5 great 'Groundhog Day' stories from the 1993 comedy's best scene-stealer, Stephen Tobolowsky
The legendary character actor loves to talk about 'Groundhog Day.' Here are his five best behind-the-scenes stories.
According to the calendar, Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day — that 24-period when the country gets inordinately interested in whether or not a certain rodent sees its shadow. But really, February 12 should be Groundhog Day. After all, that's the date that the Harold Ramis-directed, Bill Murray-starring comedy classic Groundhog Day premiered in theaters back in 1993. This year, the movie officially celebrates three decades of delighting men, women, children, and groundhogs alike.
One person who particularly loves Groundhog Day is Stephen Tobolowsky, the veteran character actor who plays the adorably obnoxious insurance salesman Ned Ryerson. In addition to being the source of some of the movie’s biggest laughs, Tobolowsky is also a prime source for amazing stories about the making of the film. Here are five of the best behind-the-scenes stories he’s shared in the three decades since Groundhog Day’s release.
Ned Ryerson is Groundhog Day's biggest villain
It's hard to think of a cheerier, nicer guy than Ned Ryerson. But Tobolowsky specifically approached the role as if the insurance salesman was a villain to rival Darth Vader or Thanos. "He's a force," Tobolowsky told Yahoo Entertainment in a 2017 interview — a force that impacts the life of Murry's Phil Connors, the cynical weatherman who becomes stuck in Punxsutawney's crazy time loop.
"Before Bill meets Ned, he’s the antagonist; but once Bill starts to meet Ned repeatedly, he becomes the protagonist," the actor astutely explained. "The whole movie switches, and from then on Bill is the victim of being caught in time and we root for him." At the same time, Tobolowsky acknowledges that most audiences wouldn't wish harm on Ned in the same way they would a more overtly cruel villain. "I don’t think anybody dislikes Ned, but boy, he certainly can be irritating!"
There Was Almost Another Ned
It's hard to imagine anyone but Tobolowsky playing Ned Ryerson, but Ramis came very close to casting another actor. While shooting the Jason Priestly comedy Calendar Girl, Tobolowsky roomed with co-star Kurt Fuller, and the two started discussing their upcoming projects. Fuller — a comic journeyman who has had scene-stealing roles in everything from Elvira: Mistress of the Dark to Anger Management — mentioned that Ramis had written a role especially for him in an all-new Bill Murray comedy. But unbeknownst to his friend, Tobolowsky had also auditioned for the part.
"Put in the picture of someone’s brain exploding,” Tobolowsky said in a 2012 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air when he flashed back to that exchange. "I had no idea what to do. I knew I couldn’t tell Kurt that I had just auditioned for the part that he had been given. In fact, Kurt said that he had already had a reading with the entire cast. I ended up getting the part." When he saw Fuller at the film’s premiere, Tobolowsky wasn’t sure how the actor would react. "Kurt hugged me, and he said, 'Well, man, you got my part but at least you did it well — good work.'"
Murray and Tobolowsky Bribed the Extras With Pastries
The first day of shooting a film is always difficult for the cast and crew, and that goes double when the picture is being filmed on location. In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Tobolowsky described how Murray ensured that the residents of Woodstock, Ill. — which doubled as Punxsutawney, Pa., in the movie — would be on their side from the beginning.
"We were about to start shooting and…there were 500 townsfolk gathered there to watch us. Bill looked at me and said 'Do you know what these people need? DANISHES.' Bill took me into the local bakery and bought every single baked good in sight. He put boxes in my arms, and we ran out and started throwing the doughnuts and sweets at the crowd. It was the greatest public relations move I’ve ever seen."
Harold Ramis Cut a Major Sequence
The opportunity to work with Harold Ramis was one of the main reason Tobolowsky was so excited to be part of Groundhog Day. And the writer-director-actor didn’t disappoint. When Ramis passed away in 2014, Tobolowsky penned an emotional essay for Slate in which he praised one of his director’s choices in particular.
"When we were at the end of the first week of shooting, Harold shot a huge scene when Phil Connors realizes time has stopped and he is living in a world with no consequences. Bill spray-paints his room at the inn. He cuts his hair into a mohawk. He chainsaws the place in two, knowing, in the morning, all will be back to normal."
The sequence wound up taking three days to film and cost thousands of dollars for Murray’s fake-mohawk alone. And when the scene was finished and assembled, Ramis watched it, analyzed it... and tossed it out, instead substituting a simple, inexpensive scene where Murray realizes he’s trapped in a time loop by looking at a pencil. "When I saw this in a theater filled with real people, the audience gasped," Tobolowsky wrote. "Harold understood the power of poetry and had the courage to tell the story his way."
An Assistant Set Director Chose the Ending
While Ramis was willing to play around with the tone and structure of Groundhog Day, Murray demanded that the film follow a certain logic. Case in point: In the film’s final scene, when Phil finally escapes the time loop, the star wouldn’t allow cameras to roll until Ramis answered one very important question: Did Phil and Andi MacDowell’s character have sex on their last first night together? Tobolowsky recounted the story on a 2010 Groundhog Day-only episode of his podcast, The Tobolowsky Files.
"Harold asked Bill what we thought [the answer was], and Bill said, 'Hey, I’m asking you!' Amazingly, Harold said, 'Let’s take a vote.' He polled the entire crew working on the movie and it was a tie." In the end, the decision came down to an assistant set director who had never worked on a feature film before. After thinking it over, she informed Ramis and Murray that Phil kept the evening chaste. "[She said] 'If you do it any other way, you will ruin the movie.' Harold Ramis smiled… and Bill nodded, and that’s the way they shot it."
Groundhog Day is currently streaming on AMC+, SlingTV and Philo.