Rolling Stone Magazine
August 14, 1986

   

‘STRANGERS’ IN PARADISE
Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker could become the Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden of the Eighties

by Mark Christensen
Photos by Bonnie Schiffman
Grooming by Jelly Stutzman for Cloutier

His name sounds like a Park Avenue law firm or a federal forest reserve.  His style is not really Hollywood.  In fact, it’s not really twentieth century.  "I don’t like cars," he says.  "I can’t see myself going out and spending a bunch of money on a Mercedes or a Porsche.  No, no, no, no.  Cars are for going places.  That’s it.  I'd rather walk. In my free time, mostly I listen to medieval music – hours at a time – or read classical mythology.  Except if I have a girlfriend.  Then we have sex until my skin rubs off."

Bronson Pinchot stands sleepy eyed in the living room of his apartment, in a big, old, white Spanish building in West L.A., a monster relic from another time.  The late-afternoon light makes shapes on hardwood floors and throw rugs with price tags still on them.  Big, blocky pieces of furniture scrolled with hand-painted flora surround him.  Scandinavian antiques.  They’re parked around the place as if he’d moved in yesterday.

"Actually," the twenty-eight-year-old actor says with a yawn, "I moved in three days ago.  I got this place last month, just before I went to Greece."  Pinchot pulls on a jacket.  "My clock is off," he says.  "In Greece, it would be the middle of the night right now.  So during the day, since I’ve been back, all I want to do is sleep."

Pinchot – who is probably best known for portraying Serge, the stupendously pretentious gallery clerk in Beverly Hills Cop – is on hiatus from Perfect Strangers, an ABC sitcom that premiered earlier this year, got good ratings and better reviews and has a shot at being one of fall’s prime-time hits.  It’s a familiar story: Space case from Meepos or Mypos or Nebos, or some other Hollywood-style name for a faraway place, says so long to a career in sheepherding, books passage on a banana boat to our land of opportunity, makes the cut at whatever currently passes for Ellis Island, hops a Greyhound to Chicago and shows up on the doorstep of his cousin thirty-seven times removed, looking for a place to stay.

Pinchot plays the Mediterranean immigrant, Balki Bartokomous.  Mark Linn-Baker, who made a critical splash a few years back as Peter O’Toole’s hapless baby sitter in My Favorite Year, is Larry Appleton, a small-town boy who has moved to Chicago to try his hand at photojournalism.  Appleton is a young man for whom the wheel of fortune is moving at an extremely slow pace.  At age twenty-four, he has yet to break into even the local newspaper market, and he is living a life of not-so-quiet desperation.  In the words of Dale McRaven, the creator of Perfect Strangers,  "Underneath his veneer is a crazy man fighting not to let it show."  Linn-Baker plays Appleton like a young, thin, bookish Ralph Kramden, a polite, thoughtful nine-to-fiver whose frustrations and disappointments threaten to throw him over the brink.  Pinchot’s Bartokomous, meanwhile, is possessed of a doe-eyed lunacy and a wiggy disconnectedness that play off Linn-Baker’s wire-tight Appleton the way Art Carney played off the Great One.

Balki can find joy astonishment, epiphany in the mechanics of a pop-top can.  His consciousness bobs with the flotsam of American popular culture, and his speech is studded with the vernacular of the television commercial: "America, home of the Whopper."  "America, open all night."  His world view – based on the belief that in this country anything is possible – is adventurously simplistic and a natural inspiration for worldclass slapstick.

Balki’s solutions to problems are direct.  Desperate to throw a surprise birthday party at three in the morning?  Just go corral all the street people and night-shifters in the neighborhood and invite them up.  Spot a pretty girl and at a loss for an introduction?  Drop to your knees and say, "I worship your painted toenails, American goddess."

"The style we’re shooting for," Linn-Baker says, "is like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, stylistically harking back to those days.  We’re not an issue show."  No.  Perfect Strangers is not cut from the same cloth as such Seventies hits as All in the Family and Maude.  "Right now people just want to be entertained," says McRaven.  "I think the nation is tired of being guilty.  People just want to turn on the TV and laugh."


"I could never figure out why it did what it did," Pinchot says of his portrayal of Serge, the character who gave him a shot at prime-time.  He was attempting to project a clichéd vision of Beverly Hills pretension, and he expected it to be popular with the locals.  "But how do you account for the rest of the country?" he asks.  "What about people that had no idea what it was?"  He first saw the bit on film when summoned by the video company that was producing "Neutron Dance" for the Pointer Sisters.  "I got to the set, and they were all giggling, ‘Oh, it’s him.’"  He shrugs.  "I thought it was a piece of bull****."

Pinchot is not wild about his new celebrity.  "I’ve got it fixed in my mind that most famous people are actually empty.  At least the people I’ve met in L.A.  You meet somebody at a party, and you talk for ten minutes, and you think, ‘This person is a loaf of bread.’  I have this idea that with most famous actors their fame is in no way proportionate to their humanhood.

"People stare at you and come up . . . ask for autographs, take a picture and run away screaming.  I could be the guy from the Perdue-chicken commercials.  Once they’ve seen you X times, you’re worthy of screaming and giggling.  Whether you’re a worthy person or not.  You’ve been seen ten times.  You’re a thing.  The meat Pavlov gave his dogs.  If I thought it was particularized, if I thought they screamed because I made them laugh, then I’d just get a big, big, big kick.  But I think it’s more like ‘I saw him ten times, therefore I will scream and giggle.’"

