A near-death experience can create a major shift in the direction of a person’s life, as veteran actor Stephen Tobolowsky learned the hard way in 2008.
A lifelong adventurer, Tobolowsky was riding a horse on the edge of an active volcano in Iceland when a huge gust of wind lifted both him and his steed into the air and threw him to the ground.
Tobolowsky broke his neck in five places in a near-fatal accident that forced him into a three-month recovery in which he contemplated his existence. He started writing his most interesting stories down in order to provide his two sons with a better understanding of their father, and that exercise opened a whole new career for him as a raconteur and author.
After performing more than 300 key supporting roles in films and TV shows including “Groundhog Day,” “Memento,” and “Silicon Valley,” Tobolowsky soon took center-stage by creating a storytelling podcast called “The Tobolowsky Files,” and authoring the best-selling story collection “The Dangerous Animals Club” in 2013. He will be discussing and signing his latest book, “My Adventures with God,” on Friday night at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, and spoke about his new path from a book-tour stop in Woodstock, New York.
“Two or three months after my first book came out, my editor called and said, ‘People are responding to the humor in your stories, but also the spiritual element you put in them,’” says Tobolowsky, who practices Judaism devoutly. “He asked if I could write another book of true stories connected with a spiritual thread, and I came up with the idea that my life and everybody’s life I’ve known follows the template of the five books of Moses, the Torah, in the Old Testament.”
According to Tobolowsky, everyone has a phase in their life he compares to Genesis, composed of “the stories we tell on a first date over a glass of chardonnay, about who we are, where we came from, what our aspirations are and even what our terrors are.” He likens the early adulthood phase of difficulties with first loves, first jobs and the life avoidance some people engage in through either constant partying or endless graduate school studies to the story of Moses’ slavery in Exodus.
The “Leviticus moment” comes when people make major life decisions that define who they are, such as getting married, becoming a parent, or making a key spiritual decision such as Tobolowsky’s own return to Judaism after years away. He compares the loss of friends and family starting in middle age to the lessons on mortality found in Numbers, and believes that everyone ends up in a situation akin to Deuteronomy, “telling our stories to family and anyone who will listen, to make sense of the journey.”
“As I was writing and putting these stories together, I began to see it’s very hard to put together a book centered on God or spirit, because it changes so much at different phases of our lives,” Tobolowsky explains. “As a child, I’d say my Genesis was when I was 10 years old and heard the story of a boy who was the only survivor of a plane crash. I was rooting for him so much, but then he died a week later and it destroyed me, asking how could there possibly be a God if that boy in the back row was killed on the plane flight?
“For my Exodus, at that point in my life I was seeing God in the eyes of my girlfriend and trying to be a rock and roll star in Los Angeles,” he continues. “I learned that God is sometimes fear, and that is what we gravitate to. In the middle of my life, I met an old rabbi who really turned me around, and I became unified because I saw humor and love all around me through this religion I didn’t really understand when I was a child. At different points in my life, it points to different things.”
Tobolowsky, 65, was born and raised in Dallas, and studied drama at Southern Methodist University in his hometown. His first big break came when he landed a role in acclaimed director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film “Swing Shift,” but recalls that he first displayed his love of performing while at a temple service at 10.
He had interrupted his rabbi’s sermon by frantically waving his hand, causing the rabbi to believe he was seeking permission to use the restroom. Instead, he went to the front of the temple and started concocting an elaborate story in which he claimed his parents were hospitalized, with his father unconscious from a coma and his mother suffering from a broken back.
The stories were true, but the incidents had actually occurred long before he was born and were based on tales his parents had told him about their lives. While he was thrilled to be the center of attention, Tobolowsky realized after his Icelandic accident that it’s far more powerful and fulfilling to share tales that are completely true. He credits that recovery, and a prior period in which he couldn’t speak for two months following throat surgery, with teaching him the key to storytelling success.
“I had to be absolutely silent for two months, and in that period of silence, I began to hear more clearly my own inner voice,” says Tobolowsky. “I think a lot of people don’t pay attention to their lives. Their lives go by and they spend their time talking, not listening. As I started listening I began to hear so much more, and it made me a better storyteller. I saw things that were important and unusual, and because I couldn’t talk about that immediately, I just wrote it down and took better notes of things going on around me.”
Stephen Tobolowsky discusses and signs “My Adventures with God” at 7 p.m. Friday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.