In Depth With ‘Groundhog Day’s’ Ned Ryerson, Actor Stephen Tobolowsky

By Jan Jekielek, Epoch Times
February 11, 2010 11:20 pm Last Updated: September 29, 2015 5:18 pm
GROUNDHOG DAY: Stephen Tobolowsky prepares to do the whistling bellybutton trick of "Groundhog Day" movie-lore, in Punxsutawney, Pa., on Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 2010. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa.—Actor Stephen Tobolowsky, best known for playing the annoying Ned Ryerson in the cult classic Groundhog Day, was invited to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day 2010 by its officiants, the group of top-hatted men known as the Inner Circle.

At Gobbler’s Knob on the frosty Groundhog Day morning, Stephen confided in the crowd of an estimated 15,000. For the first time, he said, he would share the details of how the final scene, when Bill Murray’s character finally escapes Groundhog Day, was decided upon.

Stephen Tobolowsky: He [Bill Murray] said, “I refuse to shoot this scene until I know how I am dressed. Am I wearing the clothes I wore the night before? Am I wearing p.j.’s? Am I not wearing that?” That is, what happened that night between him and Andie [MacDowell]? So, he refused to shoot it. Harold Ramis, the director, had not thought of this question, and he didn’t know. So he took a vote from the cast and crew as to what Bill was wearing. Is he wearing the clothes from the night before, or is he wearing pajamas? And it was a tie, a tie vote, so Bill still refused to shoot the scene.

Then one girl in the movie—it was her first film—she was assistant set director. She raised her hand and said, “He is absolutely wearing the clothes he wore the night before. If he is not wearing the clothes he wore the night before, it will ruin the movie. That’s my vote.” So Harold Ramis said, “Then that’s what we are going to do.” I’ve never told anybody that behind-the-scenes story, so keep that a secret now.

Following the revelation, Stephen went on to perform his character’s, Ned Ryerson’s, whistling bellybutton trick for the crowd. In the interest of good taste, I won’t share those details here—we’ll leave that for a much more sensational publication. It’s unclear if the bellybotton trick demo was indeed a true first, as Stephen has before shared with fans how the final movie scene was determined, but it all certainly fit well into the ethos of the Groundhog Day morning. Punxsutawney Phil is at least 124 years old, don’t ya know?

Later that day, Stephen managed to find time for The Epoch Times to answer some of the burning questions that remained in my mind. He explored some of the metaphysical underpinnings of the film.

Stephen: They [director Harold Ramis and writer Danny Rubin] used, I think, the list of Kübler-Ross, the seven stages of death and dying, a very popular book in the 70s. These [include] recognition, denial, depression, anger, acceptance. They used that as a framework, but Harold Ramis, who’s also a Buddhist, said that in Buddhism they say that it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to the next level.

So he said that he felt that the entire progress of Groundhog Day covered 10,000 years, which depressed me. I’m working on the piano, and I don’t have 10,000 years. I always thought that there were nine days represented [in the film], and Danny Rubin, the writer, said that he felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but they lasted] over 10,000 years.

If you take a look at the wheels [repeating storylines] within the wheel [story arc] of the day, the movie Groundhog Day is not only a repeated day, but it’s also based on Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, on having the different sections of the day repeated.

In Act 1 of the movie, you have the morning repeated, when Bill runs into me in the street. When you get into Act 2, once Bill realizes that time has stopped, we move into the conflict area. We move into lunchtime, and the thing that is repeated is Bill in the cafeteria, in the diner, where he writes that great [note]. He has to get Andie [MacDowell] to believe in it too. …

Then in Act 3 we move into the night, and the night becomes repeated. I think one of the interesting facets of the movie, which I mentioned last night, is that Harold Ramis didn’t know what the day of the movie would be. He shot each of the scenes of the street in [sunlight], in snow, in rain, and cloudy, so he could piece together—because it had to be one day—it had to be consistent. And as it was, he made it a cloudy day. And when snow fell, time started again. So snow falls at the end, when Bill and Andie MacDowell [are involved in] a [snowball] fight over the ice sculpture. Then they lie down, and they kiss once, and snow starts to fall.