Nightlife
Date Unknown

Cousinly Love: Mark Linn-Baker
An Interview by Catherine Celesia

The old star-making machinery just doesn't work the way it used to.  One would think, after his energetic 1982 debut opposite Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year, that Mark Linn-Baker would have been beating Hollywood back with a stick.  Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out that way.  In fact, for a long while the actor, who played just-this-side-of-neurotic TV writer Benji Stone, seemed to drop out of sight.  Sure, he turned up now and then -- in a commercial, an episode or two of a series TV -- but as his premier effort gained its due and natural momentum on cable and videocassette, the 32-year-old Linn-Baker was unwillingly relegated to the 'whatever-happened-to?' of filmdom.  "Of course, I was around, so I don't feel like I disappeared," he says now with a sanguine grin, "but unfortunately the proportion of film work you get following a film is directly related to its immediate box -office gross."  While the film and its star were a resounding critical success, the numbers were not.  Though not exactly forsaking Hollywood, Mark Linn-Baker returned to where it all began for him: the more forgiving, albeit less green, pastures of New York and its theater.

But out of work?  Forget it.  If all actors were this busy while out of work, New York wouldn't have any waiters.  While unemployed by the film community, the Yale-educated actor appeared on Broadway in Doonesbury.  He continued his long-standing affiliation with the respected Double Image Theatre, directing several well-received productions, and, in between teaching acting classes at Vassar, adapted a play script for "American Playhouse" and traveled up and down the coast doing repertory.  "I have been very lucky in that I have always worked and I have always chosen the work based on what I thought of it," he says of his decision to pursue projects based on merit rather than commercial value.  "Sometimes, I feel that maybe that's a mistake, because the mass audience sort of feel like, 'Well, he disappeared.'  I guess that could hurt you, but as it turns out, it hasn't.  I think the quality of my own work is what helped to get this series."

The series, of course, is ABC's "Perfect Strangers," which came about when Linn-Baker was working in New York.  He got a call from his agent saying that veteran producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett were casting for a new TV show about a hapless Chicago man who is visited by his long-lost cousin from the fictitious island of Mypos.  Bronson Pinchot, scene-stealer as a prissy gallery assistant in Beverly Hills Cop, was already cast as the immigrant Balki; would Linn-Baker be interested in reading for Larry Appleton?  "I knew Bronson's work, because I had seen Beverly Hills Cop and After Hours," he says now, "and I thought, 'this is somebody to watch.'"  The thought was prescient; the combination clicked immediately and Linn-Baker was signed.  The two actors, each known primarily for their film work, suddenly found themselves with a hit series on their hands.

"Perfect Strangers" is basically the story of two innocents who, each for different reasons, are toughing it out in a world neither quite understands.  Or, as Linn-Baker puts it, "They're just two nice guys who look out for each other."  Pinchot's Balki is wide-eyed and romantic as only one totally unfamiliar with this country can be; Linn-Baker's Appleton is a wired bundle of energy with highs and lows.  "We work together, pretty intimately, five days a week, and we know each other in that respect pretty well," he says of his relationship with his co-star.  "We don't know each other as friends as well as we know each other as our characters.  We have a fun time."

Each week, the cast and crew begin their "fun time" with an almost -- dare we say? -- theatre-like process that lasts five days.  Writers, actors and director discuss motives, characterization and what is funny about the script and what's not.  "There's pretty much agreement about what works, when it works," he says of the workshop method.  "It's like putting on a playlet every five days."

The shooting schedule runs for four weeks, at the end of which he returns to New York for a week where he maintains an apartment.  Although he claims he is committed to "Perfect Strangers" and would "be happy to do this show as long as we can keep it going," his New York lifestyle and, more specifically, theater itself "is something I don't think I'll ever leave behind.  I have too many ties here."

He makes no snobbish distinctions between the artistic validity of theater versus film or television, pointing out the uselessness in comparing completely different media.  "In theater, you're part of the final image; the audience sees you -- you're there for them.  In film, and in TV, your performance is put together by teams of people -- editors, directors, et cetera.  You don't really have much to say about what is ultimately shown."

For someone who began his career at the Yale Repertory Theatre and matured in featured parts in the New York Shakespeare Festival, Linn-Baker doesn't necessarily treat classical roles with any more reverence than Larry Appleton's more pedestrian struggles.  "I don't see that much difference," says the actor.  "Chekov, Shakespeare -- there's a lot of comedy in that stuff.  Even when you're doing comedy, it has to be grounded in a reality; otherwise it's not funny.  I don't see dramatic acting as different from 'comedic' acting.  Acting is acting to me."

Mark Linn-Baker: just a regular guy who wants to work -- as is doing a pretty good job of doing exactly that.