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July 16, 2018

Now You See Him

Stephen Tobolowsky is ready when you recognize him.

Kari Mozena
  • In one of his many guises, Stephen Tobolowsky as Dr. Berkowitz in Netflix’s One Day at a Time

    Adam Rose/Netflix

"Watch out for that first step — it's a doozy!"

So say passersby who run into character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. "And then they'll add, 'Has anyone ever done that before?' Like about 10 minutes ago, someone just did that," says Tobolowsky, also known as insurance agent Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day.

Though fans still love to quote lines from that 1993 Bill Murray comedy, it's Tobolowsky's prolific television work — The Goldbergs, Silicon Valley,The Mindy Project, Glee, Deadwood and now Netflix's One Day at a Time reboot — that has people talking these days.

"When Deadwood came out, people would ask if I could explain what it was about. And when Glee hit, all the teenage girls would come running up to me," the 66-year-old says with his slight Southern twang. "I am so happy people are coming up now and saying, 'We love One Day at a Time!' The thing that is encouraging is that it isn't in one demographic or one part of the country."

Thanks to his upbringing in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, Tobolowsky has a special bond with the sitcom, which originally debuted in 1975.

"When I came out to Los Angeles, I got an invitation from K Callan, who was an Oak Cliff girl and happened to be a guest star on One Day at a Time. So it was the first real show I saw in Los Angeles. I saw [creator] Norman Lear, and I got to meet Bonnie Franklin and Mackenzie [Phillips], who is on our show. Show business is a small body of water, but it's deep."

Like the original, the reboot takes on issues such as race, sexuality and depression, though it's now focused on a Hispanic family.

"One Day at a Time is different than any show I have been on," Tobolowsky marvels. "For example, last season they had an entire episode with Justina Machado's character, Penelope, on the phone to the Veterans Administration, trying to get a doctor's appointment. The. Entire. Show. The show does not seek to be sentimental. They tell the truth, and when you tell the truth you can be hilarious and you can break someone's heart."

Reflecting on his varied career, Tobolowsky recalls, "Alan Parker [Mississippi Burning] got me cast in lots of different things, Groundhog Day made me popular in comedies, which led to sitcom work, and Christopher Nolan [Memento] reminded people I did serious films as well."

Parting words of wisdom from this podcasting author (yes, check those boxes off, too) whose 250-plus acting credits include 26 doctors, six principals, five professors and four mayors? "So much of happiness isn't a matter of things happening to you — it's seeing that you're in the middle of it! That you're in the middle of something quite wonderful, and all you have to do is see it."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 5, 2018

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