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The Working Actor

Stephen Tobolowsky as King David

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Stephen Tobolowsky as King David
Photo Source: Clay Rodery

It is always interesting to talk to actors to see why they pursued this strange career of legally pretending to be other people. Like any neurosis, it often centers on something from childhood.

It could have been a desire to be Dorothy in the “The Wizard of Oz.” Children often imagine it’s fun to do things like dancing with lions or flying in tornados.

It could have been a belief that what actors did in movies was real. When parents explain the facts of life to their children, they should be required to include a brief explanation of green screens.

It could have been fame. To win an Academy Award. I remember being 10 years old, practicing my best-actor speech in the shower. I won that year against Gary Cooper. I began by thanking all of the people who helped me get to this moment. Even as children we are aware that humility takes a lot of practice.

For me, it was all and none of these things.

In truth, my love for acting came from my greatest performance. I was five. I was in first grade in Sunday school. Our teacher asked all of the boys to get up and play David in his pre-Goliath days, back when he was a shepherd, tending his father’s flocks.

Most of the boys did something silly. They pretended they had machine guns and tried to shoot each other, the sheep, and anything else in the vicinity. Not me. I stood up. I held out my hand. I felt a staff in it. From out of nowhere I felt the desert wind. The sun was setting. I saw motion in the brush in front of me. I froze. I was certain it was a wolf. I clutched my staff tighter. I put myself between my sheep and the perceived danger. I moved closer. Slowly. I made a sudden move with my staff. A wolf ran away in fear. I pursued it for a few steps and then stopped. I watched it disappear over the ridge. I didn’t celebrate my victory. I knew he would be back.

The teacher stopped the exercise. She told us to sit down. She mildly scolded us boys for being silly. Then, she turned to me and said, “Except for you, Stephen. I saw you protecting your sheep. I saw the wolf. You were a wonderful King David.”

I was surprised she saw what I saw. I was proud. It was my greatest performance. My most complete. I have been chasing the high of my King David in the Wilderness ever since.

I have fallen short on most occasions. But I haven’t given up. I still look for the return of the wolf. With each audition, be it movie, sitcom, or voiceover, I look for the chance of reaching that moment of complete belief. A chance of once again becoming the unlikely king. A chance to write songs about the wars I have fought and the giants I have slain.

Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of "The Dangerous Animals Club," and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

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