Just a couple of weeks before Super Bowl LIV, actor and Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky got the call from his agent that sounded a lot like the call he got when director Harold Ramis decided to cast him as the nosy Ned Ryerson in the classic comedy film Groundhog Day.
Talk about life imitating art.
This time, Tobolowsky reprised his hilarious role as the nosy and annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson — the role he says he gets recognized for most from his 40-plus years in TV and film — for a Jeep commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.
The ad re-created scenes from the movie in which TV weatherman Phil Conners, played by Bill Murray, keeps repeating the same day until he gets it just right. The commercial added some new scenes of Phil palling around with an adorable baby groundhog on some new adventures thanks to a trusty, four-wheel-drive Jeep.
"When we were on the set, Bill comes around the corner and he starts laughing and says, 'I don't know if I can do this now, I'm having an out-of-body experience,'" Tobolowsky recalls with a laugh. "It's like we're really doing it ... and I said, 'I'm having the same experience.'"
The cast and crew filmed the Super Bowl ad in Woodstock, Illinois, where they originally shot Groundhog Day in 1992.
Tobolowsky says the crew shot the ad in the same locations as the original film just eight days before it went on the air.
"This was kind of spur of the moment and just pulled out of thin air like the movie," Tobolowsky says.
His agent called him about the shoot three days before he had to be in Illinois. He says no one was sure the ad would happen since they had to get Murray on board — Murray's never done a commercial in his career — and obtain clearance to use the Sonny and Cher song "I Got You Babe," the memorable tune that wakes Phil up every day at 6 a.m.
All the right pieces fell into place, so Tobolowsky flew to Chicago and made the three-hour drive to Woodstock in the midst of an already hectic schedule in Los Angeles filming scenes for the fourth season of Norman Lear's reboot of One Day at a Time that moved from Netflix to PopTV, and for ABC's Schooled, the spinoff of The Goldbergs.
He first spotted Murray at the hotel in Woodstock and says they spent the evening in the bar reminiscing about their fondest memories while making the movie — like when Murray bought all the doughnuts from a local bakery for 200 people who stood in the cold to watch them film.
"Bill came down to the lobby, and he's been shooting all day," Tobolowsky says of the commercial shoot. "He gave me a hug and he was laughing and says, 'I can't believe you're doing this' and I said, 'I can't believe I'm doing this either.'"
The shoot aimed to re-create the movie's most memorable scenes, like when Phil keeps running into Ned, and the moment when Phil kidnaps the prognosticating groundhog, as accurately as possible. The steps and lines each character makes, the wardrobe and the signs on the buildings in the background were all designed to resemble the original. They even recast Murray's brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, to reprise his role as the town's mayor (who appears when Phil discovers a brand-new Jeep in his time anomaly and uses it as a getaway car for his groundhog kidnapping).
Tobolowsky says the production also re-created the icy puddle that Phil steps in as he tries to escape Ned's encroaching, only to hear Ned's ear-grating line, "Watch out for that last step. It's a doozy."
"The big difference was the heavy snow in Woodstock and when we originally shot it, it was clear," Tobolowsky says of the set. "Bill is wearing the same kind of clothes he had and I'm wearing the same clothes I had and I did some stuff alone at first. Then I did a promo for the Super Bowl and my individual stuff watching the Jeep go by driven by a stunt driver for Bill. Then Bill shows up and they say, 'Could you guys just redo the beginning of your routes from Groundhog Day?' and Bill started laughing. We did this 30 years ago. We don't remember what we did."
The actors watched the movie's scenes on a monitor and tried to match them as closely as they could. Then they improvised some new bits just for the commercial — like how Phil runs from Ned down an icy sidewalk the first time he sees him.
"All they wanted is to squeeze in the iconic bits like the 'Bing!' and the 'Ned ... Ryerson!' or 'Watch out for that step, it's a doozy,'" Tobolowsky says. "So we did about 10 takes of that and Bill looked at all the ad executives and the director and they're all looking at it and laughing and saying this is great. Bill looked at it and said, 'It's good, Stephen, but we can do better.'"
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They shot new scenes until the light faded. Tobolowsky flew home on Sunday in time to resume his TV series schedule the following Monday. The Jeep ad set social media on fire when it aired during the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 (which was indeed Groundhog Day). The ad racked up 1.5 million views and made the top of YouTube's trending list for Super Bowl weekend.
"My son Robert, the computer genius and organic chemist, said, 'Dad, you're trending No. 1 on YouTube,'" Tobolowsky says. "He said commercials usually don't do that."
Tobolowsky says the sweetest part for him was getting to be Ned one more time in a meaningful and thoughtful way, rather than just repeating the movie.
"I never thought I'd come back to that role ever," Tobolowsky says. "Groundhog has become such an iconic film that I'm surprised they would do a commercial based on it, but at the same time, the commercial was so wonderful."