Stephen Tobolowsky is one of those faces in Hollywood that is immediately recognizable. An amiable character actor, Tobolowsky has lent his talents to a slew of projects— from classic films like Groundhog Day and Thelma & Louise to popular television series like Glee and Silicon Valley.
And now he’s helping to put yet another incredible project on the map: Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time. Cast as the lonely and sometimes out of touch Dr. Leslie Berkowitz, Tobolowsky wears many dramatic hats throughout the show’s first season. In some ways he’s the comic relief, and in others he serves as a humanizing element in a show that encourages its audience to see well beyond the surface of any one individual.
I recently spoke with Tobolowsky about One Day at a Time, his character Leslie, and how becoming a writer has made him a more involved actor:
TARA MARTINEZ: How did the role of Leslie Berkowitz come to you?
STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: Man, it’s like a gift from the heavens. I heard about—my agent, of course, called me. My manager called me and said, “There’s this audition.” And as I recall, it was right away. It happened like it’s tomorrow or the next day. And I broke one of my cardinal rules and that is I never audition—I never say never, right?—but I don’t like to audition without reading a script because you never really know the story. But they told me they didn’t have a script yet, a complete script for what they were auditioning for. They just sent me two or three scenes, so I really didn’t know what the story was in One Day at a Time; I didn’t really know who I was talking to; I didn’t know who Lydia was; and I didn’t know who Penelope was. I didn’t know who any of the people were, really. So, I kind of—it was kind of like a detective thing where you put together the clues as to what body was in what room.
And the reason I did this—breaking my cardinal rule—was because I may not have known One Day at a Time in this incarnation, but I knew Norman Lear, not personally but as someone who I grew up with and someone who I loved and trusted from All in the Family. One Day at a Time was—when I came out to Los Angeles to be an actor, One Day at a Time was on the air and a girl—woman—from our hometown, K Callan, was in the show and so as a gesture of kind of hometown graciousness she said, “Stephen, would you like to come see a real live situation comedy?” And I go, “Gosh, yeah!” and it was One Day at a Time. And Norman Lear introduced it and there was Bonnie Franklin and, you know, all that wonderful cast. It was wonderful for me coming out from Texas. So, that’s a long way of saying that my trust in the process and in Norman Lear was enough for me to say, “I don’t care if I read a whole script or not.” So, in a way it was like shooting a bullet in the air and you hope you get it through the target and I’m just happy I got the part.
TM: That’s awesome. When you finally did get to read a real script, what did you think of it? What were your initial feelings about it?
ST: Blown away. [laughs] Is that two words or one word? It was, you know, there are—as an actor, there’s a tendency to try to put all forms of what we do into one category. There’s theater, movies, television. But sitcom is not the same as doing television; it’s kind of a hybrid between theater and television. It’s really an animal unto itself and over the decades now, I’ve gotten used to reading sitcom scripts and they’re pretty predictable. You have set up, set up, punchline, etcetera. I have—I can’t remember a sitcom script, especially a first, a pilot script that you read, that you feel within ten minutes of the beginning of the show that you know the people in the show on a kind of profound level, and that the people don’t—their characters don’t spin around a weird, little, funny quirk. But you feel that they’re kind of real people, maybe idiosyncratic people, maybe they have their oddness about them which could be funny or not. But I felt like I was reading a story about real people and it not only created a kind of laughter in me—I believe when you read the script as an actor, you are experiencing it as the audience will experience it. It’s a lesson I learned—listen to that first reading of the script in your heart. Listen to it and see what it tells you. And the laughter it gave me as an audience sitting there reading it the first time and how it moved me the first time was unique in terms of sitcoms. So, I was very excited beyond the fact that I was an actor who had a job. I was very excited as to what this show could possibly be.
TM: It’s getting a lot of really positive feedback, I think because it speaks to so many people from all walks of life from that kind of human perspective. So, it’s interesting to hear that it hit you the same way.
