TV Guide
June 20, 1987

He Said Three Words . . . and Was Pronounced a ‘Genius’
Mark Linn-Baker – who’s very serious about his comedy –
got instant praise from his zany co-star on Perfect Strangers.

By Helen Newton

Crockery is flying, small appliances are tossed, bodies are tumbling as Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot, co-stars of ABC’s Perfect Strangers, rehearse a slapstick scene so broad that Abbott and Costello could learn from it.

A short time later, still rumpled, Linn-Baker is asked the source of such comic inspiration.

He answers, "Beckett."

Samuel Beckett, the existential Irish playwright?  What about Chaplin?  Laurel and Hardy?  Abbott and Costello?

"Well, sure, then too."  He pauses.  "Look, I don’t mean to sound stuffy.  But ‘Waiting for Godot’ is really funny.  Beckett learned a lot from Laurel and Hardy, you know."

This is a man who takes his comedy seriously.  As he talks about his work, even his face is serious – which is remarkable considering how the same face looked only moments before in the character of Larry Appleton.  Larry, a reserved Midwesterner who is driven frantic by his exuberant foreign cousin, Balki Bartokomous, has eyebrows that angle sharply upward like the sides of an isosceles triangle, blue button eyes that peer from underneath, lips that disappear into a long, wavy line.  Larry Appleton looks – well, funny.  Mark Linn-Baker doesn’t.

"I’m not as serious as I sound," says Linn-Baker.  Up go the eyebrows into his bemused expression.  "Although . . . the other day I was in Central Carpet buying a rug and the salesman said, ‘I know you.  You’re the guy in Perfect Strangers!’  I said, yes, I was, and he said, ‘But you’re so serious!’  I don’t know what he expected.   I was buying a rug."

"Oh, he’s serious, all right," exclaims his co-star and friend Bronson Pinchot.  "Yesterday, we were at a photo session and whenever Mark saw me starting to act silly, he would reach behind me and pinch my arm, like an old uncle trying to make a kid behave.  He’s very serious – and I’m very black and blue!"

Pinchot, who plays Balki with scene-chewing gusto, doesn’t give anyone the impression that he’s serious.  He yells bawdy comments to the script girl, he tackles Linn-Baker, he teases the camera crew.

And likewise, his Balki, with the laughable accent, the E.T.-like naiveté about American ways, even the catch phrase "Doan be reedeeculous," commands attention.  On filming night, for instance, one member of the audience stood up and shouted, "Is there a Balki fan club?"

"Sure Balki gets noticed," shrugs Linn-Baker.  "But this is a relationship show.  There are only so many jokes you can do about someone who doesn’t know how to use something."

"As far as the initial thrust of the series goes, you have to feel that Balki is the heat," agrees director Joel Zwick.  "He’s the reason the show exists.  He’s the stranger in the strange land.  But now that people have had a chance to get used to the wildness of Balki, I’m hearing more and more just how good they think Mark Linn-Baker is."

("Personally," comments a bystander later, "I think Mark is funnier.  His reactions are hilarious.")

Zwick continues. "The two of them really work together well.  For instance, about a scene, Bronson will say, ‘We need a big explosion here’ – meaning a funny bit of business or something.  And he’s usually right.  And then Mark and I will structure it so it works.  Mark’s a craftsman."

Like any craftsman, Linn-Baker worries over details.  On the day before filming, when actors, director and camera crew map out the cumbersome choreography that makes a show go smoothly, Linn-Baker works his way through his script one tiny moment at a time.

– "My left hand is funnier here.  Don’t you think I should use my left hand?" asks Linn-Baker of Zwick as he and Pinchot stage a stunt.

– " ‘That’s why you’re having the dream,’ or ‘That’s why you’re having the nightmare.’  Which one’s funnier?" he demands of the script girl about one of his lines.

– "We need three ‘OKs’ here.  Three ‘OKs’ are funnier than two ‘OKs.’"

OK, OK, OK.  So none of that stuff seems funny by itself.  But even an untrained observer notices that by the end of the day, the stunts move almost as fluidly as a Fred Astaire routine and the funny lines are in sync with the funny faces.  Those little things may not get laughs by themselves, but as Zwick and Linn-Baker point out, it’s harder getting the laughs without them.

