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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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyone who knows me probably knows about my obsession with Lost (currently airing Wednesdays at 8 on ABC).  There are a number of TV shows I like a lot, but only one to which I am an abject slave. This happens to me every once in a while, pop culture-wise. It’s kind of like how I was hopelessly hooked on Harry Potter from Book 1: I was fixated on Lost from the pilot episode on. As a result, I have spent the past four and a half years either (a) watching Lost or (b) waiting like a lost puppy for Lost’s next season to start. Yeah, it’s utterly pathetic. I know.

The Geronimo Jackson ladies' T
The Geronimo Jackson ladies’ T

There’s no really good way to explain my infatuation with Lost. Well, of course there’s Josh Holloway, who plays James “Sawyer” Ford, and Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Desmond Hume, and Matthew Fox, who plays Dr. Jack Shephard. They’ve got some mighty good-looking men on that show, and they’re good actors too. Among the women characters, my favorite is Dr. Juliet Burke, played by Dallas’ own Elizabeth Mitchell. And then there’s a whole raft of other characters: Kate Austen, the former fleeing felon and freckled femme fatale; Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, the large and lovable slacker and lottery winner who calls everyone “dude”; Sayid Jarrah, an Iraqi who was tinker, torturer, soldier and spy for the Republican Guard in the first Gulf War; John Locke, whose paralyzed legs and broken back are miraculously healed as soon as he lands on the island; and Sun and Jin Kwon, the Korean couple with gorgeous looks and ugly personal secrets. Then there’s Daniel Faraday, the mentally fragile physicist and time-travel expert; Miles Straume, the sarcastic “ghostbuster” who talks to dead people; and Frank Lapidus, the ace pilot who becomes quite the expert at flying to and from a mysterious island that doesn’t show up on any charts or maps.

The premise of Lost is well-known by now: In September 2004, an Oceanic jetliner breaks apart over the South Pacific en route from Sydney to L.A. A few dozen people from the plane’s midsection and tail section wash up on an island and await a rescue that never comes. Three months later a freighter arrives on an ominous mission, bringing the news that the world believes Oceanic 815 to have been lost at sea with no survivors. Eventually six of the Oceanic castaways return to civilization, a media army and worldwide fame — while telling no one about leaving behind a group of friends who must fend for themselves as the island goes skipping through time.

But the rest of the Lost universe is what makes most of us fans so happily mental. “The numbers”: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. The smoke monster. Dead people who don’t seem to stay dead. The island’s unseen ruler, Jacob. The gigantic remains of a statue with four toes. The hippie-era Dharma Initiative and its indigenous opponents on the island, “the Others.”  Richard Alpert, the Others’ shaman, who never ages.

On Lost, even the good guys aren’t all good, and the seeming bad guys aren’t all bad either. Flawed, complicated, devious and ruthless though they can be, Lost‘s villains are some of the series’ most interesting people. Billionaire Charles Widmore, who used to be the Others’ leader, can be appallingly cruel or astoundingly kind, but he’s never predictable. And Benjamin Linus, the rival who ousted Widmore as leader of the Others, is one of TV’s great bad guys. As played by the amazing Michael Emerson, Ben is bug-eyed and shrimpy, but also steely and manipulative. He looks like a complete milquetoast, yet he commands respect, fear, hatred and loathing. Ben can’t be trusted. Ben lies. Ben kills people. Yet the show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.

One of the show’s little in-jokes is Geronimo Jackson, a fictional 1970s-era band whose name keeps popping up throughout the past few seasons. Right now you can find their single “Dharma Lady” on iTunes (they sound a lot like the Grateful Dead), and you can buy Geronimo Jackson T-shirts online at the ABC.com store.

Although I love reading and participating in Lost fansites and blog discussions, I’ve never bought any Lost magazines or action figures, Dharma Initiative-logoed merchandise or other diehard-fan paraphernalia. But for some strange reason, I decided that I wanted a Geronimo Jackson T-shirt, and the other day I got one. Somehow it appeals to me — maybe because I came of age in the ’70s. If Geronimo Jackson had been a real band, I probably would have listened to them back then. Heck, I’d probably still be listening to them: I’ve got early David Bowie in my car’s CD changer right now, and he still sounds good to me after 35 years. 

After this current season, Lost has one more season to go, its sixth, before the series wraps up. I have no idea how the story of the island and its inhabitants will end.

But whatever happens, at least I’ll always have Geronimo Jackson.