a classic film that’ll be here long after we’re all gone.”

“It’s a beautiful movie, and Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin are geniuses, and it’s Bill Murray’s greatest work,” he adds. “But those things mean so much more to me than Groundhog Day, even though Groundhog Day is great.”

Stephen Tobolowsky, Monday, April 24, 7 p.m., $28, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St.,

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