Perhaps it’s because Mark Linn-Baker, 33, has been around acting all his life that he is attuned to the fine points.  His parents were actors, too; they met when his father directed his mother in a show.  When they married and had a family, his father traded in his dreams of full-time theater work for ad copywriting and moved the family from St. Louis to Hartford, Connecticut. – but both parents still gave their free time to community theater.  Linn-Baker started his career by pulling curtains for his parents when he was about 7 and continued acting all through high school.  For his first few years at Yale, he was tempted to major in math or psychology, but theater won out and he spent three postgraduate years at Yale earning an M.F.A. in drama.

"I’ve been lucky.  I’ve worked nonstop since I got out of Yale," he says, knocking wood as he habitually does when the subject is his good fortune.  Though his work was only barely lucrative enough to allow him to live in a small apartment on the inelegant Lower East Side, it was satisfying.  He won the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of "All Well That Ends Well" and went on to do, among others, "Othello" and "Alice in Concert" with Meryl Streep.  In 1981, director Richard Benjamin saw him in performance at the Public Theater, and later directed him in his first feature-film role – as Peter O’Toole’s keeper in "My Favorite Year."

Far from being intimidated at sharing the stage with a legendary star, Linn-Baker says he happily spent evenings in O’Toole’s trailer swapping theater stories.  "He’s a wonderful actor.  His background is in live theater, as mine is, but he’s worked so often in film that it was an education watching him."  The moment Linn-Baker chooses an example is, tellingly, a small one.  "Remember that scene at the end when O’Toole drives up to the country to find his daughter?  As he watches her out the window of his limousine, he slowly sinks back into his seat.  His head passes by the metal upright in the back window and just at that moment, he looks down."  Linn-Baker in enthusiastically demonstrating the subtle move with his hand standing in for the window.  "You don’t see his eyes move. Before they pass the metal bar, they’re looking out.  Immediately after, they’re looking down.  He knew precisely when to move his eyes.  And the result, of course, was perfect.  With just that little business, you knew the man had given up."  Linn-Baker shakes his head in admiration.

"My Favorite Year," a big hit, would have been the perfect springboard to movie stardom – or at least employment – if only Linn-Baker could have taken seriously any of the offers that followed.  "I was sent a lot of really dumb comedies," he says.  Instead, he decided to stay in New York, where he continued working in the theater, helped start a summer drama program at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and began contemplating his financial future.

 

Such thoughts led him eventually to do a few commercials, guest star on a few series (Moonlighting, The Equalizer), and accept a starring role in Perfect Strangers when executive producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett offered it to him.

Pinchot remembers struggling through the auditions for the right Larry.  "They had written a little scene to see if we’d generate any chemistry.  I had just done it with four different actors, and I was getting depressed.  Then in came Mark.  It was suspect how quickly we hit it off.  He said three words and I jumped up and grabbed him and yelled, ‘You’re a genius!’  He wasn’t even surprised.  He just said, ‘Thank you very much.’"

The show’s rapport with its audience has been somewhat less wholehearted, with a ranking in the low 30's.  "Remember, though, they’ve put us against Highway to Heaven this year.  If we come in a good second, ABC will be pleased," says Miller, adding optimistically, "but I think the show is in for a long run."

In his impersonal, rented apartment overlooking the Pacific, Linn-Baker muses on the possibility of a long run.  "I’ve never had a job before that didn’t end," he says.  "I still can’t count on this one."  The only thing he’s bought is a TV set; his VW convertible, even his sparse beige furniture, is leased.  "I’m getting the reputation as the cheapest man in Hollywood," he says mischievously.

Stacks of New York Times Sunday magazines provide the only decor.  "I realized that I have one for each week I’ve been on the show.  I can’t throw them out," says Linn-Baker, recognizing them as symbols of a life he misses.  He has a girl friend, a choreographer, in New York and recently bought a co-op apartment on Lower Broadway.  He plans to spend as much time there as his breaks from Perfect Strangers allow.

"The wonderful thing about doing Strangers is that it gives me the money and the time to do the theater that I really want," he admits.  Then he adds hastily, "It’s not that I’m not proud of the show.  I am.  I think we do really good work."

It’s work that has gained him a very special fan – Lucille Ball.  "Her husband wrote to us to say that they enjoyed our show," says Linn-Baker proudly.  "And then at the Emmys, I met her and she said some very nice things.  Coming from her, that meant a lot."

Still, it probably would have meant even more coming from Samuel Beckett.