The Daily Review
July 22, 1987

    'Strangers' is part of comic tradition

By Anne Eaton
Newsday

When producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett approached Bronson Pinchot to do a new sitcom called "The Greenhorn," Pinchot -- whose performance as the art-gallery clerk, Serge, in "Beverly Hills Cop" was 3 minutes of sheer comic virtuosity -- wasn't interested.

"That sounds really stupid," he told his agent, "Let's forget all about it."

The stupid idea was that an immigrant just off the boat from an underdeveloped country sets up housekeeping in Chicago with his distant cousin, an uptight Midwesterner.  Inspired by the spirit of the 1984 Olympics, the show was conceived as a sort of Valentine to America.

The producers figured that Pinchot didn't really mean it.  And they were right.  When Pinchot's series, "Sara," was canceled, the idea suddenly seemed a lot more clever.

Working closely with Pinchot, the producers changed the show's title to "Perfect Strangers" and the eponymous greenhorn became Balki Bartokomous, a sheepherder from the Mediterranean island of Mypos.

Mark Linn-Baker, who had co-starred as Peter O'Toole's babysitter in "My Favorite Year," was signed to play the other stranger, Balki's American cousin, Larry Appleton from Madison, Wis.

Much of the show's humor comes from those amusing things people come up with when they can't quite speak English.  And all things being equal, fake foreign accents seem to be funnier than real ones -- so much so that this type of verbal slapstick is an important part of American comic tradition.

The physical comedy in "Perfect Strangers" is part of an even longer-standing theatrical tradition.  In every episode, Pinchot and Linn-Baker perform exquisitely choreographed pieces of business.

There is the Myposian Dance of Joy, which ends with Larry in Balki's arms.  There is the Myposian Kiss of Silence, in which Linn-Baker is forced to grovel so deeply that he is literally flat on his face.  (Editor's note - The Kiss of Silence is only the prelude to the silent treatment . . . a Myposian apology leads to the groveling, but not flat on someone's face, just keeping one's head lower than the other person's).

The pair has been known to work through lunch hour to perfect a piece of business and get it in sync.  "To do it, I have to stay in pretty good shape," Linn-Baker says.  "My approach to acting is very physical to begin with, and so is Bronson's.  We spend a week rehearsing these bits, and we go off on our own and hone them down until they work just right."

Although "Perfect Strangers" is strictly vintage Lorimar, its two leading players -- both graduates from Yale Drama School -- come from stage backgrounds dripping with heavy culture.

Viewers might be astonished to learn that Pinchot once played George in a production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Linn-Baker, who teaches acting at Vassar College, is at home doing Chekov and Shakespeare.

Pinchot and Linn-Baker liked each other at once, perhaps because of their kindred acting roots.  "It makes a big difference, actually," explains Pinchot.  "You already have a similar vocabulary, and you don't have to explain yourself so much.  On every set, you can instantly tell the difference between the people who came from acting classes and theater, and all that, and the people who just kind of sprouted out of nowhere out here."

The Yalies have made the show very much their own.  "We have a very collaborative process," Linn-Baker says.  "After we get the script, we go to work on it, adding stuff and making changes before we return it to the writers.  I'm very happy with our process -- we have a very large input.  We also have a very happy set, which I'm told may be unusual in Hollywood."