Stephen Tobolowsky, the Movies’ Great ‘That Guy,’ Has Some Stories to Tell You


The title of The Primary Instinct, a film of Stephen Tobolowsky’s one-man show, comes from an oft-repeated old quote from the actor’s mother: “Self-preservation is the primary instinct.” As a familiar character actor, Tobolowsky occupies a strange place in pop culture — a constant “Hey, it’s that guy!” presence with some 238 credits to his name, in roles both familiar and all over the place, which he amusingly illustrates by running through a handful of the huge variety of professions he has acted over the years. Clearly, self-preservation plays a huge role in the choices of an actor known for small but memorable parts, one who works and works, without a glamorous leading role — excepting this one, that is. Tobolowsky is onscreen for the entirety of The Primary Instinct, and as you watch his show unfold before a packed Seattle theater, you might come to feel you know the guy. Far from the loud dolt of Groundhog Day or the smarmy misogynist businessman of Single White Female, Tobolowsky comes across as a chatty, good-humored uncle figure, the type whose stories meander and take quirky turns but in the end prove rewarding.

The Primary Instinct is filmed straightforwardly, like an HBO comedy special, bookended by short segments of Tobolowsky in close-up, gamely discussing his career (“Woolly mammoths were just leaving the earth when I did my first sitcom”). David Chen’s direction doesn’t call attention to itself, leaving Tobolowsky the star, and while a one-man show could easily come off as a narcissistic exercise, he seems humble (credits that list an actor simply by the character’s job title might keep you that way).

Tobolowsky starts with three stories from key points in his life, and eschews platitudes for idiosyncrasies — one anecdote involves being cast as “Butt-Crack Plumber.” But much of the show is devoted to Tobolowsky’s parents. He portrays them sincerely and lovingly (in a couple of close-ups he appears to be on the verge of tears), and the audience, in turn, has space to think of their own families, with their own aphorisms. Tobolowsky’s stories can be longwinded, and run the risk of self-indulgence, but they are never boring. In one surprising moment, he talks forthrightly about his drug use in the 1980s, and doesn’t make it into a sob story, but rather a dryly funny tale in which his mother drops some philosophical truths while he’s coked up. “Your life is your life,” she told him, and so our lives are our lives, and we should all strive for contentment. It’s simple, but true, and Tobolowsky is preoccupied with simple truths in art and life. His show and this film could benefit from more analysis of the character actor’s career, but the final moments, in which Tobolowsky discusses acting over the end credits, tie some of the big themes back to his work. “What is your greatest hope?” he asks. “What is your greatest fear? If you answer those questions, you can play any part.” He has, and he invites us to consider the questions for ourselves.

The Primary Instinct

Directed by David Chen

Available on demand September 22

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.