Actor Stephen Tobolowsky discusses Woodstock, 'Groundhog Day'

WOODSTOCK – The day that every “Woodstockian” waits for each year is upon us. Groundhog Days events are always a local favorite and this year the town is pleased to welcome back actor Stephen Tobolowsky to join in the festivities.

Tobolowsky played Ned Ryerson in the film “Groundhog Day” and will be present at the prognostication and chili cook-off as well as will give a talk and do a signing for his books “The Dangerous Animals Club” and “My Adventures with God.”

Northwest Herald chatted with Tobolowsky via phone about shooting “Groundhog Day,” returning to Woodstock, and of course, Bill Murray.

Weber: How many times have you come to Woodstock for the prognostication?

Tobolowsky: I want to say two but I think the last time I was here was for the Super Bowl with the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.

Weber: Well that’s a good way to remember it! You’ll be at the Opera House doing a talk about being part of the film as well as talking about your books and doing a signing.

Tobolowsky: Yes, I’ll be talking about the film and then doing a story from my book that has nothing to do with the film. This is my second book of stories. I do true stories about my life. The first book is called, “The Dangerous Animals Club.” It’s about my early years and falling in love and all that stuff and my second one is called, “My Adventures with God.” It’s about these absolutely incredible events that happened to me. I guess the point of that book is how we end up believing no matter what our faith is and no matter who are, we end up being formed and following, very much, the invisible.

Most of them are amusing. Most of them are funny.

Weber: You’ve had the quite the career. You’ve spanned more than 40 years!

Tobolowsky: I think so. It’s terrifying.

Weber: No! That’s such an accomplishment in Hollywood. Come on! So jogging back to the matter at hand – “Groundhog Day.” What was one of your favorite moments of the filming?

Tobolowsky: Wow. Favorite. Let’s see. Certainly, the most terrifying moment was meeting Bill Murray on the street on the first day, for the first time. That was pretty terrifying.

Weber: I can’t even imagine!

Tobolowsky: Also, Bill interrupting Harold Ramis and turning to me and saying, ‘OK, show me what you’re gonna do.’ I was like. ‘uh, uh,’ and I did a little Ned for him and he was like, ‘OK, you can do that.’

The more ‘ah hah’ moment was during the first week when Bill shot the first whole, big crazy scene where he realizes in the film that time has stopped and he’s stuck in time with no consequences. We shot this huge scene for three days and Harold Ramis threw that scene out. After shooting for three days, he rewrote the script and what we have instead of this massive crazy scene was Bill Murray breaking a pencil as he’s lying in bed taking notes and putting the pencil beside the bed is in two pieces on top of the radio. The next morning Sonny & Cher plays and the pencil is whole at the bottom of the radio.

When I saw that, with a real audience, not phony people or studio people, or actors, in the theater with real people, people gasped. When Harold Ramis pulled that on the set that first week, I thought ‘what am I in? Why are they changing this scene that was very funny and took a lot of time, and a lot of money, and a lot effort?’ It was pretty amazing. Then I thought, ‘I’m in the middle of something pretty special.’ So that was a pretty good moment.

Weber: That is amazing! That’s so cool because it’s so simple [the pencil break] and yet it says it all!

Tobolowsky: Visual poetry. That’s when I went ‘oh, we’re taking chances in this movie.’ You’re not taking chances when you have Bill doing a bunch of crazy stuff. That’s just what Bill was doing at that day and time. He’s always doing crazy stuff. In this, Bill’s performance is so stunning because he’s able to be the perfect protagonist and perfect antagonist at the same time. It’s amazing.

Weber: The film is about living the same day over-and-over. So what was it like for you having to perform the same scene over and over?

Tobolowsky: Well when you’re an actor, you really, physically are always doing a lot of shooting and re-shooting. I remember one movie with Stephen Frears called “Hero” and we had one scene with Chevy Chase and me and we did the big moving master – the opening shot – about 130 times. Oh my gosh. How do you look at all that footage? Back then, they had footage and not a computer chip. I mean how do you look at all those takes?

What was really unique about “Groundhog Day” was when you watch the movie, every time I meet Bill in the street, the dialogue is always slightly different and the camera technique used to film the scene is always slightly different. Every day was a slightly different approach and every day was slightly different dialogue. So you just view it as the same day but slightly different.

Weber: What’s your impression of our Woodstock?

Tobolowsky: I’m interested to see the changes. When we were shooting, there was one Woodstock and then when I came back Woodstock got kind of “toney” if that’s a word? It got more upscale. When we were shooting, it was like where I grew up. It was like Oak Cliff, Texas. It was like a working person’s community. You have the dime store and the little shops and bakery around the town square and you have the little hotel. Then when I came back again it was like, ‘oh it got snazzier.’ You’ve got some really great historical landmarks in a really great space so I’m interested to see it now.

Weber: It’s gotten snazzier but it still hasn’t lost its charm. It’s a very good medium. Is there anything specific you want to see or do on the Square while you’re here?

