L.A. Life / Daily News
November 3, 1989

 Pinchot's Act is a Sickness
That is, the role isn't right unless it causes him distress

By Tom Jacobs
Daily News Film Writer

Bronson Pinchot has a simple test for determining whether or not he should take a role.

If the thought of doing it makes him literally sick to his stomach, he goes for it.

"I won't do anything that doesn't scare me," the star of television's "Perfect Strangers" and the new movie "Second Sight" said in a recent interview.  "In my world, the creative gold has always come when I've done something that gave me major butterflies.

"It's like when you're in junior high and you get up to bat, and you think, 'I don't want everybody to hate me if I miss the ball!'  If I don't have that feeling, I don't go for it."

Pinchot -- who had a small, inconspicuous part in "Risky Business," and who played the small, very conspicuous part of the snooty art-gallery clerk Serge in "Beverly Hills Cop" -- knows that particular sensation well.  He felt it when he accepted the role of Balki in "Perfect Strangers" -- a character as relaxed and naive as Pinchot is driven and sophisticated.

He felt it again recently when he made a TV movie called "Jury Duty," in which he plays four different characters.  He said he was sick on several nights during the shooting schedule.

And he felt it during the difficult days when he was creating the character of Bobby in "Second Sight," a psychic who works for John Larroquette's private detective agency.

"I spent a lot of sleepless nights," said Pinchot, a serious young man of 30 who thinks quickly and speaks articulately.  (Born in New York, raised in South Pasadena and educated at Yale, he now lives in Malibu.)  "It sounds so melodramatic, but I collapsed a couple of times while doing the research.

"I had complete carte blanche.  He could look any way I wanted, be any way I wanted.  That drove me to distraction!  I would stay up all night thinking about it."

Audiences will judge the success of his efforts when the film opens today.

"Second Sight" began to take shape when Pinchot was sent a script and told he could do with it what he wished.  Knowing that "most of the things that have really popped for me are things I've put into my own food processor and worked on," he agreed to give it a look.

"It was very dense -- packed with stuff, like those 'Police Academy' things, and I didn't want to do that," he said.  "But it did have this fascinating character -- a very pure, tabula-raza person, who had immense psychic powers.  I thought, 'That could be great.  I haven't seen that.'"

After finishing that season's episodes of "Perfect Strangers," Pinchot set out on a three-month search for the character.  He started meeting with psychics -- and found, to his horror, that most of them weren't the slightest bit amusing.

"After about 15 or 20 hours with psychics, I thought, 'This is not excitingly comedic at all!'" he recalled.  "All they do is sit there and look at you intently and tell you things.  Nobody wants to look at people talking!  That isn't going to make a great comic character!"

"When I'd tell people what I was doing (playing a psychic), they would say: 'You'll be perfect!  You'll be so funny!'  And I kept saying: 'What do you mean?  What do you see me doing?'  I was having a lot of trouble visualizing it.'"

The key didn't come until Pinchot visited a woman psychic with a personal message for him.

"She said, 'I think you're going to marry a woman who has an accent.'  I said: 'I'm curious to know how you arrived at that piece of information.  Do you see her?'

"The woman said, 'No, I feel her.  My tongue wants to twist and curl in my mouth.  I feel that means she's going to speak English with difficulty.'"

At that point, the light bulb went on over Pinchot's head.

"A lot of different psychics get their information in different ways," he noted.  "Some of them see it like a movie.  Some see it over your head.  Some see it in your aura.  But this one person got the information physically, and I made that they keystone of the character."

In other words, Pinchot decided that Bobby would get his information by physical sensations -- a premise that would presumably lend itself to physical comedy.  That's a style of comedy Pinchot has mastered on "Perfect Strangers."

At one point in the film, for example, "I pick up physically on this guy who is stranded somewhere and has to go to the bathroom but can't go."

Pinchot's psychic is the hero of "Second Sight"; the film takes his abilities at face value, and "80 percent of the comedy comes from people who don't believe him getting, as I put it, the pea soup in the face," he said.

That reflects the fact that the actor gained new respect for psychics during his three months of research.  He met people he suspects are frauds -- and others who seemed to have legitimate powers.

"This one woman looked at me and said, 'Something incredible is going to happen to you on April 11,'" he said.  "Which was the day we were going to start filming.  You have to get freaked out by something like that!"

Or, for that matter, by the aforementioned psychic who used her tied-up tongue to predict Pinchot would marry a woman with a foreign accent.

"This woman said three things that were very interesting.  She said: 'You're going to meet this woman.  She's going to have an accent.  She's going to live on a river.  She's going to be like a gardenia.'

"Well, Wren (Pinchot's girlfriend) doesn't have an accent, but she grew up on a lake and her favorite flower has always been a gardenia.  I don't know what the accent was all about.  Maybe they were misinterpreting what they got.  Maybe they knew she was going to be the good kisser she is."

Pinchot laughed.

Why do all that research -- and suffer through all those sleepless nights -- in an era when most film comedians simply play thinly veiled versions of themselves?  "I don't have a choice," Pinchot answered.  "I cannot do it any other way."

"I can be funny if I want to be funny," he said.  "It's a natural gift.  I don't believe you can teach it.  But I want to be funny and be a character at the same time.  That's my little niche.

"Eddie Murphy's funny, but I have yet to see him play a character.  He always winks at you through the character.  I call that the post-'Saturday Night Live' thing."

In contrast, "I haven't been myself on film yet," Pinchot said.  "I don't know if I ever will be.  If somebody said, 'You want to play a guy who collects rare books and lives by the beach and has a lot of silk shirts?' I'd say no, because I am that!  The only time I ever use myself is in little subtle ways that you would never get."

This is not only Pinchot's artistic preference; it's an attitude that should help him sustain a lengthy career.

"I think it's a very fearful thing to put one persona on film, get it established so people can't live without it, and then one day find out nobody (wants it anymore)," he said.  "Maybe there is someone in an office somewhere saying 'Let's not use Bronson Pinchot -- I'm sick of him,' but I sort of doubt it."

Pinchot prefers reserving the sickness for himself.