The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Stephen Tobolowsky

3 Nov

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

An actor perhaps best known for his small role in an early ‘90s movie (Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, you know his quote “watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy!”), he’s come back to TV over and over in numerous recurring roles and many single episodes, and because his career has been constant for over two decades, please pardon the especially long entry today as we induct Stephen Tobolowsky into the Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame.

Tobolowsky’s first credited television role was as TV Clerk in 1983 TV movie Cocaine and Blue Eyes.  He then appeared in a series of single episode roles throughout the remainder of the ‘80s including Alice, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, Stir Crazy, 222, Designing Women, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and L.A. Law. Then, a series of TV film appearances in Roe vs. Wade, Last Flight Out, The Marla Hanson Story, Tagget, and Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster.  Then, more single appearances in shows Lifestories, Down Home, Baby Talk, and Shannon’s Deal, and then on Seinfeld, as a holistic healer who diagnoses George and proscribes a tea which puts George in the hospital (Jerry accompanies George to the healer for the potential comedy value).

A few more bit roles followed, in single episodes of Picket Fences, Civil Wars, and Café Americain, as well as TV movie When Love Kills:  The Seduction of John Hearn.  Apparently this little TV movie starred Gary Cole as John Hearn, a real life ex-marine, who Debbie Bannister, played by CSI vet Marg Helgeneurger, convinced to kill her husband and her sister’s ex-husband.  The movie also featured Michael Jeter and Justified main cast member Nick Searcy.

Next, he got his first main cast role on Against the Grain, a show I can’t believe I’ve never heard of for two reasons.  First, because one of the other main cast members was Ben Affleck a good couple of years before Good Will Hunting.  Second, because the show is based on a little book by Buzz Bissinger called Friday Night Lights which went on to become a somewhat more successful show a few years later (not to mention a feature film).  I’m going to have to investigate this show more in the future, but the coach role was played by John Terry, best known as Jack’s dad in Lost (and unrelated, as far as I know to the controversial Chelsea defender).

He appeared in an episode of Harts of the West before getting another main role in a series called Blue Skies that doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry.  He did act in it next to possible future Ivanek nominee Richard Kind.  After two episodes of Chicago Hope, and two of A Whole New Ballgame, he co-starred again in the 1995 CBS sitcom Dweebs.  Dweebs seems like an earlier take on The Big Bang Theory idea or possibly the British IT Crowd.  A normal human woman, played by Farrah Forke, is hired to manage a bunch of uber nerdy software workers.  Bosom Buddies’ Peter Scolari owns the company, and Tobolowsky is an employee aside other luminaries such as Corey Feldman.  The show aired six episodes before cancellation.

Next up were single episodes of The Home Court and The Pretender along with an appearance as Principal Flutie in the unaired pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Tobolowsky was back in a regular series in 1996 with Mr. Rhodes, starring comedian Tom Rhodes, and yet again, bizarrely, Farrah Forke.  The show co-starred Lindsey Sloane and Veronica Mars’ Logan, Jason Dohring, and lasted 19 episodes.  After four straight failed series, Tobolowsky spent the last few years of the 20th century guesting in a number of series.  These included three episodes of Murder One and Snoops and single episodes of The Naked Truth, Promised Land, The Drew Carey Show, The Closer (the less heralded Tom Selleck one), Suddenly Susan, Vengeance Unlimited, Mad About You, The Practice, That ‘70s Show, and Odd Man Out, along with TV movie Don’t Look Under the Bed.

He recurred in 2000 in one season USA mystery show Manhattan, AZ, as a small town veterinarian who also works as a regular doctor (hey, it’s a really small town).  After that it was back to one off appearances in Any Day Now, Hollywood Off-Ramp, That’s Life, Bull, The Lone Gunmen, Roswell, Malcolm in the Middle, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Oliver Beene, Stephen King’s Dead Zone, Las Vegas, The West Wing, Married to the Kellys, It’s All Relative, According to Jim, Will and Grace and Complete Savages (seriously, this only covers about four years) and TV movies with amazing names like Alien Fury: Countdown to Invasion, The Gene Pool, On the Edge, Black River, The Day the World Ended, and Twins.

He appeared in five episodes of CSI: Miami as Assistant State Attorney Don Haffman.  He became likely one of if not the only person to appear in both series titled The Closer (the more famous Kyra Sedgwick one this time) and showed up in Curb Your Enthusiasm as Jeff’s conservative brother-in-law Len Dunkel.  He followed this by guesting in Reba, Ghost Whisperer, and Desperate Housewives.  He was in 9 episodes of Deadwood, mostly in the second season as Commissioner Hugo Jarry, a politician trying to angle for the inclusion of Deadwood into the Dakota Territory, negotiating with Al Swearengen, Cy Tolliver and occasionally Sheriff Bullock, with mixed results.

He was a regular cast member in the short-lived Big Day, a show which takes place on a couple’s wedding day, and in which he portrayed the groom’s father.  He was then in TV movie Valley of Light and episodes of Boston Legal, Raines, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Entourage, in which he played the mayor of Beverly Hills.  He was in three episodes of HBO’s one season John From Cincinnati and one of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

He appeared in 11 episodes of short-lasting phenomenon-before-turning-terrible Heroes as Bob Bishop, a member of the evil company who also has the power to turn anything to gold, which allows him to fund the company, and is a member of the older generation of heroes that had some large conspiracy in place from years ago and well, trying to explain more about what he does, it would just make less sense than this.  He did two episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine as a principal, one of Community as a professor, and episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Defenders, and kids show True Jackson, VP.

He’s been in eight episodes of Glee as recurring character and creepy ex-teacher Sandy Ryerson (a nod to Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day I assume?).  Sandy is the former director of the Glee club and is super creepy and one of those says-he’s-not-gay-but-is-obviously-gay types who apparently has had disturbing incidents with harassing male students (yeah, it’s kind of creepy).  He’s meanwhile been in 19 episodes of the can’t-believe-they’re-on-their-sixth-season Californication.  He was in the last two seasons as movie producer Stu Beggs who dates and then marries Marcy, played by Louie recurring actress Pamela Adlon, who used to be married to Evan Handler’s character, Charlie.  He also appeared in two third season episodes of Justified as a an agent out to get Raylan Givens.

Tobolowsky is now a main cast member (though he hasn’t been in at least a couple of the first batch of episodes, so maybe he’ll end up simply recurring) on The Mindy Project as Mindy’s practice’s head and veteran doctor Marc Shulman.

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