February 11 - 17, 1989
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
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
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
"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."
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
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'
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.
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.