“True always trumps clever,” says character actor and podcast raconteur Stephen Tobolowsky at the top of his one-man show The Tobolowsky Files, playing through the end of August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. Speaking directly to a crowd of about 50 in a small corner cabaret bar at the Pleasance Courtyard, the tall Texan with that face familiar from all those movies (Memento, Groundhog Day, Thelma & Louise and 200 more) promises to tell seven different stories, one per night, spreading them over his two weeks of shows. It doesn’t seem like a huge challenge for Tobolowsky, who, at 64, has decades of movie set anecdotes, life lessons and psychic experiences to draw from (yes, he’s a bit clairvoyant, he says).
On the night I see the show, I’m pretty sure I’m the only other Texan in the joint. Tobolowsky bounds onto the tiny stage to big applause, wearing a gray-green long-sleeved polo shirt, faded jeans and sneakers. His dome gleams under the glare of the stage lights.
He has fans in the audience from Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany and elsewhere. They’ve seen his movies and listened to his top-rated podcast, also called The Tobolowsky Files, which he’s hosted since 2009. The line for his Fringe show formed in the rain a half-hour early along the cobblestones outside the Pleasance. The show isn’t a sell-out yet (tickets run about $22) but it’s only his second night at the Fringe. (In his debut at this month-long 3300-show festival, he opened halfway through, on August 18.)
Once he gets rolling, Tobolowsky doesn’t pause to provide footnotes to the many references he makes to people and places these Fringe-goers may never have heard of. Saying “tonight belongs to Beth,” his “first love,” he rewinds to his memories of the exact moment he fell for a fellow drama student as SMU undergrads in the 1970s. He was sitting in the dark of the Margo Jones Theatre in the Meadows School of the Arts and saw her tip-toeing around the “ghost light” on the stage. She was wearing a polka-dot blue mini-skirt over her jeans, which he says he found odd and endearing. He was smitten and stayed smitten for the next 16 years.
I won’t divulge many more verbatim details of Tobolowsky’s warm and witty 65-minute performance. During it, I feel certain that I am the only one in the venue not puzzled by his mentions of Jac Alder (the late Theatre Three founder who gave Tobolowsky his first professional leading roles), McFarlin Boulevard (where Beth and Stephen had a flea-infested apartment), Oak Cliff (where he grew up), Turtle Creek and Skillern’s drugstore. When he talks about buying Beth a gumball machine “ratfink ring,” and repeats the phrase a few times, the German woman next to me looks confused. I scribble on my notebook “plastic 1970s toy” and slide it over to her. Ah, she nods.
It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t explain it all. The audience is swept into the passion he has for “Beth” as he talks about those salad years with her. Tobolowsky gets choked up as he paces the stage. His eyes fill with tears as he recounts the time they wandered into a field of wildflowers in East Texas and got “wildflower married” in a thunderstorm. They left Texas after SMU, tried New York City, tried grad school, backpacked to Europe and ended up in Los Angeles, where she got a job in a dog food factory as they struggled to establish themselves as actors.
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When Beth’s grandfather went missing back in her hometown in Mississippi, and then mysteriously reappeared days later, she decided to give up acting and write a play about her crazy family, using Chekhov’s The Three Sisters as inspiration.
And though I know where this story will go – because I’ve seen the play many times in Dallas theaters over the past 30 years – I can tell the audience in Edinburgh doesn’t until Tobolowsky reveals it. “Beth” is Beth Henley. The play she wrote is Crimes of the Heart (he says he suggested the title) and the beginning of the end of their romance comes when Henley wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and gets $2 million for the film rights.
“The problems of plenty are plentiful,” Tobolowsky says.
He’s been married to a woman named Ann for over 20 years now. That’s a story, he says, he’ll be telling on this stage some other night.