December 11, 2012

A few years after graduating from SMU’s theatre program in 1973, actor Stephen Tobolowsky gave the “performance” of a lifetime as the cool-headed target of a gunman in a real-life hostage situation.

Calling the incident “the most creative day of my life,” Tobolowsky sketched out the story in dramatic and humorous detail during a program sponsored by Friends of the SMU Libraries October 3. While he is known for scene-stealing parts in movies such as Groundhog Day, Tobolowsky is also an author. He was on campus to promote his new book The Dangerous Animals Club

In a perfectly paced monologue that demonstrated his talents as a storyteller and performer, Tobolowsky recounted being held hostage by an armed robber in a Snider Plaza grocery store. Relying on his natural loquaciousness – bolstered by pop psychology gleaned from “Medical Center,” a hit drama series of the time – he diffused the potentially lethal situation by engaging the gunman with his “million miles an hour” conversation. He provided the distraction needed by tactical officers, who entered the store and apprehended the would-be robber without firing.

That story and others in the 26 chapters of The Dangerous Animals Club celebrate the twists and turns of a creative life. The author described the book as “true stories from my life” that do not appear in chronological order but are woven together to “make sense at the end.”

In a seamless hour that covered many topics, he also recalled a first foray into creative writing – when he could not find information about Moses Austin for a fourth-grade history report, he substituted details from his Pennsylvania-born mother’s life.

With family and friends in the audience, the event became something of a homecoming for “Tobo,” as they call him. He introduced “the most important man in the room,” his father, physician David Tobolowsky, who served as director of medical services at SMU in the 1970s.

Stephen Tobolowsky last visited SMU in 2010, where he talked to theatre students in Meadows School of the Arts about his prolific career. He has acted in more than 100 movies and 200 television shows and most recently appeared on The Mindy Project, a comedy on the Fox network.

Among his other credits: co-writer of the movie True Stories with musician David Byrne and then-girlfriend Beth Henley ’74, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and SMU classmate; Tony award-nominee as a featured actor for the 2002 revival of Morning’s at Seven; and creator of “The Tobolowsky Files,” a series of popular podcasts that include stories from The Dangerous Animals Club.

During a question-and-answer segment, Tobolowsky talked about performing
with fellow SMU graduate Powers Boothe ’72 – and a spooked horse that wandered into their scene – in the HBO series Deadwood. And asked when he knew a story was completed, he replied: “As a writer your story is never finished.”