Strangers' Sounds Perfect
By Ron Weiskind, In L.A.
LOS ANGELES - Bronson
Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker, the stars of ABC's comedy hit
"Perfect Strangers," are as funny in person as they
are on screen. In fact, they admit to cracking each other
up on the set and off.
One other notable comic
also finds their humor funny -- Lucille Ball, who said so in a
news conference over the weekend. Pinchot's reaction to
praise from TV's first lady of comedy: "It's like being a
watercolorist and having Renoir see your show and say, 'Nice
It's also one of the more
sincere reactions one is likely to get in this town, where they
love you when you're hot and forget you when you're not.
These talented performers know what it's like. Each has
won acclaim for work in a hit movie (Linn-Baker for "My
Favorite Year" and Pinchot for "Beverly Hills
Cop") and each has been in a flop series ("Comedy
Zone" and "Sara," respectively.)
Pinchot, the haughty art
dealer Serge in "Cop" remembers how his life changed
after the film was released. "It was almost
laughable. People were calling every day, camera crews
were coming from Australia. It was so different from what
was happening before, when I was struggling for work. I'm
living in this hovel in Hollywood and I get a call from Rolling
Stone and I have to tell them, 'Can I put you on hold, I'm
talking to USA Today.' This is ridiculous!"
But that's Hollywood and
without such absurdities, Pinchot would have a hard time getting
laughs. "The way I make things funny is to expand
reality," he said. That's how he created Serge.
"I decided he had to
be someone who showed the totally preposterous, pretentious side
of Beverly Hills." According to Pinchot, when
"Beverly Hills Cop" star Eddie Murphy saw this small
role develop into a big laugh-getter, he had two reactions:
"The first was, that's funny. The second was, how can
I end this?"
Unfortunately, actors are
not always given the freedom to make a character
memorable. That's what happened to Pinchot on
"Sara," in which he played a gay lawyer, and to
Linn-Baker on "Comedy Zone," an experimental comedy
"We were all very
ready to make good comedy," Pinchot said of his former
series. "There we were, sitting around -- a ripe
tomato, a firm potato and a good piece of stew meat. So
why wasn't it stew? We never could figure it out. I
kept trying to do things with my character and they kept saying,
'No, no.' I would up describing my character as a
completely straight homosexual."
"Comedy Zone," a 1984 summer series on CBS, was
"an education in network television. The idea was to
take a lot of good writers, mostly from theater, and give them a
showcase on TV. But the network really wasn't interested
in that idea as anything more than a way to sell the show.
They looked at the material and said, 'Oh my God, how can we
make it sound like everything else?'
"There were four
layers of bureaucracy on that show, and I'm still not sure which
one was running things. And neither are they. They
talent they amassed on that show! They had great actors,
great writers and four bureaucracies to keep them from doing
Yet in spite of all that,
and although each got good notices in his film role, here they
are back in television. Why?
Uttered Linn-Baker, with
mock pomposity, "I was absolutely willing to star in
several major motion pictures. Financial backing and the
producers at the studios were a problem."
Continued Pinchot, in a
more serious manner, "You take whatever opening you can
get. You don't just say, 'Well, I think I'll do Stanley
But the actors have no
complaints with "Perfect Strangers," which premiered
last spring to high ratings and reviews that sometimes praised
the series but always lauded the comic abilities of its
stars. Linn-Baker stars as a young man in Chicago, living
alone and loving it until a distant relative from a Balkan
country moves in with him, cultural gap and all.
"We got the idea for
the show from the 1984 Olympics," explained Robert Boyett,
one of the executive producers. "We were inspired by
the patriotic fervor in Los Angeles, how the city became so
hospitable during the Games and, the day after they ended, how
it returned to its normal cynicism. We thought it would be
great to do a series about a man who comes to America and says,
'What a wonderful country,' and put him up against another
character who has lived here and knows the flaws."
All three networks turned
down the concept at least once, although they all said they
liked the idea. One had bought the TV rights to the movie
"Moscow on the Hudson," which has a similar
theme. One was developing a series around the Czech
Brothers, the foreign-born "wild and crazy guys" from
the early days of "Saturday Night Live." But
persistence led ABC to reconsider and, ultimately, pick up the
Despite the success of the
series in its short spring run, the actors -- who attended Yale
Drama School within a few years of each other and first met
while auditioning unsuccessfully for the film "Risky
Business" (sic, Bronson did win a role in that film) -- are
not convinced yet that "Perfect Strangers" is a hit.
"There are two things
you have to remember as an actor," Pinchot said.
"First, when someone tells you how much money you are going
to make, remember that you will only see 30 percent of it by the
time the government and your agents get through with it.
Second, you have to wipe away what everybody says and not count
your chickens before they are hatched."