“He’s been in stuff.” That’s what my girlfriend might say if we were watching something on TV and a scene with Stephen Tobolowsky in it happened to pop up on-screen. To which my reply in this little ritual would probably be, “Yeah, I recognize him, but I don’t know his name.” Now, I say this about nearly every actor or actress I see, as the name recognition software in my brain was apparently stunted at birth, but something tells me that I wouldn’t be the only one to experience this odd sensation in this case. You see, a lot of people don’t know Stephen Tobolowsky’s name, but they’d sure recognize his face.
Stephen Tobolowsky has been in more than 100 films, after all, in a career that’s spanned some 35 years. They’re usually small, if memorable supporting roles, such as Phil the insurance salesman in “Groundhog Day,” or the racist governor in “Mississippi Burning.”
Not surprisingly, however, given that this film is called “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” the genteel Mr. T. stars here as himself, the host of, and headlining act at his own birthday party. As it turns out, Stephen Tobolowsky is a captivating and enthralling storyteller, capable of entertaining both his living room full of guests and a theater full of moviegoers as he regales both with tales from his life.
Director Robert Brinkmann, whose other life is as a director of photography, has been friends with Tobolowsky for over fifteen years, and, knowing of the latter’s amazing ability to tell a story, badgered him nearly that long to make this film. It was well worth the wait, as this stripped down hybrid of live performance — albeit in his own living room in front of a dozen or so friends, rather than in front of hundreds of paying customers — and one-on-one with the camera monologues is as hilarious as it is endearing.
Memo to both Mr. Brinkmann and Mr. Tobolowsky: don’t wait another fifteen years before making the sequel. In fact, I think they should team up and do one of these at every one of the star’s birthday parties from now on. For in a world filled with hate and violence, with moviegoers being force-fed a steady diet of ever-louder, more obnoxious and increasingly insipid “entertainment,” it’s somehow oddly reassuring that one innocuous man can be so entertaining just by telling stories.
If “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” appears on DVD or cable TV near you, check it out. Because, though you still may not remember Stephen Tobolowsky’s name, after watching this charming film, I guarantee you’ll never again forget the man himself.