Bronson Pinchot may act weird, but he’s
Perfect Strangers one of TV’s biggest hits
Written by Brandon Judell
Illustration by James Bennett
"I’m at the end of my
soap-on-a-rope," complains the pouting Balki Bartokomous, the naive
country-bumpkin shepherd who’s just come to America, on the sitcom Perfect
Strangers. A few minutes later he’s romanticizing about "Cybill
Shepherdess." And then he’s back in a tizzy, saying petulantly to
his Chicago cousin, "You don’t have to paint me a photograph."
These malaprops helped Balki, a.k.a.
Bronson Pinchot, become the hottest prime-time "foreigner" since Ricky
Riccardo (sic), and made Perfect Strangers – which first aired in 1986
and which was originally to have run only six episodes – one of television’s
most successful series ever. Pinchot is currently making the leap from TV
to movies, too. His most recent film is Second Sight, in which he
plays a psychic detective trying to break a case.
All this success is pretty heady for a New
York-born boy, raised in South Pasadena, California in a single-parent home
where money was scarce. "Certainly by South Pasadena standards, we
were in utter poverty," Pinchot recalls on the set of Perfect Strangers.
"Now that I’m grown and I realize what utter poverty is, it wasn’t utter
poverty. But there were definitely times when there was nothing for
dinner. I also remember plenty of times in junior high school when I
couldn’t attend because I didn’t have any clothes to wear – like my shirt
was in the washer or my pants were in the dryer, and there was literally nothing
else to wear."
But being poor didn’t stop him from
earning top grades at South Pasadena High School, where his talents leaned
towards painting. "I would have gone to illustration school,"
Pinchot says, "but someone behind my back arranged for me to go to
Yale." He won a hefty scholarship – it paid for 80 percent of his
education – and met the rest of his needs by working in a surgical buckle
factory. A New York Times profile of Pinchot noted "his
clothes were so ragged that his classmates thought he was striving for reverse
And it was at Yale that Pinchot was
fatally bitten by the acting bug. He saw a note on a bulletin board
announcing an audition for a college production of As You Like It.
After winning a role in that production, parts in Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? and Waiting for Godot soon followed.
"One of the most distinct images from
my years in college was those subterranean rooms with mold all over the walls
that they always stick actors in," Pinchot recalls. "I remember
the radiators were so incredibly loud with their hissing. It was just part
of our little world. There were cracked windows and hissing radiators, and
we just marked off the room and rehearsed."
Soon after graduation, Pinchot left Yale,
moved to New York City and became the stereotypical struggling actor, studying
with numerous teachers and auditioning constantly.
"I don’t dwell on stuff,"
Pinchot says, "It’s hard to remember now how bad it was. Yet every
once in a while when a friend says, ‘Oh my God, I just lost my job!’, I
definitely remember the pinch of being in between jobs as an actor. I
remember being miserable about the rent. My first instinct is to give [my
friends] money for their rent if they’ll take it, which sometimes they’re
too shy to do. But that’s when I really feel the difference. I
feel a twinge of fear, like how am I going to pay the rent? Then I
remember I can pay the rent."
But it wasn’t until early 1982 that
Pinchot started to taste a bit of success, landing a role in the off-Broadway
comedy Poor Little Lambs. Pinchot played a nerd, pants pulls up to his
armpits, and competed for attention with costars Kevin (Footloose) Bacon
and David (My Sister Sam) Naughton.
During the show’s run, Bacon and Pinchot
became close friends. "I really like Kevin and whenever I see him, we
talk over old times and maybe have a meal together. But actually, I have
not seen him in a couple of years. The time we were doing the play I was
fresh out of college and he was already starring in Diner. He was
always really wonderful."
The resultant exposure from Poor Little
Lambs led to Pinchot’s next major role in 1983, as Tom Cruise’s sexually
naive best friend in Risky Business. In the role, Pinchot sported a
shapeless haircut, a puffy face and zilcho sex appeal – so unlike the off-beat
but sexy Balki that Perfect Strangers fans adore.
