Playgirl Magazine
April 1990

 Don't Be Ridiculous!
Bronson Pinchot may act weird, but he’s made
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 chic."

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 him, too.

"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 Broadway."

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 nameless.

"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.