TV Guide (Canada)
February 11 - 17, 1989

 Tongue Twister
Bronson Pinchot's indefinable lingo has carved
him a niche as the Perfect Stranger

By Glenn Esterly
Photo by Mark Hanauer / ONYX

Greek sheepherders never believe Bronson Pinchot when he walks up to them in the hills and says, "Hi, I'd like to just follow you around for a while."  Not one Greek sheepherder has said, "Oh, yeah, you're that TV shepherd, Balki Bartokomous on Perfect Strangers, (ABC, CHCH).  Hey, nice to meet ya.  Let me introduce you to the sheep . . . "

Pinchot is still doing research on Balki.  3 1/2 seasons after the show hit and became an almost instant TV success and launched Pinchot into cliche-style celebrity success.  "Those sheepherders," says Pinchot, "are very skeptical when you tell them you just want to hang around and observe how they handle their sheep."

Balki isn't specifically a Greek sheepherder, you understand, but he comes from a Mediterranean sheepherding family, and some of Pinchot's annual vacation involves more research on his character.  "It isn't as if I take notes," Pinchot says, but it is an indication that -- having grown up poor and having spent several years as a hungry, unemployed actor -- he's not about to let a good thing get away.

Right now, in his office at Lorimar Studios, Pinchot is a bit distracted by the interview that's going on in the next room -- an assistant is interviewing prospective secretaries.  Having struggled so long and finally beaten the odds in terms of achieving stardom, Pinchot's instinct is to take a hands-on approach.  He picks up the phone and tells his assistant, "Listen, if you talk to someone who's a possibility, just have them poke their head in a for a minute; let me get a sense of what they might be like, OK?  I just want to be careful."

Viewers tend to assume that because Balki is an innocent, constantly naive and trusting, that Pinchot must be the same way.  But Bronson Pinchot, 29, grew up in a family that he says was ditched by his father (of Russian descent) and required welfare to survive.  After he became a star, he went to see his father for the first time in many years.  "He had nothing to say," Pinchot recalls.  "He just doesn't know me.  I don't see him.  If I wanted to befriend a man in his 70's, I'd do it with a man who had lived a good life and treated his family well and had something to say.  That doesn't describe my father."

Pinchot also recalls being the kid in grade school who "got beat up all the time -- reduced to pulp in various ways.  I had a bad time with the world.  I was fat and didn't get picked for any sports teams.  I was smart-mouthed and precocious and made teachers feel threatened, so they yelled at me and made me stand up outside the class even though I got straight A's.  I just didn't fit in anywhere."

He fit in at Yale.  His mother, an Italian who kept the family together (in South Pasadena, Ca.) by cleaning houses and working as a typist, had made him stay up one night listening to her read "The Importance of Being Earnest."  He was 15 at the time and decided reading wasn't bad.  "So I had these tremendous grades and got a scholarship to Yale.  First of all, at Yale nobody beat me up.  That seemed like a good start.  Then I was so into reading that I was taking courses in ancient Greece ad philosophy and literature.  I sort of exploded as a human.  After a couple of years, the professors had me set to be a fine arts major and I was going to devote my life to painting."

But Pinchot had done some plays, including "As You Like It," and decided he liked acting better.  The professors said something very much along the lines of Balki's noted line, "Don't be ridiculous!", but Pinchot turned to acting anyway.  "It was ridiculous," he says, "You just don't go to Yale to be an actor."

That was followed by more years of being poor.  "Salvation Army clothes.  Trying to get work in New York."  At one point, he auditioned for a role in a French operetta.  He did his version of a French accent, which wasn't accurate but got him some notoriety.

Pinchot's first film break was in "Risky Business"; he also got small parts in "The Flamingo Kid," "After Hours" and "Hot Resort."  (A scene in Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" ended up on the cutting-room floor.)

"Hot Resort" turned out to be a luckier break than it appeared at the time; as it turned out, the makeup woman "had this exotic Israeli drawl that was sensuous and cold at the same time," Pinchot says.  "When I got called in to read for 'Beverly Hills Cop' [as Serge, the haughty art gallery clerk], I did her."

Serge made Pinchot a wanted commodity in Hollywood.  When the producers of the new Perfect Strangers approached the actor, however, "I was stuck as this fifth banana in a piece of TV junk called Sara [playing a gay lawyer].  I couldn't improvise on Sara at all."

Fortunately Sara was canceled, and producers Tom Miller and Robert Boyett knew they had their innocent-abroad shepherd.  And, says director Joel Zwick, the search for big-city cousin Larry ended the minute Mark Linn-Baker, a Broadway actor best known for the movie "My Favorite Year," showed up to read with Pinchot.  "Bronson and Mark are much different personalities," Zwick notes, "but when it comes to working together, they're like twins."

"It's true," Linn-Baker says.  "We have one personality at work.  We trade off.  If he's shy and quiet one day, I'm outgoing.  If I'm sullen one day, he's happy and gregarious.  A friend of mine, an actor I've known for years, watched us rehearse and said, 'You know, you've never been that comfortable at anything.'  It's like Bronson and I have a shorthand that only the two of us understand."

"The work relationship is like a good old vaudeville team," Pinchot says.  "It's both great and, at times, horrifying.  Because it's like we know what the other is thinking, so there's no hiding anything.  If we're angry with each other, there's no way to pretend we're not.

"It gets very, very intense.  There are times when I feel like just running away, because it's a little scary to have somebody read your mind.  And I know when he doesn't like something -- his breathing changes very subtly and his hair starts to fluff up."

Away from the set, doing publicity together or over dinner, "Mark and I share common interests; it isn't like work is the only thing we have to talk about.  He was at Yale, too.  You know, we can talk about Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, all kinds of things.  And we finish each other's sentences."

Pinchot can also finish Linn-Baker's sentences in almost any accent -- it depends who he's been talking to that particular day.  "It's been a boon, obviously, professionally," Pinchot observes, "but it's also hazardous.  Frequently, by the time I'm through talking to someone with a strong accent, I'm automatically imitating it, and there are times when they get offended.  I have a hard time avoiding it; accents are like magnets to me."

Balki's accent, Pinchot hopes, is completely made up, an unlocatable amalgam of various Mediterranean sounds the actor has heard.  "The producers didn't want a 'Serge' takeoff.  They said, 'Look, if this series flies, you're going to be identified with the Balki sound for a long time; make it original, and make it something you can live with'."

Pinchot has a house in L.A. now where he can indulge his taste for 19th-century Scandinavian furniture.  In addition, "I love 19th-century fiction; I could just bury myself in it forever.  And I love books on Greek art between 600 and 100 B.C."  When he goes to the record shop, a lot of "wading through" goes on -- "I like music from about 1400 to 1600 A.D.  So there's a good deal of sifting past 900 to 1400 and from 1700 on.  At Yale, I lived in a room in a house owned by a university record librarian, so my musical tastes got rather specialized."  (At the same time, an actor in "Risky Business" recalls Pinchot not recognizing the Beatles' "White Album.")

During this summer's hiatus from Perfect Strangers, Pinchot may have some feature film work to do, but either way he'll almost certainly make time to take his annual trip abroad.  Last summer's foray was a scheduled excursion from London through the European countryside, with stopovers in Paris and Monte Carlo and ending -- where else? -- in Greece.

This summer's expedition?  Well, don't count on Paris or Monte Carlo.  But Greece -- call it a sure bet.

Let's hope those sheepherders don't get offended when the stranger who claims he just wants to hang around a while starts echoing their accent exactly.