Tobolowsky: I’d like to see the bakery. It was a big spot for us the first day when we shot. I was nervous as could be, Bill and I were shooting the first scene on the very first day, and there were about 500 town folks there. Bill looked out at the crowd, looked at me, and said ‘you know what we need? We need Danishes.’ He grabbed me, we ran over to that bakery, and he pulled out a wad of money and said ‘I want every donut, Danish and muffin in your shop.’ He started loading the boxes of donuts and stuff and I was his mule. He bought every pastry in the store and then we came out and started throwing all of them to the crowd like fish to seals. People started cheering and yelling. I thought ‘what a brilliant guy.’ In one moment, he created the idea that the town and we are one. We are on the same side, we are not the enemy, and we are in a comedy. He did it all with one magical gesture with his own generosity. It was terrific.

Weber: Do you ever feel like they just don’t make them like that anymore?

Tobolowsky: No. They don’t make them like that anymore. You mean the bakery or the movie?

Weber: I mean the bakery, the movie and Bill Murray!

Tobolowsky: You know it’s very odd because I’ve been doing the book tour for “Adventures with God” and I’ve been to like 41 cities in the past several months. I keep going to these towns where Bill Murray owns something.

I was at book event in Charleston, SC and people asked if I wanted to go out because Bill Murray owns a restaurant there. So we went there. Then they asked if I wanted to go to a baseball game. Well, Bill owns the team. So I’m following in Bill Murray’s mercantile footsteps. It’s pretty funny.

I asked them ‘why is Bill Murray investing here?’ Well. Family. He invests in these places all over so he has another excuse to come see his family. I mean, what a guy.

Weber: When you come to Woodstock, what will you be coming from?

Tobolowsky: Right now, I’m shooting “The Cool Kids” as we speak. Vicki Lawrence and I have a bedroom scene so that’s hot as you can imagine.

I’m also shooting “Schooled” which is a “Goldbergs” spinoff and I’m also doing “The Loud House”. I do a voice on “The Loud House” so I’m coming from all of those things. But they’re calling me so I have to run! It was a pleasure!

Groundhog Days run through Sunday, February 3. For more information visit www.woodstockgroundhog.org or contact the Groundhog Days Hotline at 815-334-2620.

List of events (For event specifics visit www. Woodstockgroundhog.org)

Thursday, January 31

Free warm-up event - Stage Left Café – 5:00pm to 6:00pm

Awakening of the Groundhog - Woodstock Opera House Balcony - 6:00pm to 7:00pm

Friday, February 1

Groundhog Day Movie Memorabilia - Woodstock Public Library – 1:00pm to 4:00pm

Woodstock Moose Groundhog Charity Dinner Dance – Woodstock Moose Lodge - 6:00pm to Midnight -tickets are $20 at the door

Groundhogology - Woodstock Opera House – 8:00pm - Adults: $25, Students $10. Buy tickets at www.WoodstockOperaHouse.com.

Saturday, February 2

Groundhog Prognostication – Woodstock Square - 7:00am to 7:30am

Official Groundhog Day Breakfast – Woodstock Moose Lodge - 7:30am to 8:30am. Tickets are $15 and should be purchased in advance since seating is limited at Woodstock Public Library, Home State Bank, and Read Between the Lynes (deadline February 1).

Groundhog Wood Carving – Woodstock Square - 8:00 a.m. to Noon

Tours of the Woodstock Opera House and the Old Courthouse - 8:00am to 1:00pm

“Groundhog Day” Free Movie Showing – Woodstock Theatre - 10:00am to 11:45am

Groundhog Tales – Home State Bank on the Square - 10:00am to 11:00am

Groundhog Bowling - Wayne’s Lanes on Church St. - 10:00am to 4:00pm - $15 covers 2 games, shoes, and refreshments.

Chili Cook-Off – Woodstock Moose Lodge - Noon to 1:00pm

Woodstock Rotary Club Bags Tournament – Woodstock Square - 1:00pm to 5:00pm - Entry fees are $30 until February 1 and $40 day of event.

Walking Tour of the Groundhog Day Filming Sites – Meet at Woodstock Moose Lodge – 1:30pm to 3:00pm

Meet Ned Ryerson – Woodstock Opera House - 3:00pm to 4:00pm

Groundhog Days Bingo - Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple - 5:00pm to 6:00pm

Groundhog Day Trivia Contest – Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple - 6:30pm to 8:00pm - $5 entry fee per team with 1 to 10 people on a team

Groundhog Days Pub Crawl – Woodstock Square - 6:00pm to 10:00pm - Tickets are $20

Saturday, February 3

Breakfast with Woodstock Willie – Woodstock Moose Lodge - 8:00am to 10:30am - Tickets are $7.00, children under 6 or anyone donating blood at the drive that day, FREE. Tickets are available at the door.

Woodstock Willie’s Family Fun Day – Woodstock Square - 10:00am to 2:00pm - Tickets are 2/$1

“Groundhog Day” Free Movie Showing – Woodstock Theatre - 10:00am to 11:45am

Walking Tour of Groundhog Day Filming Sites – Meet at Stage Left Café - 12:30pm