Tribune TV Weekly
August 24, 1986
turn out to be a perfect match
By Tom Nolan
LOS ANGELES - They
took us by surprise in late winter of 1986, these two distant cousins: Balki
Bartokomous, the endearing and exuberant young goat herder from Mypos, a
mythical Mediterranean island; and Larry Appleton, the cautious Midwesterner who
dreams of a career in photojournalism while working in a Chicago discount store.
Introduced with a
barrage of promotion by ABC, these "Perfect Strangers" became instant
favorites of millions of American television watchers for their initial six-week
run. All but one of the six episodes finished in A.C. Nielsen's top 10
Those same six
episodes are in reruns through early September [7 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC - Ch.
7], and the series will return in September on ABC's fall schedule in the same
time slot. One episode per week of the new adventures of Larry and Balki
is being filmed in front of a studio audience on a soundstage at the MGM studios
in Culver City.
In the bleachers for
those shows kids of all ages respond with genuine affection to the actors
playing Balki and Larry. They call out tentatively to the two during
breaks in the filming. Here and there someone imitates Balki's already
familiar catchphrase, "Doan be ree-dicaluss."
As Larry Appleton,
Mark Linn-Baker -- with a face that's all sharp angles and with a comic
intensity that could make a menu sound funny -- plays a perfect exasperated
counterpoint to Bronson Pinchot, whose rendering of the "simple" Balki
offers unexpected shadings.
Industry mavens are
saying that Larry and Balki have a good shot at becoming one of TV's all-time
favorite pairings, on a par with "Laverne & Shirley" or Richie and
the Fonz of "Happy Days." As it happens, those shows are among
those coproduced by "Perfect Strangers" team Tom Miller and Bob Boyett.
Executive producer Miller says the inspiration for "Perfect Strangers"
came when he and Boyett witnessed firsthand the crowd euphoria at the '84
Olympics ceremonies in Los Angeles.
"It was an
incredible experience," Miller says, "and we thought, 'Wouldn't it be
great if you could do something in television that would give you a little
feeling of this, of, 'Isn't it great to be an American? Isn't America
great?' And then we thought that maybe we [could] have a character from
somewhere who comes over here and is just in love with everything he sees: 'Look
-- big lemons! Look -- tea bags!' All the little things we take for
"But we knew we
would need a very special person to make that understandable and loveable."
They saw that person
onscreen, Miller says, in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop," playing an
art gallery clerk named Serge. "Here was this strange little man with
that amazing sound and look, and what a wonderful life force came at you!
Writers can't make up a character like that; that's an actor making up that
character. And blowing Eddie Murphy off the screen, which is not an easy
thing to do."
The actor, of
course, was Bronson Pinchot -- born in New York, raised in California, graduated
from the Yale Drama School. Pinchot says that initially he was reluctant
to do the show [developed with writer and coexecutive producer Dale McRaven].
For one thing, Pinchot was committed to an NBC series called "Sara"
[later canceled.] And despite his gift for dialect, he says, "I
thought maybe it's stupid to do another accent character now."
But a vacation in
Greece provided some inspiration for Balki's physical look and sound, and he
gave the producers his commitment.
For balance, the man
from Mypos was thrust into the life of his "totally American" cousin,
Larry -- who, it was decided, should live in Chicago.
"We wanted it
midwest," says Miller. "Larry had grown up in Madison, Wis., we
decided -- I'm from Madison -- and where would he go? New York has been
done to death; and when you think of the Midwest, what's a real cosmopolitan
place, yet lots of, like, regular people live there? Chicago is perfect --
it's Midwest but hip."
The first pilot was
made with an actor who didn't satisfy the creative team or the network.
After looking in Hollywood and New York, the producers chose Mark Linn-Baker,
best known as the young lead opposite Peter O'Toole in the movie, "My
"Mark and I had
a unique spark that was there 50 seconds after he came into the room,"
Pinchot remembers of their first reading.
"I almost felt
like it was some kind of cosmic joke -- that I'd actually known him all my life
and somebody had given me an amnesia pill. It was like two musicians who'd
been jamming together for years. It was so pleasurable it was
never met, the two actors do have some things in common. Both attended the
Yale Drama School [at different times], and both worked in Woody Allen films:
Pinchot was cut out of "Broadway Danny Rose," and Linn-Baker was
snipped from "Manhattan."
Initially Larry was
written as a very knowing guy, almost cynical, says Linn-Baker [himself born in
Missouri and raised in Connecticut].
was to have Balki, this total innocent, paired with someone who was really jaded
-- the 'Odd Couple' idea. But what we finally came to was that Larry --
while immersed in the culture and a little more thoughtful -- was finally just
as much of an innocent in his own right."
Once Linn-Baker was
cast, "Perfect Strangers" was rushed into production. ABC
committed to six episodes. Four weeks after the network's go-ahead, the
show was on the air, scheduled between the popular "Who's the Boss?"
Praise has come from
all corners. Rolling Stone has called Larry and Balki the [Ralph] Kramden
and [Ed] Norton of the 80's [the characters played by Jackie Gleason and Art
Carney on "The Honeymooners"].
Most prized by the
cast and producers were warm words from the Queen of Sitcom, Lucille Ball.
"I think we're
just now beginning to tap that wonderful, wide-eyed, naive, open-hearted quality
in Balki," says producer Miller. "Larry, on the other hand, has
most of the neuroses that many of us have: 'Wait, wait, not so fast! I
need a plan!' One person is totally spontaneous, and the other needs more
control. It's a simple fix, really, but then sloppy / neat worked for Neil
Simon, and the realist / dreamer worked for us with Laverne and Shirley.
But within that, the two characters are learning from each other and being
enthusiasm, Miller sounds a producer's note of caution: "We're going
against 'Highway to Heaven' now, you know, and no one at ABC expects us to beat
that. I mean, if we can come in a respectable second, everyone would be
Pinchot exudes a
gratitude that Balki would respond to. "I've had such a series of
miracles -- not coincidences, miracles -- that have brought me to this
place. It's an amazing thing, and I'm enjoying all of it. The show
engenders a different level of warmth, so people are friendly and sweet, and I
love that. It's very nice."
Linn-Baker nods his
thanks, smiles and -- with a touch of Larry's caution -- touches wood a lot.