Sarasota Herald-Tribune
May 21, 1988

Mark Linn-Baker Finds the Asolo a Perfect Match
By Charlie Huisking - Staff Writer

Mark Linn-Baker is no longer a stranger to Asolo State Theater officials.  And if all goes well, Sarasotans will be seeing a lot more of him.

As TV viewers know, Linn-Baker stars with Bronson Pinchot in the ABC comedy series "Perfect Strangers."  But he was in Sarasota this week to talk with the Asolo about another aspect of his professional life.

Linn-Baker is one of the producing directors of the New York Stage and Film Company, a non-profit organization that develops new plays and screenplays.  The company's projects include a Vassar College summer program that matches theater and film students with professional guest artists.  The guest writers, directors and actors teach classes and collaborate with the students on new plays and short films.  Some of the plays have moved on to New York for off-Broadway productions.

The company is interested in establishing a similar program with the film and theater students who will be studying at the new Asolo Performing Arts Center.  The center, set to open in 1989, will contain a film studio and a workshop theater.

"I'm impressed with the Asolo's plans for the center," Linn-Baker said.  "There seems to be the possibility of a real good fit between our organizations.  The Asolo is interested in doing new works, and they could provide us with a base that we need."

Although Linn-Baker's fans know him primarily through his roles in "Perfect Strangers" and the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," most of his experience has been on the stage, as both an actor and a director.  He and his colleagues founded the New York Stage and Film Company because they were frustrated by the way new plays are produced in New York.

"New plays need time to develop, but in New York you open after three weeks of rehearsal, and if the reviews aren't good, that's it," said Max Mayer, a company producing director who also met with the Asolo.  "The program at Vassar gives us the time to work with a new play, to explore its strengths and weaknesses."

Linn-Baker and his colleagues say they are primarily interested in projects that clearly and entertainingly confront the "emotional, political, intellectual and spiritual issues of our times."  No one would argue that the sitcom "Perfect Strangers" has such lofty goals.  But Linn-Baker, unlike some theater-trained actors, doesn't look down upon television.

"There's a special satisfaction in live theater because as an actor you have the chance to be the process of communication," he said.  "We forget that in film and television the actor is not really there -- it looks like he's there, but he's not.

"But I also enjoy doing television.  There's a craft, a skill, a real facility involved in doing a half-hour show and doing it well.  I'm proud of our show, and I think we turn out some very funny stuff."

In "Perfect Strangers," Linn-Baker plays newspaperman Larry Appleton.  Pinchot plays his cousin, Balki, the naive, odd-talking Mediterranean shepherd who has been complicating Larry's life for three seasons.  The obvious chemistry between the two actors is a major reason for the show's success, and Linn-Baker says the pair clicked immediately.  "We didn't know each other when I tested for the show," he said.  "We shook hands and read a couple of scripts aloud, and we just took off.  It was really quite amazing."

Laughing, Linn-Baker said he and Pinchot have been a disappointment to the Hollywood press.  "We have become good friends, there's no jealousy or ego problems, we get along fine and we enjoy what we're doing," he said.  "We give them nothing to write about."

Some have described Linn-Baker as the straight man of the pair, but he's not sure he agrees.  "I guess I am in the sense that George Burns was the straight man to Gracie Allen or Gleason was the straight man to Carney," he said.  "But ultimately it's team comedy.  I think it's pretty balanced in terms of how we score the laughs."

Linn-Baker hasn't directed any episodes of "Perfect Strangers," but he and Pinchot are involved in shaping each show.  "We have a lot of leeway," he said.  "We work collaboratively with the writers.  They'll give us a script, we'll throw in our ideas, they'll take it back and study it.  Of course, this all has to happen fast, because we shoot it in a week."

Linn-Baker still looks back fondly on his film "My Favorite Year," which also featured Peter O'Toole as a flamboyant star of a live TV series in the 50's.  [Editor's note - O'Toole was a movie star guest of the show, not the star of the series.]  "It was a wonderful experience to work with a great actor like O'Toole," he said.  "I wasn't inhibited by him, because I don't find working with great people inhibiting.  I think it just opens you up that much more."