ST: You know, the Greeks kind of originated our sense of drama in fifth century B.C. and through them, they kind of said that there aren’t that many stories that are to be told. One of them is a stranger in a strange land. It’s one of the primary stories we keep retelling. One Day at a Time is unique because every character in the show is a stranger in a strange land, both literally in terms of a Cuban family which is here now in America, to Justina’s [Machado]character which was a soldier in Afghanistan who is back home to being a married woman who’s now separated, to Rita’s [Moreno] character Lydia who had to leave Cuba and leave her family behind. Everyone is a—and to me as Leslie Berkowitz, a doctor who’s lost his wife and essentially is hated by his children. And even though he is the boss in his situation, in the office, he looks to Penelope as his sort of leader in terms of how to have a family that loves him. You know, he is a stranger in a strange land too. The same thing with Schneider. Almost all of Todd’s [Grinnell] runs in the show are about—I mean, they’re really funny runs—but they’re runs about being alienated from your family, about having four stepmothers and having all the money in the world, but your heart is ripped out of it. Even Schneider in this show is a stranger in a strange land. And I think that it’s the universal nature of that primary story that I think really reverberates with people. That’s just a theory.
TM: Your character Leslie is kind of a lonely guy. What’s your approach to a character like him who draws both laughs and sympathy from the audience? How do you make him funny and human at the same time?
ST: I think—somebody once told me a great acting lesson. He said, “The only important question you have to ask yourself is what is your greatest fear and what is your greatest hope?” And if you answer those two questions honestly, it creates a tightrope and every other question on your character will spin off of those two questions. So, with Leslie Berkowitz, obviously his greatest hope is to be loved because of losing the love of his wife and the love of his daughter. And I don’t know what else will be revealed along the way, but we all get pulled away from the things that we hope to love through our lives, either by work or any other forces. So,I think that is certainly what Leslie Berkowitz wants is to be loved. And what he fears is to be forgotten; what he fears is to be a nothing.
Now, if you just think about that, that someone who fears vanishing in his own life and someone who wants to be loved, you could think of ten things right now that could either be hilarious about that person—either wanting attention or craving attention—or heartbreaking about that. So, as an actor, you don’t really think individual moments are to be funny or poignant. You don’t think that way. You just think specifically in that moment, What am I trying to do? I think that’s why, for example, the scene where—and the writers understand that, too—I think in the scene where people have forgotten my birthday, you can imagine that plays right into the well house of my fear. And so it could lead to a tantrum that’s funny, a desperation that’s funny, and it also leads right into Rita Moreno singing “Happy Birthday to Jew” which is hilarious, but it’s exactly—it doesn’t matter. My line is—the nurse says to me, “Did she just say to Jew?” and I said, “It doesn’t matter. Works both ways.” And it’s both funny and poignant because it plays right off of that fear, and also it’s a victory that I’m not invisible. So, it’s heartening and funny and sad all at the same time. And that’s just good writing.
TM: You shared a lot of your scenes with Rita Moreno and you both were so great and funny together. What was it like to work with her?
ST: Can I say I’m in love with her? [laughs] Rita Moreno—this is my joke that I say to myself—that Rita Moreno is proof that there is a God and also that God plays favorites because nobody is like Rita Moreno. Nobody has that woman’s heart, that woman’s soul, that woman’s mind, and that woman’s talent. And I kiss the hem of her garment.
When I was a kid, this was before the age of stereos [laughs], we had the little record player with the two speakers on the long wire—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of those—but it was like a little turntable and then you would have little plastic speakers at the end of ten foot little, tiny wires that were your stereo. And I used to put on West Side Story soundtrack and put those boxes up one to each ear and lie on my floor and play “America” over and over and over again. Her performance in that movie—you know, when I saw it at the Winwood Theater when I was a kid, totally young as a kid—but when I saw it, I went like, I cannot imagine any person being able to do this. Dance like that, sing like that, and to act like that.
And I think with all the awards that Rita has won over the years, it’s kind of proof of that. She is a spectacular person and, you know, talent is one thing, okay? She got that. But I’ll tell you something people don’t have, and especially people who are talented like Rita—she’s generous. She is generous as an actor; it’s in her bones and it’s in her blood. And so when we get together and do a scene, I know it’s just going to be—the one time in my life I’m going to be a dancer is because she will dance with you. And it’s just thrilling. Every time we have a scene together, I’m just thrilled.
