The Dangerous Animals Club
By Stephen Tobolowsky
Simon & Schuster
338 pages, $24
By William L. Morris
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
What happens in LA certainly doesn’t stay in LA. It’s on every checkout counter’s magazine rack and on TV gossip shows. It’s in the blogosphere too. Stephen Tobolowsky, the well-known character actor (Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day,” Commissioner Hugo Jarry in “Deadwood,” many episodes of “Heroes" as Bob Bishop, etc.) has his own, “The Tobolowsky Files,” which is available for free on iTunes. This book is a selection from those blogs.
According to the blurbs he’s a wonderful storyteller and the one person you want at your next cocktail party. There are some funny moments, but they aren’t exactly knee-slappers. He doesn’t tell them as jokes. He tells them as life lessons. The time he went off script in an important scene in “Thelma and Louise” and started asking for orders at the local deli and Ridley Scott kept it in isn’t funny the way it must have been when happened. It’s another example how actors must trust their instincts.
At the party his long time “girl friend Beth” and he gave in the Hollywood Hills that turned into a genuine orgy, Tobolowsky walks around wearing only a red derby, eschewing sex. It must have been funny at the time but it’s not told with any attempt at verisimilitude. It becomes simply an example of one person’s response to a dangerous situation. He’s part of the orgy. His nudity proves that. But his red hat keeps him safe.
In the title piece three kids in Texas go into the woods to collect poisonous animals. They stumble on some nudists who are badly sunburned. The kids think it’s funny, but the mature Tobolowsky sees it another way. To him the episode reveals a human tendency to strip naked at inappropriate times and become “the most dangerous animal of them all.”
Nudity is a subtext of this book. When he moves into an apartment, he discovers it’s filled with fleas. He strips off his clothes and drives through town past an unlucky truck driver and then scoots past his mother in her kitchen into the safety of the shower. It’s not funny the way he tells it. It’s simply strange. He’s trying to convince the reader that precisely those moments that we dread – when we feel like the only foolish person in the room – us best for acting and for life and we should cheer when they happen to us.
In graduate school a teacher blackballs Tobolowsky because she doesn’t like his attitude. He is thrown out of the program. But he outfoxes her by being patient, by swallowing his pride and going to classes he’s not eligible for – like a person showing up at a party he’s not invited to. In short, naked. He prevails. He tricks a professor into giving him the final comprehensive exam before the others. He passes it and through a technicality gets his degree.
An actor – especially a character actor – has to strip way his ego to become an effective person on screen. Tobolowsky believes that humiliation is good for acting but he also believes it’s good for dealing with the tricks of fate that life throw at us. That seems to be the overriding message of these stories.
The only story that he doesn’t strip down to its bare essentials is his relationship with playwright Beth Henley. No doubt it still hurts too much. It does seem a little odd, however, that he never uses Beth Henley’s last name in the book though she figures in the majority of the stories. He simply calls her “his girlfriend Beth.” He says they never married because she didn’t believe in it. But they lived together longer than most marriages last.
We don’t know what ended the relationship except that he walked out and that there was some abuse that he took over the years (we are left to assume from her.)
Beth Henley, author of “Crimes of the Heart,” and he lived together during their formative years and when that didn’t work out, he married another woman who doesn’t figure in any of his stories. Instead of discussing why the relationship ended, he ends the book with a long riff on the nature of destiny.
In the biblical story of Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph tells his brothers when they leave with their new possessions “not to fight on the road.” That doesn’t seem appropriate to Tobolowsky. He uses his knowledge of Hebrew to retranslate this statement. He thinks what Joseph really said was “don’t fight the road.”
He writes about a nuclear particle that goes faster than light so that in order to be somewhere it has to leave before it arrives. He feels that the unexpected turns his life has taken are like those particles. They seem to come out of nowhere and yet are familiar and inevitable at once. As unexpected or unwanted as they are, they are just what he needs. He believes that in order to get the most out of acting and life a person has to leave himself open to these moments. It’s essential to be ready to strip down and walk around wearing only a red derby.
One of these nuclear particles running through his life is meeting people he calls “his angels,” people who reached out to him for no reason and taught him important lessons. This book is a thank-you note to them and a slap in the face to those who tried to stop him.
Tobolowsky’s only complaint about Hollywood is that it seems to have entered a post-Aristotelian world where stories no longer have a beginning, a middle and an end. He longs for scripts with snappy payoffs rather than the amnesia-infused scripts where even the writers have no idea what’s happening next. Actors say their lines in front of a blue screen never knowing what they mean or where thy fit in a story. Later the special effects people connect things visually but the story still makes no more sense than “Waiting For Godot.”
Despite his complaints about stories without a beginning, middle and an end, he’s guilty of it himself. The special effects that bring everything together are the philosophical statements that end each vignette. He doesn’t “fight the road” as currently determined by Hollywood producers and directors. There are no snappy stories here that are going to end up in supermarket checkout lines.
Tobolowsky is a character actor, not a hero. He can’t save anyone. But he can make things more understandable, more human. He’s Clark Kent, not Superman. He’s very good at stripping in telephone booths and becoming someone who is helpful to others, but he never changes into Superman. Those nudists in the woods who seemed dangerous to the young Tobolowsky are now his role models.
Tobolowsky’s genteel nudity is just what the LA cocktail party scene ordered. And these are his notes written on cocktail napkins.
William L. Morris is the co-inventor of the News’ Poetry page. He now lives and writes in Florida.