March 29 - April 4, 1990

Perfect Strangersí Mark Linn-Baker
by Debbi K. Swanson

"I am first and ultimately an actor.  If I could do one thing, I would act."

But Mark Linn-Baker doesnít do just one thing.  Not yet.

Heís in his fifth season as Larry Appleton in the hit series Perfect Strangers, is bi-coastal with homes here and in New York, and in the five months a year he has off from the series, he stages plays, teaches, and produces and directs films with the New York Stage & Film Company (NYSF), which he helped found.

Heís unexpectedly nervous as we sat down to talk.  Itís clear heís more comfortable on the stage or in front of a camera than he is having to talk about himself.

Linn-Baker, with that funny face he uses so well, has a reputation for being serious about his comedic work.  He is.  He admires all the great classic comedians (including Rocky and Bullwinkle), and relies on classic routines from the Three Stooges to Harold Lloyd in the show.  He and Bronson Pinchot have been called the Lucy and Desi and Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden of the 80's.

Comparisons like that, Linn-Baker says, are what the producers and actors set out to accomplish.  The late comedy legend Lucille Ball even gave Linn-Baker a personal compliment on his efforts.

"That was a real thrill, especially because when we set out to do Perfect Strangers, we talked about making it an old-fashioned character show like I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners.  People saw the show and jumped to that right away.  That compliment from her was very gratifying."

Linn-Baker also found he had something to learn from the series: to watch himself on screen.

"Actors are always studying othersí performances.  Actors are a great audience and a very critical audience at the same time.  We watch very closely.  I enjoy watching someone else do their stuff.

"I watch my show.  I think thatís one of the nicest things Iíve learned from doing Perfect Strangers.  I told [producer] Tom Miller I didnít think I would watch the shows because I had done a couple of other things and found it very difficult to watch myself.  Itís like hearing your voice on a tape recorder.  Itís not that itís bad, itís just not what you expect.  Miller said I had to get over that and I did.

"Itís something you have to be able to do.  You canít, as an actor, watch yourself and say, ĎOh, I like when I do that, I donít like when I do that,í because then your performance becomes an imitation of yourself.  You just have to see, have to accept.  Itís a process of stepping back and watching in a divorced way; try to see the effect and not look at each detail.  Even though you know what was going on in your mind, you have to forget about it.

"When youíve done 95 episodes like we have you learn to do that.  About the 20th one you get it.  Itís hard to be objective when youíre a subjective person."

He looks for quality in what he does.  With Perfect Strangers, there is the challenge of keeping his character innovative, fresh and focused.  Itís different than stage work.

"Itís hard doing a show this long, but not as hard as doing a long run of the same show.  The longest I did was Doonesbury (as Mark Slackmeyer) on Broadway.  Thatís where you learn to reinvent, doing the same show every night."

But thatís the part that Linn-Baker loves best about film, TV and stage, that collaborative process.

"In any kind of work, I like seeing a group focus on a piece of work.  In any successful endeavor that process comes into play.  You canít do a film or TV with people who really arenít that interested in the outcome.  I think projects fall apart when people donít have that focus on the end result."

On Perfect Strangers, that process begins with a fresh script on Monday morning and isnít completed until the final take of taping on Thursday night at the now, post Lorimar, post MGM, Columbia Studios.

How does he prepare for a role?

"I try to stay sober," he cracks, learning from Peter OíToole in Linn-Bakerís only feature film, My Favorite Year.  "One of the things I enjoy is to have a variety of approaches.  I try to absorb everything about the part.  I love that we get the opportunity to do such a variety of classic comedy routines.

"The show is a great base to work from.  Itís something I never dreamed Iíd have, a regular job that has the kind of exposure it has and pays very well but still leaves time off to do other kinds of work."

During the season Linn-Baker goes back and forth to New York every month or two to stay in touch with whatís going on there.

"The first two years I was doing the show people would say, Ďwhere do you live?í and Iíd say New York.  Now I say, I donít know!  Iím really just firmly ensconced in both places.  I bought a home here so itís a bit schizophrenic."

After a broad stage background beginning as a child and continuing at Yale, Linn-Bakerís career really took off about four and a half years ago.  Not because of his terrific performance as Benjamin Stone, the poor guy assigned to keeping OíToole sober in My Favorite Year, but because of one special month and three commercials, one of which is still airing.

"The first week I did the Nutri-Grain commercial, the second week I did a Lifesavers commercial, the third week I got Perfect Strangers and the fourth week I shot a Coca-Cola commercial.  That pretty much changed my life."

Itís ironic to see Linn-Baker in that still-airing Nutri-Grain commercial as a journalist, since he plays a photojournalist on P.S. but hadnít even gotten the part when the commercial was shot, so he isnít featured as a star.