But then came the biggie, 1984's Beverly
Hills Cop. Having just finished a "sub-porno" flick called Hot
Resort, Pinchot wasn’t excited about auditioning for the Eddie Murphy
flick; the part consisted of just a few sentences. But to an actor, work
is work, so Pinchot auditioned, mimicking the indecipherable accent of a Hot
Resort make-up artist. His performance as Serge, a fey art gallery
owner, almost wiped Murphy off the screen. The public started noticing
"When Beverly Hills Cop came
out," Pinchot remembers, "I was visiting New York, and I’m a person
who does not like to shave. You can always tell how long it’s been since
I’ve been in front of a camera. If it’s been a week, I have a week’s
growth. So I was running around with a lot of hair on my face and a
muffler and a hat and stringy hair, because, you know, hats make your head
clammy. And people were yelling, ‘Hey, Serge!’ from way across
Meanwhile, Tom Miller and Bob Boyette
(sic), the creators of the critically acclaimed sitcom Bosom Buddies,
were trying to develop a series about a foreigner who comes to America and as
trouble figuring out the culture. When they heard Pinchot’s accent in Cop,
they knew they had found their star. Pinchot was available, and teamed up
with Mark Linn-Baker. Together, they made Perfect Strangers –
which had the enviable position of airing between Who’s the Boss and Moonlighting
– a hit series.
With money pouring in, Pinchot was soon
spending in a month what had previously taken him a year to earn. His
fondest purchase? A $9000 bed. And along with the bed came the fan mail,
romance and a new finely tuned body. It’s on display in Second Sight,
which finds him in a church and in his undies, jumping from pew to pew.
His torso is tightly muscled and without an ounce of extra fat.
"What did you think – my body would
be crappy?" Pinchot laughs. "I do a lot of physical comedy, so
to me it makes sense."
As for the fan mail, Pinchot feels he
receives barrels full of it because his character on Strangers appeals to
women. He’s "innocent and untouched – a certain type of woman
finds that a real come-on," Pinchot says. "I did this show, Public
People / Private Lives, and the woman host just decided it was her mission
in life to probe why, at the time of the interview, I didn’t have a
girlfriend. And she kept going on and on. ‘Don’t you have needs?’
Just to answer her question, I did sort of describe what I thought the ideal
woman was, and I got a slew of letters, including tapes and photos."
What type of woman had he described?
Pinchot recalls, "I said I was a difficult person to make happy, because my
ideal evening was to listen to the first act of The Marriage of Figaro
and skip to the fourth and then start again. I got a letter from this
opera singer who sent me a tape of her voice and said, ‘Let’s go to The
Marriage of Figaro for the first act, mess around for two acts and go back.’
That was interesting."
To put off more nosy reporters and horny
sopranos, Pinchot has started courting a young woman – and insists she remain
"Yes, I’m in a relationship now and
I feel it is the best relationship I’ve had. I don’t remember, though,
if I’ve thought that about every single relationship I’ve ever been in.
"I have to say I did wait like a year
and a half between my last girlfriend and this one because I just wasn’t
willing to put up with the hard work of getting everything straight and figuring
each other out. I really thought that was such a huge burden. It’s
like adding another thing on your agenda. Six months ago on a Wednesday
night, all I had to think about was ‘Okay, I have to just focus on tomorrow
night’s show and that’s all I have to do. Feed myself, sleep and get
ready for the show.’
"Now it’s feed myself, sleep, get
ready for the show, and make sure she feels taken care of. I call her and
maybe go over to her house."
His girlfriend has probably found Pinchot
to be entertaining as well as caring; his wit is incisive and his mind refuses
to be censored. On a recent airing of The Arsenio Hall Show,
Pinchot went on and on about his youth – and his mother’s feet. When Family
Ties’ Michael Gross stated that he used to watch a half hour of Leave
it to Beaver every morning before he went to work, Pinchot piped in that he
liked a half-hour of beaver to start his day, too.
"My mother wasn’t all that thrilled
with that, but she got over it," says Pinchot. "After that show,
she said she woke up with chest pains. She actually yelled at me and said,
‘Don’t talk about me any more like that, because your Aunt Jane calls me up.’"
Even his mother knows the man is
strange. But for Bronson Pinchot, it works.