My Greatest Performance

Originally published Nov. 21, 2013.

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.


  1. John Branch on January 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    There are many posts here I have to skip for lack of time, but I got to read this, and it’s a good one. It’s modest, has charm, and is kind of humbling: it reminds me how easily we imagined ourselves into things when we were children.

    An aside: I wonder whether Mr. Tobolowsky remembers “Suck-egg-mule!” I do, from a production of Alfred Jarry’s _Ubu Roi_ presented by Theatre SMU, in which he played the king and used that expression.

    • Stephen TobolowskyStephen Tobolowsky on January 19, 2014 at 8:22 am

      Hell Yes!!! Dear John, “suck egg mule” was an invention of our director Dirty Dick Ayers. Prof Ayers was looking for a clean alternative to the various French slang profanities Alfred Jarry had in the original. I think the play began with Ubu coming out and yelling “Merde!”. I believe Dick changed that to Shrit!!
      …or something like that…everything else became suck egg mule.

  2. Nancy Janak on January 19, 2014 at 12:30 am

    For those of us ignorant people, please explain the “green screen”. I find it very confusing. (as do some of the people on tv)

    • Stephen TobolowskyStephen Tobolowsky on January 19, 2014 at 8:18 am

      Nancy, a green screen is the same thing as a blue screen which all means – special effects. If you want to do a scene in Egypt you don’t have to fly to Cairo. Go to a cafe in the San Fernando Valley, shoot your scene in front of a green screen. In post production they can replace the green screen with a shot of Cairo and – it looks like you are in Egypt. Or you could add: dragons, dinosaurs, Hobbits, space ships – in Gladiator they even added a shot of Oliver Reed who passed away before the movie was finished.

  3. Sam-Jill Anderson on February 7, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I really enjoyed your story about your best performance. And I’ve seen some of your acting on screen and I always enjoy them. I’m an actor who’s working on my craft and trying to do what I can. I enjoy reading and learning from other actors like yourself.