"When I shot that, I wasnít me yet," quips a smiling Linn-Baker.

His theatrical parents had a big influence on his career.

"They never pushed me but certainly their involvement in community and regional theater influenced me."

Linn-Bakerís father was directing a play when he met Markís mother-to-be, a dancer.  After Markís birth, his dad became a radio copywriter while continuing to work in the theater.  He founded the Open Stage Theater which had a daring, non-discriminatory casting policy for its time.

That liberal background has stayed with Linn-Baker.

"I donít necessarily look for issues in a project but I am a politically oriented person.  I founded a group in New York called Artists in Action, mostly theater artists, and we worked to sign up democratic voters during the McGovern presidential bid.  We signed up 10,000 new voters standing on street corners."

While Mark was still in school, he stayed involved in the theater in such productions as As You Like It and Julius Caesar.  In college, however, he majored in psychology until just prior to graduation, when he switched to drama.

He became a fanatic, sometimes involving himself in three plays a once, putting in 14-hour days.  He became part of the Yale Rep and performed a one-man mime act at local clubs.

In 1978, his second year of grad school brought an unexpected surprise: an invitation and role in Joseph Pappís New York Shakespeare Festival as Bartram in Allís Well That Ends Well.

Woody Allenís Manhattan came along next, with a small embarrassment.  While Linn-Bakerís part was cut, his name still appeared in the credits, sort of.  Actually, Mary Linn-Baker was listed.  Mark laughs about it.

"Iíd love to work with Allen again.  I actually didnít get to be actively involved with him.  I got to shake his hand and say how nice it was to be in his film and I believe he said . . . [Linn-Baker just makes a funny face and stares like Allen]. That was it!"

At NYSF in the meantime, he starred in Othello and Alice in Concert with Meryl Streep.  It was there that Richard Benjamin found Linn-Baker via a casting director who saw him in The Laundry Hour.  The classic My Favorite Year came to life, on the same lot where Linn-Baker now works.

"MGM has been very good to me," he says.

Linn-Bakerís favorite work to date is Samuel Beckettís Waiting for Godot produced by the American Repertory Theater.  "It won the Boston Criticís Circle Award in 1983 and I think itís the best play written this century, so far."

Linn-Baker says he doesnít get to see as much theater in L.A. as he would like, but does get out to see a few things, like the recent production of Childís Play.

Instead he spend a lot of his free time in New York, sometimes teaching.  "I enjoy it.  I taught a Shakespeare course this past summer.  Itís challenging and a great responsibility.  Itís hard."

But I asked him if itís possible to teach comedy.  He pauses as he often does before giving a thoughtful answer.

"You can teach technique, but basically in any kind of acting somebodyís got to have the base, the impulse.  Teaching acting is teaching someone how to feel that impulse, how to recognize that impulse and then how to translate it into a performance."

Funny performances are many in Perfect Strangers, and he and Bronson Pinchot ironically share some similar experiences.

Both were at Yale at the same time for a brief period, both were cut from Woody Allen films (Pinchot from Annie Hall), and both made important performances before being cast in Perfect Strangers.

Pinchot had upstaged Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop as the uppity immigrant art gallery salesman, Serge, while Linn-Baker had given Bruce Willis his comeuppance in Moonlighting.  Linn-Baker downplays that roleís importance, however.

"The producers knew who I was from My Favorite Year and other things, but just as they were casting P.S., the segment of Moonlighting that I did was on the air and it helped refresh their memory.  So when I came in to do the audition they had just seen something."

As down to earth as Linn-Baker is, heís rumored to be superstitious.

"I donít think of myself as superstitious, however I do knock on wood every time I talk about good fortune and I do have backstage superstitions.  You donít mention the Scottish play in the theater.  If you do thereís some ritual of stepping outside the dressing room, turning around three times, spitting, swearing and knocking to come back in.  I do observe that, but I donít think of that as superstitious," he laughs.  "Itís just part of the job."

Does he think heís fulfilled his potential yet?  "I hope not.  I donít think you can feel that way if you have any artistic ambition."

Linn-Baker has little time in his life for anything but work.  Still single, he says he wonít get married until heís living in one city and has no hobbies.

He has some specific roles he wants to play, but some are pending and he doesnít want to nix their chances by talking about them.

What does he look for in a role?  "Some kind of strength, either a strong voice or image that has some kind of resonance for me.  Thatís the only way you can dig into it."

A six minute film he directed last year as part of NYSF has no words.  "I donít like to describe it because in the time it takes to describe it you can see it.  Iíll say there are two men in an empty theater and no words are spoken."

Now thatís a film with resonance.