Birmingham News / Friday Punch
August 7 - 13, 1987

Larry and Balki take a step up during new season
By Dennis Washburn - News television editor

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. - You can expect some changes in ABC's Perfect Strangers this season.

The popular comedy, which surprised most TV industry observers last year with its good ratings, will be seen in Birmingham on WRBC / Channel 6 Wednesday nights at 7, opposite NBC's Highway to Heaven and CBS' new The Oldest Rookie.

It's the story of Balki Bartokomous, who left his Mediterranean home and journeyed to the United States to create a hilarious culture clash with his unsuspecting distant cousin, Larry Appleton.  Balki moved in with Larry and the American youth just didn't know what to make of the naive sheepherder who suddenly began sharing his Chicago apartment.

And all through last season, the free-spirited Balki took night courses and improved his English but his still frustrated his neat and orderly cousin as he mixed his old country ways with New World ideas.

Bronson Pinchot stars as Balki and Mark Linn-Baker as Larry in the half-hour sitcom.  Other characters are airline stewardesses Jennifer, played by Melanie Wilson, and Mary Anne, played by Rebecca (sic) Arthur.  A new character this year will be Harriette Winslow, played by Jo Marie Payton-France, an elevator operator in the building where the cousins work.

"We're moving up in the world this year," said Pinchot, here at the Sheraton Redondo Beach.

He explained that the pair will change jobs.  Last year they worked at a discount store.

"We're going to get into the newspaper business.  Larry will get a job as a kind of cub reporter at a major newspaper while Balki, wanting to be close to Larry, will get a job in the mailroom of the newspaper.

"And we'll also be moving into a larger apartment," he said.  "Balki will be able to have his own room.

"We decided that the atmosphere at the discount store last year was fairly depressing and that a better arena would be a newspaper.  It's more exciting.

"Larry isn't exactly a report, but almost.  He's sort of an assistant to the city editor, which means he's something of a gofer, although he does occasionally get to write a story.

"As for me, I can be naive anywhere, but a newspaper is a much more interesting place.  At the same time I'm working in the mailroom, I'll also be working on getting my citizenship," he said.

Why the new apartment?

"It wasn't my idea," he said.  "I told the writers I like sleeping on a couch, but they said it's hard to write a scene when one of the actors has no place to exit."

Both the actors are Yale graduates.  And one of the best things about the series has been the chemistry between them.  They seem to react almost instinctively to each other as though they'd known each other for a long time.  Did they know each other at Yale?  No, both answered.

"When Mark was an undergraduate at Yale, I was a senior in high school," said Pinchot.  "And when I was an undergraduate, he was a graduate student.  And even though we were at the same school, we didn't have an opportunity to get acquainted.  After all, there were thousands of other students there."

"I guess it was the fact that we did share some similar experiences at school that allows us to work together so well," Linn-Baker said.

He said one of the dangers for the series is that the writers tend to advance Pinchot's character too far and too fast.  This year, for instance, both boys will have their own rooms, their own girlfriends and both have jobs that are clearly not temporary.

"They'll have to be careful or they'll kill much of the comedy that comes from having a rural foreigner live with an urban American," he said.

He said his own character of Larry is still changing, still growing up.

"He thinks he knows quite a lot more than he really does.  And when he explains things to Balki about America, he's apt to be wrong because he doesn't have a lot of experience in living."

Most TV comedies start out by simply being funny and then, as the years go on, the shows seem to pay more attention to social issues.  Will this be the case with Perfect Strangers?

Linn-Baker answered: "I don't think so.  What we deal with are aspects and relationships.  The storyline is more about human relationships than about topical issues.

"I think one of the reasons the show is still around is because it's old-fashioned comedy, not the sophisticated stuff that many people think of as comedy today," he said.

How about the girlfriends?  Will Jennifer and Mary Anne still fill those roles?

"I think so," Pinchot said.  "They worked out very well for us last year and we'll probably stick with them rather than bring on new girlfriends.

"This new character, Harriette, the elevator operator at the newspaper, is a little older and she's apparently been around.  She's married and it will probably be established this year that she has a child."

Both the actors like to compare Perfect Strangers and their roles to the old Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.

"My character, Larry, is the Gleason character," said Linn-Baker, "and Bronson, or Balki, is the Carney character.  If you examine them closely, you'll find that these characters have a lot of the same characteristics as the Honeymooners characters."

Pinchot said much of the comedy this year will take place in their apartment.

"Home is where we get to be on our own turf.  In the public places we have to curtail our activities or else people would come in trucks and haul us away to the funny house."

He said he thinks they will be able to relate to each other better at the newspaper than in the store.  They've already begun shooting new footage for the show's exterior shots.

"And yes, we will go to Chicago for some of the shooting," he added.

Where does the physical comedy in the show come from?  Is it something they dream up or is it mostly written into the script by the writers?

"It's kind of both ways, I guess.  We do come up with a lot of it, though," Linn-Baker said.

"Last year in one show, for instance, we had adopted this little kid who was in trouble.  But the show was too sad.  There weren't enough laughs when we got the script.  It was a solid twenty minutes and no laughs.

"We said, 'Can't we do something to create some humor?'  They said, 'What?'  Bronson said, 'Let's play tag.'

"So we did and the next day the script called for us to play tag to help create some laughs.  And it did."

How is the show doing around the world?  Is it seen in other countries?

"Well, they don't show it in Greece," Pinchot said.  "The Greek TV people seemed to feel that it might be offensive to some of the Greek people and they used one of my references to the island where I grew up as an example.  This was when I was talking about my island where there was only one goat for transportation.

"But most of the other countries air the show -- France, England, Italy and Spain," he said.

Linn-Baker is a native of St. Louis, but he grew up in Wethersfield, Conn.  He earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in drama from Yale and spent three years with the Yale Repertory Theater.  A skilled pantomimist, he also performed a solo mime show while in college.

A series of small film roles led to his highly acclaimed breakthrough leading role in My Favorite Year.

A New York City native, Pinchot grew up in Pasadena, Calif.  He went to Yale to study art and switched to drama after his freshman year.

His first feature film was Risky Business, which he followed with roles in The Flamingo Kid, After Hours, Hot Resort and Beverly Hills Cop, for which he won critical raves as Serge, the haughty art gallery clerk.