The Lost Roles Interview with Stephen Tobolowsky

Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, I interviewed Stephen Tobolowksy, beloved character actor, author, and podcaster. Tobolowsky has played hundreds of parts in movies and TV over the years, but you may know him best as Bill Murray’s irritating high school acquaintance Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day, amnesiac Sammy Jankis from Memento, or from his recent TV work in recurring roles on Glee, Heroes, Californication, and The Mindy Project. Tobolowsky was nice enough to chat with me about some of the close calls he’s had with big projects, including almost ending up in two of the most  successful sitcoms ever, Cheers and Home Improvement, plus all the network shows he’s been on that were canceled before their time:

The Mindy Project (2012)

Most recently, there was The Mindy Project, which was a show I actually got. I auditioned for it a couple times, had a network interview for [it], ended up shooting like four of the shows… They changed the direction. They didn’t want Mindy to have a boss in the office, they didn’t want so much of the show to take place in the office, and they didn’t have the time or energy to make up some way that I could manifest my character in her personal life. So, that was one that definitely got away most recently, this year. And like all of those situations, it was disappointing. You never like being told you’re not on the team, but it was all okay. It takes a long time – sometimes a year – for a new comedy to find itself. Sometimes, new comedies are canceled before they find themselves. Sometimes they do [find themselves] like Sex and the City and become huge hits, so you never can tell.

Home Improvement (1991)

A very noted one that’s been talked about a lot is I was originally the Tool Time guy in Home Improvement. Al the Tool Time guy that ended up being played by Richard Karn. I auditioned for that part, I was cast in it. It was one that kind of mutually went away in that they were unsure as to whether they were going to shoot Home Improvement for January or the following September. They didn’t know if it was going to be a midseason replacement or if it was going to be on next season’s lineup. My contract was they were going to pay me $16,000 a show, which was enormously princely for me, but I was to have an exclusive contract. I couldn’t do any other work, any other shows, which is normal on a regular show. But my wife was pregnant, we had a baby coming. I had auditioned for a couple of movies and was waiting on them, and they said I couldn’t do the movies. And I said, “Well, if we’re not shooting the show maybe for another 10 months, I’m not going to be able to live on $16,000 with a baby coming. So, I can’t do the show.”

They thought I was bargaining or something. I wasn’t. I was just telling the truth. Eventually, they said, “Well, we’ll let you do one of the movies.” I said, “You know, forget it. It’s difficult. I don’t know when we’re going to shoot this or when it’s going to happen. I just won’t do it.” They got Richard Karn to play that role. He was on it for years and years and years and made beaucoup bucks. They ended up doing it as a midseason replacement, so it would have been the shorter period of time. They premiered after the Super Bowl, so it was always in the Top 10. It was always a huge show, but, on the other hand, because I didn’t do Home Improvement, I had my film career. I got to do Single White Female, I got to do Sneakers, I got to do Groundhog Day. I got to do all the shows everybody knows me for, so I don’t really regret not having done Home Improvement… It turned out to be a very good choice for me.

Deja Vu (2006)

Here’s one that’s more contemporary. Deja Vu, directed by Tony Scott. I read for that a couple of times, and Tony Scott was talking like I was doing it. He said, “When we get on the set, we’ll work out this. How do you see this moment? How do you see that moment?… Oh, that’s great.” I remember calling my agent [and] my manager, saying, “Looks like I’m getting this part.” And it turns out to be Jim Caviezel got it, a totally different type than me. But again, in this business at that level, you don’t usually expect to get a phone call from the producer [or] the director, saying, “We’re going in a different direction. We’re not going to hire you.” You don’t expect that, but it was one that I really thought I had.

The Michael Richards Show (2000)

That was one that my agent wanted me to read for. “This is a sure thing. This is a done deal. This is 22 episodes on the air.” And I said, “It’s 22 episodes for Michael. He’s getting paid, but none of the supporting cast is gonna get 22 on the air.” Usually when you’re in the supporting cast, that golden umbrella of financial security doesn’t hang over your head. You’re usually the first one out.

