Most people would recognize actor Stephen Tobolowsky. He’s made more than 200 movies and as many TV shows, but few people know his name. And those who do have trouble spelling his marquee-challenged moniker.
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Though he’s never been TMZ-famous (and doesn’t want to be), Tobolowsky has set a standard that’s hard to match.
Tobolowsky co-stars in Comedy Central’s series debuting March 25: “Big Time in Hollywood, FL.” He calls it an “absurdist, crazy comedy,” but adds, “the basis of it is my part and Kathy (Baker’s) part; we are parents who are worried about our kids, and we want our children to be happy and successful. Now, how real can you get?”
The secret to his acting expertise is to always be true, he says. “You find one real thing in whatever part you’re working on. And it can be just tiny, but if it’s real, it all grows from that one spot.”
Married with two children, Tobolowsky considers himself the luckiest man in the world, not because of his career, but because he survived what the doctors called “a fatal injury,” and experienced a spiritual revival as a result.
“About four years ago I broke my neck, and the doctor said I had a fatal injury, which I thought was a terrible misuse of the word ‘fatal.’ I was alive because of a fluke. I had the Christopher Reeve injury. I was thrown from a horse on the side of an active volcano in Iceland and broke my neck in five places, and the middle vertebra was crushed.”
Then something amazing occurred. “The miracle happened during the period of time I had to recover,” he says. He wore in a brace for 31/2 months and was literally helpless. He was also massively depressed.
“Even though I was the luckiest person in the world, I was seeing my life as continual subtraction. So I had to find ways to add things. So I added finding a new place to sit in the backyard because there wasn’t much I could do.”
He began reading the Talmud. He’d let his childhood religion retreat for 20 years. “Because I couldn’t do anything, I kept trying to add one little thing at a time. I ended up moving my bench to different parts of the yard. And I broke down this little phrase: ‘When the problem of your life seems insurmountable, move your bench.’ I moved my bench and ended up in the back part of the yard,” he says, leaning forward.
“And I see this flicker of green and gold, and I look up and the back of the tree was covered with wild parrots.”
Years earlier he’d heard about a pet shop fire where the owner, in a panic, had opened the door to free the parrots. The flock had survived and continued to thrive in the Los Angeles area. “The wild parrots were living in my tree. I thought this is quite amazing. At the very end of my 3 1/2 months of my recovery, I get a script from ‘Glee' where they want me to play the music teacher,” he says.
“As I’m reading my script I see a shadow flying over me and I don’t even have to look up because I know from the shape of the shadow, the wings, the speed – I know it’s one of the parrots coming back to live in my tree. And I say to myself, ‘That’s the way it is with all miracles. It’s always easy to recognize the shadow once you’ve seen the real thing.’
“And I put the script down and looked out, and the yard was covered with shadows and sunlight. I’ve always thought of me being a person who viewed shadows as a part of darkness. But what if just one of these shadows was like one of those parrots – a miracle unobserved? And my life changed in an instant.”