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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God
<<<PHOTO: Jim Britt

Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

I was slightly spooked by “A Voice from Another Room,” the chapter in which you tell about being clairvoyant while a student at SMU. Did this psychic vibe vanish with age, or has it reappeared? 

It reappears. Not enough to get rich at the track, but enough to creep Ann out. I was in New York, and she called in a panic that she had lost a necklace. Could I use my ESP to help her find it? I thought for a second and told her the necklace was still in the house. In something soft. Surrounded by gold and purple. She found it in a zippered compartment of an LA Lakers (gold and purple) duffel bag in my son’s closet.

The second section of your book, “Exodus: A Love Story,” is about your long relationship with playwright Beth Henley, whom you met at SMU. In it, you tell how you and Beth worked with the  Talking Heads’ David Byrne on his 1986 film True Stories. What are the connections between you, the film and the British band Radiohead?

David told Beth and me he wanted to make a movie filled with characters whose lives were incredible but true. Beth said: “You should talk to my sweetie. He can hear tones.” David thought this was funny. “You hear tones?” I told him the story of my psychic experiences in college (these are told in detail in My Adventures with God.) I was able to know things about people by hearing their “tones.” (I know. It’s crazy. But it happened.) David hired us to write the screenplay for True Stories; he rewrote it and added a character that heard tones like me and wrote the song “Radio Head” for him to sing. A few years later, the English band On A Friday, who were big Talking Heads fans, changed their name to Radiohead.

You wrote that your mother treasured “the chance to give something life.” Is that what acting does —  give life to something that otherwise exists only on paper and in our heads?

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, we have even seen beloved characters in film and television compete with their actors for existence. Carroll O’Connor battled Archie Bunker. Sean Connery tried to survive James Bond. In dramatic literature, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an actor ruined by the popularity of the character he played on Broadway.

What did it mean to you when your wife, Ann, decided to convert to Judaism?
I had no idea she was planning on doing it. The moment was unforgettable. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. And then she said we should stop eating shrimp.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.