When longtime character actor Stephen Tobolowsky first read the script to “Groundhog Day,” he thought it was just another comedy; nothing special. Then the movie changed, even as they were shooting it 20 years ago in Woodstock, Ill. — and it became, in Tobolowsky’s words (and mine), “one of the greatest comedies ever created.”
Tobolowsky, who played persistent insurance man Ned “Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head” Ryerson, will host a special Groundhog Day screening of the film at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. On the phone last month, he remembered the winter chill of Woodstock — “so cold, I felt like it was some kind of army experiment as to what people could tolerate” — and his first day of work.
“We were shooting the first scene on the street, Bill and I, and I got these green [script] pages that warmed my hands, they were so hot. I’m looking over it, and I’m going, ‘Oh. My. God. This is totally different.’ ” Tobolowsky estimates that director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin cut out “a quarter to a third” of the script and replaced it, at the last possible minute.
In “Groundhog Day,” misanthrope weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) goes to Punxatawney, Pa., to cover the annual groundhog festivities. Trapped by a blizzard, he wakes the next morning to find that it’s the previous day. Groundhog Day repeats itself for him, over and over and over. Tobolowsky said that in the original script, the time-warp became an excuse for “an endless series of Bill Murray acting crazy, with no consequences,” and Phil’s suicide attempts came near the end of the movie. Ramis and Rubin moved that earlier and added a new final section, in which Phil learns to live life with joy.
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One particular change, Tobolowsky remembered, really set the tone for the movie. Originally, Ramis shot “a gigantic scene that took three days … where Bill shaves his head into a mohawk, takes spray paint and paints graffiti all over the inside of his room, then he takes a chain saw and starts sawing the room in half.” It was an expensive scene, and Ramis, after consideration, quickly cut it. He replaced it with a much quieter, simpler moment: Murray, going to bed terrified, breaks a pencil in half and puts it on his radio. When he wakes up, the pencil is whole. The first time he watched the movie in a theater, Tobolowsky said, the audience gasped at that moment. “We expect a crazy Bill Murray movie … and [Ramis] replaced it with visual poetry.”
Since “Groundhog Day,” Tobolowsky has appeared in numerous movies and TV series (recently “Glee” and “Californication”), written the memoir “The Dangerous Animals Club,” and launched a podcast, broadcast here on KUOW, called “The Tobolowsky Files.” But the ever-ebullient Ned Ryerson has stayed with him. People yell “Bing!” at Tobolowsky, he says “at least every other day,” and once a man struck up a conversation with him in an elevator, believing Tobolowsky once sold him insurance.
He’s watched “Groundhog Day,” he says, at least a dozen times, but remembers most fondly a time when he didn’t watch it. “My youngest son was 11 — he’s 19 now — and he said, ‘You’re in this movie; it sounds really stupid, Dad.’ I said, ‘You should watch it; it’s kind of funny.’ So he went into the room where we have our TV and closed the door. To hear the laughter coming through that door … ” Tobolowsky pauses, and you can almost hear him smiling, “it was the greatest time I ever did not see the movie.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org