Cheers (1982)

I tried out for Cliff the mailman in Cheers, the one John Ratzenberger played. That’s funny. Before a show’s a hit show, you never know. They say, “Well, you’re playing a mailman that always comes into this bar in Boston. Do you always have that Texas accent?” “Well, I could try to do a Boston accent.”

Law & Order (1991)

Here’s one that I really wish I had focused on a little more, and that was Max in the original Law & Order – to play the detective that George Dzundza played. He ended up leaving the show after a couple of years, but I remember thinking like, ‘Oh, another cop show on TV called Law & Order. Gosh. Come on!’ I had no idea about Dick Wolf or how incredible the show was going to be or what an amazing ensemble… you don’t know those things walking into it. You know, ‘Are people really going to see me as a detective-type?’ I had no idea how Dick Wolf was casting against type and all that.

I went in, and you can never audition when you think you’re not gonna get it. It’s like, you can’t go in and pitch and think you’re not gonna throw strikes. You have to know you’re gonna get that part and nail it, and I did not do that with Law & Order. Boy, I wish I did because that would have been a great show for me to do. I would have loved it! I would have loved everything about it. I ended up guest starring on Criminal Intent and SVU, and I love the show. I loved shooting it in New York. Just a great, great, show. Yeah, I auditioned for that. Too bad. I didn’t get that one.

An unsold HBO pilot

I auditioned for one show at HBO. The show itself was unsuccessful. The audition went very well. And then, my agent called me up afterwards and said, “No, they already have a bald one.” That was tough, to know that I was being designated as “We’re gonna have a bald one, we’re gonna have a black one, we’re gonna have a female one, we’re gonna have a fat one.” That that’s the way they were thinking about the show, that was kinda tough.

Gene Pool (2001, unsold WB pilot)

I talked about this on the podcast. Gene Pool was a very funny show. We had a pilot. It was very funny. The audience liked it a lot. It didn’t get picked up.

American Men  (2006, unsold ABC pilot)

One show was called Guys originally, then was called American Men. Basically, it was the show Guys with Kids. The same show, where it’s the dads and their kids. It was a terrific cast. Sean Astin was the star. He was wonderful in it. It was all about dads and their kids and dad groups and being fathers. It was a very funny, very good show, but it didn’t get picked up. That was a disappointment.

Against the Grain (1993 NBC drama, canceled after eight episodes)

One show that was spectacular was Against the Grain. That was a show I had a regular part in. The problem with it was it was about high school football, and the network put it on Friday night at 8 o’ clock when all the high schools were playing their high school football games. So, the network scheduling effectively destroyed the audience. And that show, pretty much became what is Friday Night Lights. It’s a reworking of the same idea, I’m not saying that Friday Night Lights stole from Against the Grain. I’m saying before Friday Night Lights, there was Against the Grain. It was the same show.

Dweebs (1995 CBS sitcom, canceled after ten episodes)

There was the show Dweebs. We were canceled after ten shows, and it was a brilliant show. It was a hilarious show. It was about these five brainiacs, computer experts, hackers and everything, working in an office with a girl who didn’t know anything about technology. So, it was a stranger in a strange land both ways. The guys were social misfits, and she was teaching them how to be socially acceptable. And she was a technophobe, and they were teaching her how to embrace the world of technology. That show was wonderful! It was canceled, and it kind of became The Big Bang Theory.

Marlon Brando once said that there are only five dreams and people just keep reinventing them, and you see that on TV all the time. Five dreams, you see it over and over again. That was a disappointment when Dweebs was canceled because that was a really wonderful show. That was very funny, very delightful. And you know, we weren’t doing that bad in our time period. We were picking up every week, but what happened was the Head of CBS left and that’s when Les Moonves came in. Les, like all of those heads, they want to start with a clean slate. They don’t want the other guys’ shows on their docket, so Les canceled [it]. That was unfortunate, but that was a great show nonetheless.

The Lost Roles Interview with Stephen Tobolowsky