August 14, 1986
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.
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
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
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.