The Orange County Register
March 17, 1988

Mark Linn-Baker:
No Perfect Stranger to the theater world

By Barry Koltnow
The Register


A well-worn rain hat is pulled down to eye level and the beginnings of a goatee surround the young man's clenched teeth as he struggles with the wind and rain over control of the front door to New York City's famed Public Theater.

The young man wins the battle and stops inside the door to look around the lobby.  He takes off the hat, shakes it dry and smiles.  Mark Linn-Baker is back where he belongs, in the theater.

Although millions of television viewers know him as Balki's cousin Larry on ABC's hit sitcom "Perfect Strangers," Linn-Baker is better known in the theater world as an actor, writer and director of serious drama.

In fact, while he is on hiatus from the series, he is directing "Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise" for colorful stage producer Joe Papp, who founded the Public Theater, a former library that now houses six stages.

Linn-Baker has acted in three Papp productions and has had a play he co-wrote produced by Papp, but this is his first directing assignment for the producer.

When not working for Papp or appearing in the occasional movie or television role, Linn-Baker has worked steadily in the theater since he arrived in New York 15 years ago.

That heavy theater schedule belies that Linn-Baker's West Coast career never has hampered his East Coast career.

"There really is a theater world, and it is an extensive world," Linn-Baker said over lunch in a coffee shop across from the theater.  "When I walk into an audition, people know me as a theater person.  I'm not a TV person in New York.  I doubt that all but a few of the people I deal with have even seen the television show.

"It's the television magazines that make it seem as if I materialized out of thin air just before 'My Favorite Year' and then began working on 'Perfect Strangers.'  They pick out what's relevant to their audience, and that usually means they just leave out the stage stuff."

The actor, 34, a native of St. Louis, graduated with an undergraduate degree from Yale and then added a second degree from the school's drama school.  He appeared in regional and repertory theater productions before being picked to star with Peter O'Toole in the feature film "My Favorite Year," a film not so loosely based on Sid Caesar during television's golden age.

A year later, he returned to the stage and made his Broadway debut in the ill-fated "Doonesbury" musical in 1983, which lasted three months.

When the show folded, he auditioned twice for network casting people in New York before being flown to Los Angeles to audition again.  The third audition was the charm, and he won the role of Larry Appleton in "Perfect Strangers," now completing its third season.  It recently moved from its Wednesday-night timeslot to Friday night at 8 on KABC/7.

"It was a good move for the network, but I'm not so sure initially that it's going to be good for us," he said.  "It was kind of a left-handed compliment that the network thought we were strong enough to move us to another night.  We were the first winner on Wednesday night in a long time, and I guess they think we can build a new audience on Fridays.

"But viewership is lower on Friday, and our weekly ranking is not really going to reflect the strength of our show.  Our numbers are going to drop, but I suppose the network knows what it's doing."

The prediction, make two weeks ago, was right on the mark.  "Perfect Strangers," which has consistently ranked in the Top 30 television programs all season, slipped to 37th in this week's Nielsen ratings.

Yet Linn-Baker said the show, about two cousins / roommates working at a Chicago newspaper, should weather the timeslot change, if for no better reason than the strength of its characters.

"When we started the show, we said we wanted to do an old-fashioned character comedy along the lines of 'I Love Lucy' and 'The Honeymooners.'  And to tell you the truth, I don't mind the comparisons to those old shows.  I don't think we come up short in those comparisons."

The actor said he thinks the show could enjoy an extended run on television and insisted that such a run would not hurt his theater work.

"That kind of exposure can't hurt you," he said.  "It raises your visibility and can only bring you more stage work.  That's what producers are looking for these days, particularly in the big-budget Broadway shows, where a recognizable face is an asset.

"As for being typecast as cousin Larry, there are bigger problems than typecasting in this business -- like not being cast at all."

Coming from a theater background, Linn-Baker said the biggest adjustment he had to make when the show became an instant success during its six-week first season was not a change in acting style but a change in job security.

"I wasn't accustomed to a job that didn't stop," he explained.  "I never had that before.  It just isn't in the nature of being an actor, particularly in the theater.  You have a starting date and a closing date, and you know both up front.  This is the longest job I've ever had.

"I believe some people call that job security, but I'm not sure.  I'm not familiar with that term."