San Jose Mercury News
September 17, 1986

'Perfect Strangers ':
An Overnight Hit Seeks Staying Power

Written by: Ron Miller

Culver City

Balki and Larry in Las Vegas?  Don't be ridiculous!

But there they were, all right, stepping up to the bar in a Vegas casino, surrounded by beautiful but shifty-eyed women who certainly knew what to do with an immigrant in baggy pants and his nerdy American cousin.

It was a quintessential Balki and Larry scene in rehearsal on a sound stage at MGM for an episode of ABC's "Perfect Strangers," the surprise mid-season hit returning tonight at 8 on Chs. 7, 11 and 13.

In the story, the cousins win a contest and get to choose between two prizes: A state-of-the-art refrigerator or a trip to Vegas.

"Of course, I want the refrigerator," explains Mark Linn-Baker, who plays wary Larry, the all-American nerd.

And, naturally, Balki, the wide-eyed innocent from the Mediterranean island of Mepos (sic), opts for Vegas.  He thinks it's one of the world's seven wonders.  How else do you explain a place where you put a quarter in a vending machine, pull a handle and get back a couple hundred?

So they flip a coin, Mepos-style (a wacky version of one-potato, two-potato), and wind up a couple of reckless gamblers with high hopes in a town that's notoriously without pity.

In a way, that's where "Perfect Strangers" is this fall -- gambling in a hostile environment.  ABC's new entertainment chief, Brandon Stod-dard, gave it a six-episode tryout last spring in a protected time period right behind the Tuesday night hit "Who’s the Boss?"  Almost overnight, it zinged into the Top 10, racking up even bigger ratings than "Growing Pains," the popular show it temporarily displaced.

Encouraged, Stoddard decided "Perfect Strangers" was strong enough to start off a night at 8 p.m., so this fall it goes up against the formidable NBC show "Highway to Heaven," which has controlled the 8-9 p.m. time slot for two seasons.

"The upsetting thing to us is the perception by the press that we're such a hit," said Thomas Miller, who co-produces the show with partners Robert Boyett and Dale McRaven.  "We're not.  Six episodes really doesn't mean anything these days.  We're starting all over again."

Baker and co-star Bronson Pinchot also are disturbed by what they feel is their premature hit status.  Though they're flattered by all the attention, they don't like being called overnight sensations because that's too close to being called flashes in the pan.

"We really haven't started to do anything yet," said Linn-Baker.  "It seems like a lot of press people already know the story they want to write and they're playing up the overnight sensation thing to make us sound more interesting."

There's good reason for everybody concerned with "Perfect Strangers" to have crossed fingers about their futures.  They're all seasoned pros who've had their ups and downs.

Producer Miller has had his huge hits, from TV's "Happy Days" to the movies’ "Silver Streak," but he also has had overnight sensations that fizzled fast, including "Bosom Buddies," the Tom Hanks-Peter Scolari sitcom ABC canceled before it bloomed as a cult classic.

"We don't want to be a cult favorite again and have all our friends say, 'Boy, I loved those six episodes,' " said Miller.  "We want this to run awhile."

Pinchot also has reason to be wary of premature stardom.  After his flashy cameo as Serge, the haughty art gallery clerk in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop," he was rushed into NBC's "Sara" sitcom to play a gay lawyer, and watched the show die under him.

As Pinchot and Linn-Baker explained over lunch at the MGM commissary, they're trying to screen out all the raves, ignore the autograph seekers and concentrate on their work until they really have reason to celebrate.

"I feel like I'm the busboy," said Pinchot, looking around the star-studded dining room.  "I'm there, but I don't get to sit at the table yet."

Still, there's no denying the widespread critical support "Perfect Strangers" has been getting and the high expectations for it, even though summer-repeat ratings have not been phenomenal.

It's all the more surprising because "Perfect Strangers" was whipped into shape as a series in short order after Stoddard decided he liked the idea and wanted it on the air in six weeks.

Though the rudimentary situation was there -- a naive immigrant comes to live with his American cousin -- the producers had little else on paper.  The characters really have come to life around the actors hired to play them.

"Balki is an innocent who'll try anything," said Miller.  "He jumps into the swimming pool of life while Larry is cautious and only sticks his toe in the water."

Pinchot, 27, was approached to play Balki even before "Sara" was canceled and agreed to do it as soon as he was free.  At that time, they had no co-star.

"I said I didn't care if he was 500 pounds or 60 pounds, tall or short or funny or straight," said Pinchot.  "I just made them promise to let us act together first and decide on the basis of how we did."

Though several others were tested, Pinchot knew Linn-Baker was the right one the moment they started their scene.

"He was like a musician who comes in and suddenly starts playing on perfect pitch," Pinchot said.

Linn-Baker, 32, a veteran stage performer, had a showy role as the young romantic lead in the movie "My Favorite Year" and was a regular on the "Comedy Zone" TV series, but it was his work as a loveably neurotic character on an episode of "Moonlighting" that convinced the producers they should test him for the Larry role.

Immediately, both actors began to work out characteristics for Balki and Larry that since have been incorporated into their personalities by the writers.  Pinchot, for example, came up with Balki's trademark line: "Don't be ridiculous!"  He also has filled in much background for Balki's mythical homeland – "It's sort of Greek," he says -- and visited Greece this summer to get even more feeling for it.

Balki's curious wardrobe, mainly plaid slacks with wide suspenders and a vest, originally was chosen for Larry, but Pinchot spotted them on his way out of his own costume fitting.

"I had to have them," Pinchot recalled.  "Fortunately, Mark came in for his fittings later and decided he hated them."

Linn-Baker also has filled out Larry's personality.  For instance, he didn't like the fussy-looking apartment the set decorators originally had for Larry -- "With all the knickknacks, it looked like my grandmother's place," he said -- and convinced the producers to make it look more like a bachelor photographer's pad.

More important, the chemistry between the two actors has encouraged the writers to balance the show rather than give the immigrant Balki the "top spin" originally intended for him while turning Larry into his straight man.  The result is an unusual situation in which Balki and Larry seem to be halves of one person.  Pinchot sees them as "babes in the woods" and their adventures as a case of "the blind leading the blind."

Producer Miller believes their love for each other is the essential ingredient.  "They need each other a lot.  Independently, they're a bit crippled, but together they make up this incredible human being."

Linn-Baker has just purchased a co-op apartment with his "Perfect Strangers" earnings, but otherwise is being ultra-conservative about his future plans.

"I never imagined financial stability," he said.  "I just hoped to keep working and somehow get by.  Now we have a chance to do good work in a large arena and establish financial stability that, with luck, could last a lifetime."

On the other hand, Pinchot has lavished his earnings on purchases of 19th century Scandinavian antiques, a hobby he now finds impossible to resist.  "Since last March, I've bought a houseful of every piece I've ever yearned for," he said.  "That's why I don't think even five years in syndication will put me in any kind of stability."

Right now ABC doesn't expect their show to overtake "Highway to Heaven," but the network has expressed considerable faith in it for the long haul.

"Brandon Stoddard feels if we can come in a strong second and just chip away at 'Highway,' maybe we'll be on the rise by the second season," said Miller.

Though "Perfect Strangers" has a long way to go to legitimate hit status, the signs are encouraging.  At least when the producers start talking about their plans for the show, nobody at the network says, "Don't be ridiculous!"