September 27, 1986
Knock a Guy for
His $9000 Bed? Donít Be Ridiculous!
Bronson Pinchot of Perfect Strangers relishes being as zany as his roles
By Bill OíHalleren
Cover photo by Mario Casilli
Photo by Gene Trindl
Bronson Pinchot, that odd-talking
immigrant Balki on ABCís Perfect Strangers, is bouncing around his
weird (by his own definition) West Los Angeles apartment, acting out highlights
of his life story, with emphasis on the sitcom that he felt was stifling his
career, the bit part that made him a celebrity and the impossible demands of
local Hollywood girls, when suddenly a letter plops through his mail slot.
He tears it open, stares at a pair of
enclosed pictures, then goes into a war dance. "Beautiful! More
than I ever dreamed. Oh, my God!" In time he shares the
pictures, which depict a bed with an ancient wooden canopy. The paint
seems faded. At first glance it looks like something bequeathed by an
eccentric aunt, something all the other relatives refused. "Itís
coming Friday and no matter what time it comes, Iím jumping right in.
You donít understand, do you?"
The visitor understands a little better
when it develops the bed costs about $9000 and is a prize example of painted 19th-century
Scandinavian furniture, which Pinchot (and in his words, "maybe three other
nuts") avidly collects. As such it joins the painted Scandinavian
gateleg table and Vaslav, the painted chair, already in the apartment. The
chair is so named because in profile it resembles a pose the great Vaslav
Nijinsky often struck, as Pinchot has already demonstrated.
Pinchotís tastes are clearly not those
of the Yuppies who abound in the neighborhood (at that moment he still hadnít
acquired a refrigerator), nor does he come from the same mold as so many actors
who are also young, bright and currently hot. "There are people
around who play at being characters," Tom Miller, co-executive producer of Strangers
notes. "Bronson isnít one of them. Bronson is a
Miller cites the moment when the final of
last seasonís episodes was completed. "I came on the set and
Bronson was standing there with tears in his eyes. He turned to me and
said, ĎMark is going back to New York tomorrow. You have to stop him.í"
Miller explained that Mark Linn-Baker, who plays Balkiís uptight American
cousin, was going back to New York because the show had completed its run.
"But why do we have to stop?" said Pinchot. "Why donít we
keep making more shows?" Miller offered explanations about waiting
for network pickup, etc., but Pinchot, still teary-eyed, was unconvinced.
Actually, the production of last seasonís
six episodes was a drama all its own, a case of never have so few done so much
so fast. Miller recalls, "My partner, Bob Boyett, and I had pitched
the series to Brandon Stoddard (president of ABC entertainment) for the 1986-87
season. Brandon liked the idea but reminded us if we started in the fall,
weíd be competing with a lot of new shows. Then he said, ĎIf you guys
can make six shows real fast, I can put them on nowí."
Stoddard dangled an enviable slot:
Tuesdays, between the hits Whoís the Boss? and Moonlighting. "Who
wouldnít jump at a chance like that?" says Miller.
But it was nail-chewing time all the
way. As director Joel Zwick recalls, "The cast assembled for the
first time one morning, and three weeks later, that show was on the air.
We were often dubbing Tuesday shows on Monday afternoons. One show was on
the air a week after first reading."
did well in the ratings, won some nice reviews and a renewal for this season
(with a new slot on Wednesdays). And Pinchot, playing the strangest of
shepherds, became a TV celebrity. "What that means is whenever I
leave my apartment and walk down the street, about 20 people, mostly teen-age
girls, follow me, giggling and taking pictures."
Pinchotís success really began with 20
lines in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop." He played a haughty
art-gallery clerk with an accent totally new to the human ear, and to everyoneís
surprise, including his own, it was a show stopper. New Yorker film critic
Pauline Kael proclaimed: "Pinchot does a sweetheart of a comedy turn as the
amiably swishy Serge . . . Pinchot sets his own comedy rhythms and he steals a
couple of scenes from [Eddie] Murphy."
To Pinchot, his career is divided into
Before and After "Beverly Hills Cop." "Nothing before,
everything after." That accent, which has been somewhat modified for Strangers,
"was inspired by an Israeli makeup woman I knew who set out to become the
most elegant, fashionable, sexiest, mysterious Mata Hari who ever lived.
She had developed a speech that was so elegant and syrupy . . . and I did a
deliberately imperfect re-creation of it."
