Wednesday, February 10, 2016

TMFW 127 - Needlenose Ned Gives a Famous Band Their Name

Stephen Tobolowsky is a character actor and first ballot member of the "hey it's that guy!" Hall of Fame.  He was 200+ acting credits, including recurring characters in Deadwood and Glee, but he is most famously known as Ned Ryerson, the annoying-yet-endearing insurance salesman who steals scenes in Groundhog Day.  Today's TMFW is the story of how, in the strangest way possible, he inspired the name of a super famous band. 

The story starts in the early 70s, when Tobolowsky was in college.  As he recounts, "I had some unusual psychic experiences.  I could hear 'tones' coming from people's heads, and I could tell them about their lives.  [My girlfriend] Beth thought this was a great cash machine and in the theater department, she would charge $0.25-$1 for me to read people's tones...This turned out to be not as much fun as we thought it was going to be.  I began telling people real things that were happening to them.   Horrible things.  Exciting things.  Tragic things.  It began to scare me.  I stopped doing it."

Fast forward to 1985, in Tobolowsky's backyard in the Hollywood Hills.  The director Jonathan Demme had just worked with Tobolowsky's girlfriend Beth [the same one from college] on a screenwriting project, and his next gig was shooting the video for Talking Heads' song "Road to Nowhere."  Demme was looking for a swimming pool for some of the shots, and Beth offered up Tobolowsky's house.  So Demme and David Byrne (the lead singer of Talking Heads) came over and shot some scenes.  You can see the pool starting at 2:12 in the video

After the video shoot, Tobolowsky and Beth invited Demme and Byrne to stay for a barbecue.  As they sat and talked, David Byrne discussed a movie that he wanted to work on called True Stories.  According to Byrne, his vision was an art film "with songs based on true stories from tabloid 60 Minutes on acid."  (Byrne and Demme had just made the very successful and now-iconic Stop Making Sense, so this was real talk.)

During the discussion of True Stories, Beth convinced Tobolowsky to tell David Byrne about the "tones" that he could hear in college, and Byrne liked the story.  In fact, the barbecue went well enough that Tobolowsky and Beth were hired to write the first draft of a screenplay for True Stories; they and Byrne are the credited writers for the final film.

Inspired by Tobolowsky's story, during one of the rewrites for the film Byrne introduced a character that could hear "tones" in his head and wrote a song for that character to perform.  The song was called "Radio Head."  Here it is in the film, here's the whole song, and now you see for sure where this is going.

Around the same time that Tobolowsky and his girlfriend were entertaining David Byrne at a barbecue, Thom Yorke and some schoolmates in England formed a band called "On a Friday" (so named because that's the day they practiced after school.)  Except for a few brief periods of inactivity, they stayed together through high school and college, and in 1991 they caught the attention of EMI Records and signed a deal.  EMI didn't like their name, and asked them to change it.  Taking inspiration from Byrne's song, they mushed two words into one and took the name "Radiohead."  The rest - seven top-10 records (including five in a row that hit #1 in the UK and one that is often lauded as one of the best of all time) - is history.

So there's your TMFW for today: the guy who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day had psychic abilities in college and told the guy from Talking Heads about during a barbecue and that inspired him to write a song about it and that inspired the band On a Friday to rename themselves Radiohead (and go on to be one the most influential groups in recent history). Crazy.


BONUS FACT:  If you watch Groundhog Day enough times, you may inevitably start to wonder just how long Bill Murray's character Phil Connors repeated the same day over and over and over again.  It was at least long enough for him to learn 19th century French poetry, to become an expert ice sculptor and pianist, to learn about Nancy's chipmunk sounds, to (in deleted scenes) become a hustler in pool and bowl a perfect game and become proficient in radiology, and to get so desperate that he creatively ends his life several times over

It turns out that the movie was initially intended to address this question pretty directly.  According to a great entry on the No Film School website, the screenwriter had a plan "to have Phil read one page of a book on the inn's bookshelf each day, then he would show Phil moving across the shelf, then down the shelves until Phil finally read the last page of the last book, and went all the way back to the beginning again."  This would suggest a period of hundreds of years.  But the studio was not keen to put Phil through that and suggested the way-too-short period of two weeks instead.  So the compromise was that director Harold Ramis "took out all overt references to exactly how long Phil was stuck, including [screenwriter Danny] Rubin's page-a-day bookshelf to mark time. As soon as the audience couldn't see exactly how long Phil was stuck, nobody cared anymore and the film opened up for interpretation to let audiences decide for themselves."

Unsurprisingly, people have done just that.  Just from simple googling, you can find a pile of "scholarship" out there about how long Bill Murray's character stayed in his Groundhog Day loop.  Ramis initially said on DVD commentary that it was 10 years; he later revised the number to between 30 and 40.  A 2009 blog post (with charts, even) says it was 8 years, 8 months, and 16 days.  A video investigation in response concludes that it was 33 years, 350 days.  For his part, Tobolowsky cites Buddhist principles and says it was 10,000 years.

However long it was, I am glad for the 1 hour and 42 minutes of that film.  It's the best.

BONUS FACT 2:  We'll leave a broader exploration of Radiohead for another time, but I can't make a Radiohead post without linking to Thom Yorke's appearance on the "Knifin' Around" episode of Cartoon Network's sublime talk show Space Ghost Coast to CoastIt's a family favorite (and by that I mean I love it dearly and the family patiently accepts it).  Cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut.....

BONUS FACT 3/BIBLIOGRAPHY:  I got today's story from the Reddit "AMA" that Tobolowsky did last month.  It is an interesting read. 

For those of you who do not know Reddit or "AMA"s: Reddit is a social networking, bulletin-boardesque website where users post things that interest them.  Other users can then vote those posts up (if they like them) or down (if not), and in theory the cream rises to the top

Reddit is not without controversy, but AMAs - short for "Ask Me Anything" - are one of its best features.  In them, a notable person visits the site and answers questions posed by the community.  The result is a long, collaborative, evolving interview with a famous person.  In part because of the loose design of the site, in part because the best questions get upvoted and more noticed by the AMA guest, and in part because reddit seems to value authenticity, AMAs often give a nice picture of the "real" (or at least, closer to "real") person being interviewed.  Some notable AMAs are chef Gordon Ramsay, Tesla/Space X entrepreneur Elon Musk, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz AldrinCarol "Big Bird" Spinney, and (because why not) the guy that co-invented the Oregon Trail computer game.  Once you get used to/learn to navigate the weird layout, they are fun to read.

BONUS FACT 3.5:  If you liked today's story, Tobolowsky has a podcast series called The Tobolowsky Files.  And partly out of that podcast, in 2014 Tobolowsky and his producer successfully Kickstarted a storytelling "concert film" called The Primary Instinct.  It is available on Hulu.

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