And perhaps even more than that, given half the chance.  "When I was in Risky Business, before anybody even knew who I was, we were filming in Skokie, outside of Chicago, and just because you were in a movie, there were these sixteen-year-old girls who would have done anything . . . I was on a photo shoot today, and this one girl comes up to me, one of the assistants, and said, ‘I just loved you in this and that,’ and starts kissing me, and I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy?  This is a profession!  We’re doing a job!’"

We leave Pinchot’s apartment and go to a restaurant for dinner.  Red brick.  White tablecloths.  Ken and Barbie waiters and waitresses.  Upscale.  Far removed from Pinchot’s earlier world.  He was brought up poor in South Pasadena.  "I studied all the time.  I got terrible migraines and was absent fifty days a year.  I was very shy.  I can remember, a lot of kids I went to high school with, they had wonderful social skills.  Great élan.  Then you’d come back and find out high school was their highest moment.  I was lucky.  I took a while."

Like Mark Linn-Baker, who offers that television "is a great way to support a theater habit" and who spends his summers teaching at Vassar, Pinchot went to Yale (several years behind Linn-Baker), and his background is also in classical theater.  He spent his time after graduation banging around New York.  "That first winter I had a pair of tennis shoes, one pair of pants.  I’d walk halfway across Manhattan to the theaters, through the snow and crap willing myself not to be sick."  He willed effectively.  After landing a role in Poor Little Lambs, a production about the Yale singing group the Whiffenpoofs, he got a part as one of Tom Cruise’s sidekicks in Risky Business.  That led to other roles, including Beverly Hills Cop.  Asked what Eddie Murphy thought about being so abruptly, if briefly, upstaged, Pinchot replies, "He’s not a dummy.  He had two salient reactions.  One which was ‘That’s funny!’  The second was ‘How do I stop it?’"

After Beverly Hills Cop, Pinchot’s stock shot up.  "One of the first things I was offered was a chance to write a comedy album.  Which I did.  The president of the record company said, ‘I think this is a smash hit . . . underground.’  My heart jumped; there was this long pause as all his people looked at him like ‘What, are you crazy?’  They wanted me to rewrite it for a mass audience.  So we annulled the contract."  But after that, there were offers that led to other roles, including one in NBC’s 1985 sitcom Sara, which starred Geena Davis and was hailed as the next Mary Tyler Moore Show but wound up a short-lived flop.

A waiter arrives, takes our order and departs.  "Waiters live in such a unique, horrible world," Pinchot says.  "Being your best friend for just a minute . . . and they way they discriminate.  So much more sophisticated than you or I.  If you ask for just regular coffee instead of espresso or cappuchino" – Pinchot’s face contorts, as if he just gulped Lysol – "it’s like ‘Oh . . . you . . . terrible . . . nut!’  That’s one of the characters I’d like to do one of these days – a waiter.  I would love to play a director.  There’s a great character in there that’s going to come out in one piece like Athena out of Zeus’s head.  Totally, completely ready to jump out.  Soon.  It’s knitting itself" – he points to his head – "in here.

"There’s also this pastor.  He’s been in there for about six or seven years.  He’s a mama’s boy, and he has to go to different people’s houses each week in this little New England community, and he just kind of sits there and looks down, nobody really talks to him, and he kind of mumbles on about what mother said."

As for Balki, his spacey creation in Perfect Strangers, "The core in him is that he looks at the world like a four-year-old.  I try to lift off all the adult, urbane, tense, mindful stuff and just be a total innocent.  At whatever age you are when you’re not self-conscious about being naked, about having drool come out of your mouth.  That’s where he is.  His dream was to come to America.  But his dream could be anything.  What is important is that mentally he has not been touched by that veil of self-consciousness that happens when you’re four and a half or five years old.  And it’s just left in the air whether or not everybody from his island is like that or he is special.  Remember the character from Nights of Cabiria?  She’s like this little prostitute and she’s untouched by the prostitution.  She’s very innocent.  Balki is like that.  He doesn’t have the brown edges like avocados get.  He’s totally fresh.  One of the writers said this guy is Billy Budd.  What he meant was that Balki is actually good.  He sees the world as benevolent.  Not ‘cause he’s too stupid to know otherwise.  He’s actually a good person.  The core of him will never be touched.  And if it is, the show will end."

Pinchot finds the role more challenging than the sarcastic Serge.  "It would be very easy to play Serge for five years," he says.  But Pinchot was starting to become typecast.  "Both Serge and the character I played on Sara were gay, so I got all these offers to speak before gay groups, and I said, ‘Look, those were a couple of roles.  That’s all.  Done.  Cut.  Over.  Next.  I’m not into that.’  And the replies I got were like ‘Oh, come off it, girl.’"

Perfect Strangers moves to Wednesday night this fall.  Pinchot, meanwhile, has turned down a slow of proffered film roles.  "Now I’m waiting.  Just like I waited for this . . . I’m in no hurry to do anything. T he next thing after Perfect Strangers would have to be very special."

Our dinner concludes.  We emerge back out into the cool West Los Angeles air.  It’s dark.  Two cute teenage girls are crossing at the light.  Suddenly one stops, her head swiveling as Pinchot passes.  Her eyes widen.  She looks as it she’d been shot.  Pinchot, talking about his original ambitions to be an illustrator, is oblivious.  He never even knows what hit her.