to Face - A Comic's Tale
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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