Within days of "Cop"ís
preview, calls were coming in from reporters, and later from producers like
Miller. Pinchot was hot. But there was a new problem. "A
month before ĎCopí came out, I had committed to NBCís Sara
series. I was playing the fourth banana in a sitcom no one was
watching. On Sara, they didnít want me to improvise or
shine. They kept a lid on what I was doing; they wouldnít let me be
funny." Miller, who saw him in the show, agrees: "I thought he
was being restrained."
Miller and Boyett, specializing in what
they call "buddy" shows, had developed the Perfect Strangers
idea during the 1984 Olympics, when, as Miller explains, "so many
foreigners were encountering Americans in American settings." When
they saw Pinchot in "Cop," "we knew there was our innocent
foreigner. I have no idea what that accent is, but itís hip, cute and it
Pinchot was offered the role in Strangers,
and when Sara folded, the series was off and running. There was an
intensive search for a Larry that ended, according to Pinchot, "the moment
Mark walked through the door." Linn-Baker, as silent as Pinchot is
talkative, believes "there was immediate rapport. Our first scene
clicked and after that it was easy."
Lise Cutter, who plays the cousinsí
neighbor, Susan, says of Pinchot, "Heís insane. But thatís
OK. He makes up all those crazy movements Ė all those antics. He
ad-libbed ĎDonít be ridiculousí one day and it became part of the
Linn-Baker is also, while looking totally
stone-faced, able to reduce Pinchot to a laughing basket case. "He
flares his nostrils at me," Pinchot reports. "Heís a big
brother who can push my button. Heís a devil." Scenes have
had to be redone up to 15 times because of Linn-Bakerís button pushing.
"There are times," Pinchot says, "when I think the producers are
going to send us to bed without supper."
Pinchot, no matter the giggles, has all
the toughness he needs. "I had heard," says Zwick, "that
Bronson was a notorious non-truster. But he quickly appreciated the fact
that I am smart. Some actors canít perceive intelligence or capability
in others. Bronson and Mark can."
There have been problems. "If
Bronson is frustrated or unhappy, you hear it immediately, though heís not
always that capable of explaining his frustration. But whatever, he lets
it all out. Mark keeps it all in," Miller says, adding: "Bronson
has never said, ĎI wonítí."
At the start, Pinchot even had doubts
about that Balki sound. "You just want somebody to do a funny little
accent?" he asked Miller. "Why donít I do Greek? Balki
is a Greek shepherd." (Actually, Balki is from a Mediterranean island
country called Mypos.)
Miller says, "I then sat him down and
told him this was a major career decision. That special accent was his
alone Ė like Andy Kaufmanís Latka on Taxi. I urged him not to
go far from it Ė and he agreed." Miller adds that Pinchot could
have done almost any accent, "because he has an uncanny ear. After
two minutes he can do anybody Ė and Iím not talking Rich Little here Ė I
mean absolutely the essence. He works from inside."
Pinchot was raised in South Pasadena,
Cal. His father, of Russian background, and his mother, Italian, are
passionate fans of 19th-century New England transcendentalism, and
their son was named Bronson Alcott Pinchot after Louisa Mayís father.
Pinchot earned top grades, won a scholarship to Yale and "immediately felt
right at home in the New England environment."
He studied theater there (as did
Linn-Baker, who never met him even though they had overlapping terms).
That was followed by some stage work in New York and supporting roles in the
movies "Risky Business" and "The Flamingo Kid," where he was
spotted by the casting director of "Beverly Hills Cop."
Pinchot, 27 and unmarried, mourns that
success is crushing his love life. "Before Sara, the shortest
time I ever spent with a girl was at least a year. Now itís only about
three weeks. They canít compete with a career. Word will come that
I have to go to New York or San Francisco and the girl will ask, ĎWhat about
me? Arenít I important?í Yes, you are, but my show, my
And he insists actresses are no more
understanding than others. "Besides, with actresses, thereís the
problem of levels. Iíll fall for a girl whoís a major star and Iím
not, or Iíll fall for a girl whoís a little starlet and Iím above
that. This has been the most dramatic change in my life."
But he has hopes. Pointing to the
beloved antique table in his apartment, he observes: "When itís unfolded
it seats 10. I figure when I get married I wonít have more than eight
children. Canít you see all 10 of us sitting there?"
Yes. And speaking in strange accents and laughing a lot.