Back Stage
July 14, 2000

     Face to Face - A Comic's Tale
Written by Simi Horwitz

Contrary to received wisdom, actor Bronson Pinchot insists that doors have not flown open to him, despite his six-year stint (1986-1992) on the popular sitcom "Perfect Strangers."  Remember Balki (Pinchot's alter ego), the endearing foreign-born nut who sure spoke with the darnedest accent?  Pinchot may not have had fabulous opportunities since his TV gig, but he says he hasn't been the victim of typecasting either.  He simply gravitates towards (and frequently gets cast as) those "punchy inchoate innocents."

And that's just dandy with his audiences, many of whom want him to be their onstage zany who is at once lovable and naughty.  "If I suddenly burst into song [preferably a meaningless snippet coming from nowhere and going nowhere] there's a giggle of recognition."

One thing is certain: Theatregoers who crave that kind of Pinchot evening won't be disappointed with his jolly over-the-top turn in "The Winter's Tale," which bowed July 6, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.  In this convoluted late Shakespearian play that examines misperceived infidelity, penance, and redemption -- the work is a mixed bag of romantic melodrama and vaudevillian skit, Elizabethan style -- Pinchot plays Autolycus, whom he describes as a "huggable petty thief."

Autolycus is both con artist and court jester who, at least in Pinchot's spin, leaps about (engages in high and low camp humor), speaks in a range of accents and dialects, ad-libs from time to time and, yes, occasionally bursts into song.  Like many clowns, he often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience with an elbow-nudging wink while offering a running commentary on the action.

"Autolycus has to combine vigor with irreverence.  He has to be still as a cow and animated as a mayfly.  The biggest challenge is making arcane expressions understandable to a contemporary audience, through a judiciously- chosen word or gesture.  In one of my speeches I did change the word 'dram' to 'strumpet' for clarity."  So asserts the 41-year-old New York City native, who is talking to us over the phone -- rapidly, enthusiastically, at moments free-associatively.

 "I'm not worried about treading on Shakespeare.  He's not spinning in his grave.  He is thrilled.  He wrote Autolycus for a particular actor who happened to have those skills that are my skills: physical comedy, singing, ad-libbing.  I ad-lib if nature intervenes -- if someone has a laughing fit or if it begins to rain.  The other night when a large bird swooped down above the stage, I squawked."

His Own Invention

"Autolycus is constantly re-inventing himself.  In that sense he's very much like me, more so than any character I've ever played.  If I were who I was supposed to be," Pinchot offers some personal autobiography, "I'd be a morbidly obese man with bad teeth and a wife-beater.  Or I'd be afraid to meet anybody.  So I invented myself.  I got my teeth fixed and I'm athletic [and get along with everybody]."

But then consider Pinchot's curious history, starting with his name.  Indeed, much of his life has the flavor of fiction and Pinchot presents it like an imagined narrative, unabashedly and without apology.

"My father was in prison for wife-beating, drug abuse, and exposure.  But before that he was a bookbinder.  And one day he was binding a biography of [transcendentalist] Bronson Alcott [Louisa May Alcott's father] and he decided he liked the name.  My full name is Bronson Alcott Pinchot.  My mother made a living scrubbing floors, creating handmade ornaments for Christmas trees, and painting miniatures for dollhouses.  She is now an actress."

Pinchot suggests, in a tone somewhere between dead-on earnest and sly put-on, that if he were not an actor, "I'd be a Venetian or Roman aristocrat with palazzos all over Italy and love slaves in every port.  I've never said that before -- the first image that came to my mind was antique dealer.  I am a collector.  But then it occurred to me that if I were an aristocrat I'd have ancient Greek sculpture and late 18th-century to early 19th-century furniture.  My strict cut-off date is 1825!"

Pinchot's, ahem, colorful personality notwithstanding, he is an accomplished actor who has appeared in all media; most recently on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's "Putting it Together," for which he received fine reviews.  He is relentlessly a "Method" actor, who states, "Character-shmaracter.  Acting is being just you in a situation.  It's about visceral response and post-hypnotic suggestion and then a layering on of text."

Comedy and Quiet

Brought up in South Pasadena, Calif., Pinchot recalls that he was a multi-gifted child (garnered scholarships in dance, violin-playing, and painting) whose teachers were not especially enamored with him.  After all, he felt free to challenge their mistakes.  "If I said, 'That was wrong,' they'd say, 'Don't correct me.'  And I'd say, 'Why not?  Somebody has to.'  I was born 20 years too late.  Today, I'd be lionized."

By the time Pinchot was 18, he knew he wanted to be an actor and went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Yale University's School of Drama.  In short order, he was starring Off-Broadway, in Paul Rudnick's play "Poor Little Lambs," an assignment followed by featured roles in such movies as "Risky Business" and "Beverly Hills Cop."

His appearance in the latter put him on the map and established his reputation as an actor who would steal scenes, especially if he donned his European (of nonspecific origin) goofball persona.  That movie gig directly led to his being cast in the sitcom "Perfect Strangers."

Still, after spending six years on the hot TV program, he admits having to relearn certain skills for the stage.  "On TV you're constantly overlaying your personal charm and/or whatever it is you do best -- accents, for example -- onto a script that's not deeply thought out.  In theatre, it's not about your specialties or hitting the right beat.  It's about the text, and you have to relearn the important of text."

Moving from a starring TV role to the stage also required some psychological readjustment.  Pinchot had to come to grips with the reality that was was viewed as adorable on TV -- a certain facile acting style, as a case in point -- was frequently off-putting to theatre folk.  He likens his revelation to those described by a black friend.  "He said, 'Being a black baby is cute.  When you're a teenager, you're suddenly seen as threatening.'"

A turning point for Pinchot occurred two and a half years ago during the shooting of a movie called "For the Love of the Mummy" [sic] -- which disappeared in video-land promptly -- based on the lives of Laurel and Hardy.  Pinchot, who had been cast as Laurel, was struck and delighted by the hilarity he engendered in the crowds that had gathered to watch.

"Until that time, if you had asked me what roles I wanted to play, I would have given you the standard answers, like 'Richard II.'  But when I saw all those people laughing their heads off, I realized that comedy is what I should be doing.  Anyone can do drama.  Now I feel I want to work on roles that I come up with [Pinchot says he's a writer as well], and on all the Shakespearian clowns, until I've exhausted them."

The actors Pinchot most admires -- he admits they make for a curious amalgam -- are Charlie Chaplin, James Mason, and Michael Gambon.  Besides the fact that they are all "very present," he says, each one evokes an intense quiet with a profound vivacity that is simultaneously jarring and moving -- powerfully so.  In Pinchot's esthetic universe, acting can best be summed up by James Mason's performance in "A Star is Born" -- specifically the scene where "he is dying inside, but does not allow himself to voice it.  He cries out, stuffing a pillow into his mouth to shut out any noise he might be making!"