Los Angeles TV Times
July 5 - 11, 1992

No 'Stranger' to the Stage
Mark Linn-Baker puts part of his television profits where his heart is: Theater

By Susan King
Times Staff Writer

Mark Linn-Baker leads a double life.

Television audiences know Linn-Baker as the exasperated Larry on ABC's long-running sitcom "Perfect Strangers."  But in the theatrical community the Yale School of Drama graduate is an accomplished actor, producer and director.  He is the co-founder of the New York Stage & Film Company, which collaborates with more than 100 professionals to produce plays, short films and videos during the summer at New York's Vassar College.

New York Stage's most successful venture was "Tru," Jay Presson Allen's one-man show about author Truman Capote, which later enjoyed a successful Broadway engagement and national tour.  Robert Morse won the Tony for his performance.

"That was sort of a marvelous production," the shy, soft-spoken actor said recently over drinks at a Beverly Hills hotel bar.

Economics was one reason that Linn-Baker, 38, and his partners founded New York Stage in the mid-80's.  "We found ourselves doing theater in increasingly difficult economic times," he said.  "It was just harder and harder in New York to get a theater project off the ground.  Unless you are running at 95% capacity, you are probably losing money.  That is an incredible figure!"

Many wonderful plays were falling through the cracks because they had no mass appeal "but have an interest within the theatrical community," he said.  "But that interest is not enough to keep it running and not worry about losing a fortune.  So we, as many other people, looked for some sort of solution to that problem.  We decided to try to produce outside of New York City."

Linn-Baker helps finance the New York Stage with some of his "Perfect Strangers" salary.  "The theater is not a money-making endeavor by any means, but fortunately, because I have been able to make more than a decent living doing television, I have been able to support my own theater to a certain extent."

Each summer, the theater produces three plays on the main stage theater and conducts play readings on a smaller stage.  "We bring up a professional company every summer," Linn-Baker said.  "We've had Christine Lahti, Carol Kane, Patty Wettig, Ken Olin, myself -- a very high caliber of professionals."

Last year, Linn-Baker and his partners expanded into motion pictures and formed Tru Pictures.  Their goal is not only to produce feature films, but also to use the profits to support the theater.  Tru Pictures recently finished production on a comedy, "Me and Veronica," with Elizabeth McGovern and Patricia Wettig.  The independently financed film does not yet have a distributor.  This spring, Tru signed a deal with Warner Bros. to develop features.

"This was our first year of seriously pursuing it and we were very fortunate," Linn-Baker said, smiling.

Linn-Baker, who made an auspicious film debut in the 1982 comedy "My Favorite Year," said he has always loved to do comedy.  "I think my family has a sense of humor," he said.  "I always enjoyed it in the theater and the great silent films.  Comedy is drama but with better timing."

The actor said it is his perfect comedic timing with his "Strangers" co-star, Bronson Pinchot, which has kept the series fresh over the past six seasons.  "We really enjoy working together," he said.  "We just get down and wail with some funny bits.  We come up with a lot of the physical stuff that happens."

Though never a darling of the critics, Linn-Baker said the series has "very quietly held its own for years and years and years."  ("Perfect Strangers" will be back for a seventh season, but with no return date set.  When ABC announces its fall schedule, the network relegated the sitcom to back-up series status.)

Linn-Baker said he believes critics have missed the essence of the series.

"I am biased, of course, but I don't think there is anyone else doing what we do on television, which is major physical comedy," he said.  "It is not just done and we do it.  I think we do it as well as it has been done.  I think it will run forever in syndication because there is not anything else like it except 'The Honeymooners' or 'I Love Lucy.'  I think we are in that league."

Still, he admitted he was surprised the series took off.

"We were running for three years before I thought we might keep going," he said.  "We did the first six mid-season episodes and I thought, 'This is a great opportunity.  We will do six and we will all go home.'  Then we got picked up for a year.  And then we got picked up for another year and I thought, 'Amazing.  We will all do this and go home.'  And then we got picked up for the third year and I realized, 'Oh, my God.  This is going to go.'"

"Perfect Strangers" airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.  Repeats air Saturdays at 5 p.m. on KCAL.