Milwaukee Journal
October 12, 1986

Buddy Plan Pays Well for Tom Miller
By Mike Drew


Tom Miller (center) with Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker

Tom Miller's title is executive producer, and he's one of the best in television history.

In TV, executive producer means "Blame this cat if we flop because if we make it, he gets rich."

Miller has fathered a few TV failures.  In a mellow mood, he'll admit to working on "Me and the Chimp" and "Blansky's Beauties," which wasn't pretty.  Nor will "Joanie Loves Chachi" be carved on Miller's tombstone.  But he's also dreamed up a passel of hits.

An executive producer's job can range from raising money to writing scripts and escorting them onto the air.  Miller does his share of script polishing and supervision.  But his real talent is forming creative partnerships.

His own, with producers Edward Milkis and Bob Boyett, have produced some of the richest pairings in TV history: The Fonz and Richie in "Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy."

After successful network runs, all are earning Miller a fortune in syndication.

The Milwaukee native was graduated from Nicolet High School (1958) and the UW-Madison (1962.)  His father, Ed, is president of Spic and Span Dry Cleaners.

Tom's golden touch continues.  Premiering last spring with six installments, his "Perfect Strangers" tied for 10th in last season's ratings.  And it's off to a fast start this fall.

The Miller-Boyett "Valerie," with Valerie Harper, isn't doing as well.  But after surviving its own spring tryout, it's fighting to stay on NBC's Sunday night schedule opposite "Murder, She Wrote."

The key to "Strangers" success so far seems an old Miller speciality; the buddy system.  This family sitcom pairs comic actors Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker as innocents abroad in Chicago.

Pinchot plays Balki Bartokomous, a Mediterranean shepherd who's moved in on a distant cousin (Linn-Baker).  Balki's problem with the manners, morals and language of his adopted country owe a clear debt to Miller's "Mork and Mindy."  Pinchot's uninhibited style is a variation on a theme mined earlier by Robin Williams.

When Balki is told he's in debt, he responds, "Now I'm a true American."  That recalls Mork's description of a US jail: "It's where you get free food and clothes and pay no rent."

With no trouble, you can see Mork mouthing Balki's description of his adopted country: "Land of my dreams, home of the Whopper."  Or hear him offering to fix a radio: "It's probably just the picture tube."

But a deeper vein of humor runs through "Perfect Strangers."  Mostly it's a fable about two vulnerable young men, hoping their friendship can survive Chicago.

 In Pinchot, 27, and Linn-Baker, 32, Miller and Boyett have formed a classic partnership.

Alumni of the Yale University Drama School, Pinchot and Linn-Baker didn't know each other on campus.

After college, both scored in TV guest spots and hit movies.  Baker played the TV go-fer who escorted a fading movie idol (Peter O'Toole) around New York in the classy "My Favorite Year."

Pinchot's film breakthrough was grander.  As a haughty art gallery clerk with a strange accent in "Beverly Hills Cop," he swiped scenes from Eddie Murphy.

That so impressed Miller and Boyett that they built "Perfect Strangers" around him.  In a Los Angeles interview last summer, the actor reflected:

"Like Balki, I'm impulsive, gullible, loving, uninhibited and curious.  I, too, try to lift off the adult, tense things so that I can be a kid.  Balki is a totally innocent version of myself."

Miller and Boyett dreamed up "Strangers" while watching national pride surge at the '84 Olympics.  All three networks turned down their series until ABC, third place and desperate, gave it a go.

That was with only three weeks notice last spring.  When Miller / Boyett learned that "Strangers" would be scheduled between "Who's the Boss?" and "Moonlighting," they promised to make that deadline.  It was the best spot on ABC.  Pinchot recalled the time:

"I was living in a flop house and suddenly camera crews from all over the world descended.  I had Rolling Stone on one phone and USA Today on the other."  (Editor's note - this is a paraphrase of a story Bronson told about his success in "Beverly Hills Cop," not "Perfect Strangers.")

Now out of the flop house, he's into buying antique Scandinavian beds for $9,000.  That's Hollywood.

"But I still can't get Tom Miller on the phone," he said, with a wry glance at his boss.  "He won't give me his home number."

As Pinchot developed a teenybopper following, "Strangers" took off.  The show now reaches across the audience spectrum.

"It's pulled the best reviews of anything I've ever done," said Miller, whose credits include the movies "Foul Play," "Silver Streak" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

"Tom Miller has shaped a whole generation of television," said an admiring Mark Linn-Baker.

"He packaged and sold our show -- one big feat.  TV is a collaborative process and Tom is the overseer.  He has the sharpest eye for spotting problems and fixing them.  Every outline and script draft goes through him; he gives notes to the writers and they stick to them."

After getting an English-speech degree from the UW, Miller landed his first Hollywood job with the help of Milwaukee publicist Ben Barkin.

He honed his skills on such TV series as "Love, American Style," "The Brady Bunch" and "The Odd Couple," 20 TV movies and dozens of series pilots.  In 1974, he crossed the golden road from worker to ownership with "Happy Days."  Much of that show was based on Miller's Milwaukee boyhood.

"I love Milwaukee," he said in Los Angeles.  "It rooted me in reality and values which have served me well in good and tough times."

Miller says that a reality base helps make "Perfect Strangers" work.

"As far as our scripts push Bronson and Mark, the actors ground things in the real world," the producer said.

Co-producer Dale McRaven interrupted: "As a series progresses, you usually try to find what your stars can't do.  We keep finding new things these guys can pull off."

Working on that, escorting "Strangers" segments through post-production and trying to pump more life into "Valerie" keeps Miller too busy for movies these days.

But he plans a Goldie Hawn feature film next year.

Meanwhile, he pores over the weekly ratings, praying that "Strangers" survives long enough to join "Happy Days" and Miller's other babies in syndication.

"ABC is ecstatic with 'Strangers,'" Miller said.  "They were getting 18% of the audience in its Wednesday time period last year for 'The Insiders.'  They hoped for a 25 with us and we're doing better.

"When we beat 'Highway to Heaven' the first week out, ABC was jumping up and down.

"I like doing series that people either love or hate, like 'Happy Days.'  It ran 11 years."

That made Tom Miller very rich.  With "Perfect Strangers," he'd settle for a five year run.  That would put "Strangers" in syndication and add to Miller's growing empire of hit comedies about buddies.