“Who’s that guy? I’ve seen him before but I don’t know where.” is a refrain used often when recognising character actors. Traditionally although not exclusively they’re interesting and dynamic performers who lack movie star good looks, maybe a charismatic persona (although arguably they do) or just that lucky break in their career. Often they’re regulated to similar types of roles, positions of authority, henchmen, working stiffs, parents in teen comedies, ugly ducklings around the office, oddballs in the ensemble. The list goes on. Yet if they play in enough good movies and get enough breaks they sometimes eclipse these roots to become marque names in their own right or at least get supporting or lead roles in straight to video fare or off Broadway theatre productions.

Such an actor is Stephen Tobolowsky who you may recognise from this photo.

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If not maybe this might job your memory.

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Or maybe more helpfully this.

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That’s right Mr Tobolowsky played Ned in Groundhog Day, the annoying guy that Bill Murray has to meet every morning over and over again. That punch is the beginning of Murray’s character deciding to the test the parameters of his predicament.

Character actors specialise in this, communicating the backstory or type of character quickly with little set up, proving a useful even pivotal foil for the star and then fading away. As the Internet Movie Data Base notes Tobolowsky has often played “annoying business-men types that the heroes or villains loathe to deal with”. So it’s interesting to note he’s played bad guys in action films like Bird on a Wire Image result for stephen tobolowskyor Glimmer Man of which there is an interesting story that you can find his quote about on IMDB. Probably his most successful roles and most substantial roles came in the late 1980s early 1990s but he had parts throughout in The Philadelphia Experiment, Spaceballs, Mississippi Burning, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Sneakers, Basic Instinct, Single White Female, Memento. Over the past decade he has worked more in television and probably become more well known as a result having re-occurring parts in Deadwood, Glee, CSI: Miami, Heroes, Justified, Californication, The Mindy Project and Silicon Valley to name a few.

IMDB can give you a lot of information on his career so rather than crib from them I will simply discuss some favourites of mine.

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Community is a television show about adults going to community college to get ahead in life. One of the characters Abed (Danny Pudi) often makes meta references about the nature of television story telling and riffs on pop culture ensure. The best season is arguably Season 2 and Tobolowsky appears in a classic  episode Competitive Wine Tasting. Abed’s plot that episode is taking a class with Professor Peter Sheffield who teaches a class about Who’s the Boss? the TV show. Abed takes it upon himself to disprove the teachings of Professor Sheffield with predictable results. It’s not a showy performance per se but Tobolowsky like all great character actors shows up like he’s always been there, tells the story and disappears at episode’s end. It’s just if he wasn’t that good they wouldn’t have put him in that episode. Characters like that need good actors or the whole show fails.

Finally of all the great Tobolowsky’s performances he’s given us there’s a special place in my heart for Max who is Hal Slocumb’s partner (Harvey Keitel) in Thelma and Louise. They come across as two professionals, familiar with each other but different in temperament. In a scene where they were running up to a doorstep in the rain Keitel playfully pushed Stephen off the path unscripted. The kind of choice an actor will make to establish a history and rapport between characters in a quick throwaway moment. Later Hal and Max are briefing Thelma’s no good husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald)about how to talk to her on the phone to try and get information about her whereabouts. The scene is a masterclass in subtle acting from McDonald, Keitel and Tobolowsky as they slowly show the growing disdain the two detectives have for Darryl and him trying to hold onto some sense of their respect. It ends with the deadpan “Women love that shit.” delivered by Tobolowsky.  The choices made by the three actors here set up later scenes well.

Stephen Tobolowsky continues to work, happily married to his wife character actress Ann Hearn since 1988 with two kids, Stephen has some interesting real life tales of when he almost bit the bullet quite literally.

Image result for stephen tobolowsky ann hearn

Image result for stephen tobolowsky ann hearnYou can most likely hear some of them via his podcast The Tobolowsky Files where he relates personal behind the scenes stories. No matter what role, big or small Tobolowksy brings something unique and special to every one. Do you recognise him and do you have a favourite performance of his that you would like to share?

-Lloyd Marken


  1. Wonderful spotlight on an extraordinary character actor, Lloyd. So many great supporting roles. My favorites include Memento, Sneakers, and Thelma and Louise.

    1. Thanks mate, he was very good in Sneakers going from a nervous guy on a date to a pretty threatening cold character. Its been a while since I’ve seen Memento, care to fill me in? 🙂

  2. I love him…the sleazy boss in “Single White Female” – I think there is a documentary made about his dinner parties where he regales friends, but I didn’t know about his podcast – will check it out!

    1. That documentary sounds interesting. Horrifically sleazy in Single White Female. Also not too shabby with racist rhetoric in Mississippi Burning. The man has range! 🙂 Thanks for liking John, I’m glad you approve.

    1. Thanks A Gray. Feels weird referring to you that way. Now Wayne is your Uncle right? So what is your name? I hope to make this a regular feature and who better to start off with then a guy who was in my favourite movie?

      1. They may have to feature down the road. M Emmet Walsh was a lock anyway. Harry Dean Stanton is a movie star to me because of Repo Man and Paris, Texas but you’re right he really was a character actor.

      2. Yes, Wayne was my uncle, and it was his wartime journal that formed the basis of Waynes’s Journal Wayne’s naiveté about the war, as revealed in his early entries in his journal, is abundant. This rapidly changes over the ensuing months as his unit moves into combat and men are lost. It is not the “great war novel”, but in many ways, it might have been the background for one.

        The posts of Waynes’s Journal cover more than just Wayne’s experiences in the Southwest Pacific. As Waynes’s Journal progresses, it incorporates letters and diary entries from other family members who served with the 8th Air Force in England. Their conditions of service and day-to-day lives are very, very different from those of Wayne.

        And finally, beetleypete is correct. My name is Allen.

  3. I thought he was powerful in ‘Mississippi Burning’. Nice to see that being a ‘baldy’ doesn’t preclude you from earning a solid living in mainstream cinema. I always liked his accent too.
    Good call, Lloyd.
    (I always look out for Dale Dye as a supporting actor. I think he should have got bigger roles.)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. He had an interesting story about going bald and realising he was never going to be the hero. These were the days before Patrick Stewart. As I heard Billy Joel once say about going bald “I don’t see it so much as losing hair as getting more head.”

      1. When much of my hair fell out in my late 40s, I wasn’t too worried. When I had hair before, it was so short, people thought I was bald anyway!

  4. The answer is Angela!
    Angela is The Boss. 😉
    He was great on Community – he had a similar role on Glee, though that was a recurring character that he really got to make his own.
    Great post!

  5. When I saw the first photograph in your post, I recognized the face but could not quite place it. When I got to the movie clip, though, it all began to make sense. Groundhog Day is one of my all-time favorite comedies, so I remember Stephen Tobolowsky from that very well. I’ve watched the movie so many times, I think I could pick out any of the cast in a police lineup, including the groundhog.

  6. You’re right Lloyd, it is a strange phenomena with character actors, that they’re essential and we may have watched them many of times, but in most cases we don’t even know their names. I recognised Stephen from Mississippi Burning, but doing a little research I was amazed to find he’s got 252 acting credits to his name. Thanks for shining a light on his career.
    His Mississippi Burning co-star Brad Dourif was another name who came to mind reading your post. I thought he was great in Wise Blood and Grim Prairie Tales.

    1. There are some great lists out there of character actors by some publications. My idea is just to write about ones that come to mind and what I liked them in. Thanks mate, I’m glad you liked it.

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