TM: You’ve been acting a long time. When you look back at your career, what’s one project or role that really stands out for you?
ST: Well, certainly Groundhog Day. You know, someone once told me that there’s a formula that to be successful in Hollywood, you have to be good in a good movie that people see. If any one of those three things is not there, like if you’re bad in a good movie that everybody sees, it’s the end of your career. Or if you’re good in a terrific movie that no one sees, it’s the answer to a trivia question. So, you know, you have to have all three. And so that just happened to be a really terrific movie that I happened to be good in that ended up being seen. And the real heroes of that film were Harold Ramus and Danny Ruland, the screenwriter, because when we started shooting Groundhog Day, it was not exactly the script that ended up being shot. After we started, Harold Ramus was going like, “What are we really doing here? We’re really telling the story of whether time has consequences. What are the consequences of our lies?” And while we were shooting, they rewrote the script and it turned into, from just being a kind of very entertaining Bill Murray movie to being a classic comedy film. And that was all because of the courage of Harold Ramus and Danny Ruland to do that after we started shooting. That doesn’t usually happen. So, that is probably—I consider that kind of a milestone in my career.
And the second milestone is a different kind of milestone is that a few years ago, 2011, I suffered a fatal accident. That’s what the doctor said which is terrible when you’re alive and the doctor says, “You had a fatal accident.” [laughs] I thought it was a terrible misuse of the word fatal. But I broke my neck, five vertebrae—multiple breaks—and the central vertebrae was crushed. I had the same break pattern Christopher Reeves had but I ended up living. I ended up living, but I was in a brace for a while and I couldn’t work, and for some reason—I was thrown from a horse on the side of an active volcano in Iceland is what happened to me. So, I’m back home and I think, Well what if what the doctor said was true and I had a fatal accident? What would my children—what would I want my children to know about me? So rather than sitting around watching The Real Housewives of anywhere in the world, instead I started writing these stories that I wanted my boys to know about me. And of all things, those stories ended up on the radio. Simon and Schuster asked if they could make them into a book. Now I have a second book coming out this year, in April, of these stories and it changed the course of my life in a lot of different ways. It made my acting different and it made my focus in my life different. So, that would be the second major event in my life that affected me. Between those two, you have my greatest fear and my greatest hope. [laughs]
TM: Now that you’re a writer, does that change the way you approach or read scripts?
ST: It changes everything, and not always for the better. I’m shooting now Silicon Valley which is a well written show, but I’ll be going like, “Why are we ending a sentence with a preposition? Any reason for that?” You know, things get in your way as a writer because you’re always trying to find the exact right phrase and word you want. And so, before when I was just an actor, I just learned the lines. I just memorized lines, but now I’m thinking like, Can we make this better? I don’t say anything to the writers. I don’t do that but, you know, your brain works that way and goes, Wait a minute, wait a minute. Wouldn’t this be better if this phrase was at the end of the sentence? You know, you start—and it gets in the way. It gets in the way.
But on the positive side, what it helps is when you write—not for television or movies—but when you write just to be a written word in a book, you have to be enormously succinct and you have to be enormously specific to create the images for the reader at home without throwing too many adjectives at them. You don’t want it to read like a menu in Beverly Hills, you know? Free range ranch copper creek eggs with a rash of golden farm pork belly loin bacon. You know, you don’t want to do that. You want to keep it succinct, but at the same time draw the picture. So, as an actor, reading scripts now, it helps me ask the right questions. Being a writer, I go like, “This is creating this impression to me. Is this correct?” And I can ask the director or our executives and the writers or Norman, and I can ask them a more specific question and get a more specific answer.
TM: What other projects do you have in the works that you can tell us about?
ST: I’m going to be on this next season of Silicon Valley which is delightful. You know, it’s a hilarious show and that’s on HBO. And I guess the main thing right now is I just finished final rewrites of My Adventures with God, the book that’s coming out in April, so I’ve had this sort of down period of time over the holidays which has been wonderful to finish that. So, that’s just it. You know, the main focus is praying that One Day at a Time gets another season and looking forward to my book tour in April when I’m going to be going around various places in the country and reading some of the new stories.
To learn more about Stephen Tobolowsky, check him out on Twitter at @tobolowsky.