In the foreword to Fred Stoller's new memoir, Maybe We'll Have You Back: The Life of a Perennial TV Guest Star, Ray Romano recalls being referred to in his early New York stand-up days as "the healthy-looking Fred Stoller." Romano went on to star in his own show and become a household name. Stoller appeared a few times in Everybody Loves Raymond and some 70 other sitcoms, but rarely rose above the ranks of bit player. His book chronicles the highs and heartbreaking lows of an actor who dreamed big but had to settle for a career as just the bridesmaid — or sometimes just the wedding guest.
Like many comics, Stoller, 55, was driven to show business by near-debilitating shyness — his mother started him in therapy at 13 — and a need to be noticed for something other than "raising his arm in the air."
"I knew early on the real world wasn't for me," Stoller says. "I didn't have much self-esteem. I really didn't have role models of happy people. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But then when I'd see weird, quirky character actors, I identified with them. Macho or slick people like Clint Eastwood or Fonzie, I didn't relate to. I related to the oddball, skinny, weird guys in movies."
After gigging around East Coast comedy clubs, Stoller caught his first break in 1986 performing on Late Night With David Letterman. Unfortunately, it was the evening of the Challenger disaster, and America was in no mood to laugh.
Stoller moved to L.A. in 1988 and spent the next 20-plus years acting in failed pilots and short-lived shows, also taking on small roles in Friends, Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, The Nanny, My Name Is Earl and Scrubs, as well as a few movies (Dumb and Dumber, Joe Dirt). He usually was cast as the annoying waiter or annoying cousin or annoying pharmacist, carving out such a niche as the "go-to schnook" that he recently auditioned for a radio voice-over role that used his name in the character description. (He didn't get the part.)
In the book, Stoller breaks down the indignities suffered by character actors, from being repeatedly turned away by studio security to the hierarchy of dressing rooms and worktime lunch. Mostly, he just wants to hear the words from the shows' creators that have always eluded him: "Maybe we'll have you back."
"Being a perennial guest star is like being a foster kid being passed around some really great foster homes," he writes.
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But Stoller hasn't always languished in obscurity. After meeting Larry David at a party, he was hired as a staff writer for the 1994-95 season of Seinfeld, a tense environment where Stoller competed with a dozen other writers who didn't get much feedback from their bosses. Stoller wrote just one episode — titled "The Soup," and not to be confused with the one featuring the Soup Nazi — and co-wrote a few others.
In the last couple of years, Stoller has gotten recognition from younger fans who know him from Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place and Drake & Josh. And after four seasons voicing the title character on Disney's animated Handy Manny — his longest-running acting role to date — Stoller even has his own toy modeled after his character, Rusty, a nervous monkey wrench.
"I haven't had the home run yet," Stoller tells the Weekly, "but a lot of my friends got pushed out. I take solace in that the things I do, people still seem to remember and smile when they see me. As I got older, it got more rewarding doing the kids shows. Just seeing a kid being excited is really fulfilling. And hitting on single moms."