TV Host Weekly
April 28 - May 4, 1990

Mark Linn-Baker Brings a Class Act to Perfect Strangers

by Mark Allison

A lot of sitcoms try to be hip and up-to-date.  Not Perfect Strangers.  It prefers to look backward, to dig into television's past and uncover nuggets of pure comic gold.

"When we set out to do the show, we wanted to do an old-fashioned character comedy," explains Mark Linn-Baker, who plays uptight Larry Appleton on the series.  "We talked about I Love Lucy.  We talked about The Honeymooners.  That was the tradition we were harking back to."

The show's old-fashioned influences are obvious.  Just watch Linn-Baker and co-star Bronson Pinchot, as Larry and immigrant cousin Balki Bartokomous, try to lug a piano up eight flights of stairs -- remind you of the Three Stooges?  Or listen to Larry teach Balki the who-what-where rules of newspaper reporting ("The first rule is 'what.'"  "I don't know.  What is the first rule?") - it's straight from Abbott and Costello.

Of course they give the old stuff a new twist, and they make the gags their own, as Linn-Baker is quick to point out.  "We can do some extreme physical comedy," he chuckles, "but it works because it's based in character."

What makes the shtick so successful?  Talent and timing.  A veteran of stage and screen, the 36-year-old actor is a show business pro.  And as Strangers wraps up its fifth season, he and his cohort have their routine down pat.

Is it easy?  "We work to make it look that way," Linn-Baker reports, "but it's real intense work."  So even though the show is filmed quickly -- the weekly production schedule was recently cut from five days to four -- the actor says that he and his colleagues take their work seriously.

It pays off.  Larry and Balki's comic interplay looks effortless; the rapid-fire double-talk and wild pratfalls hit the mark every time.  According to Linn-Baker, the chemistry between him and his co-star was there from the start.  The show's creators had signed Pinchot first, soon after he caused a stir as gallery guide Serge in Beverly Hills Cop.  Then they saw Linn-Baker on an episode of Moonlighting.  He was promptly called in.  "From that first scene that we did together," he remembers, "it just clicked."

Asked if he and the crazily compulsive Larry are alike, the actor laughs.  Then he considers the comparison.  "Yeah, I'm an obsessive, compulsive person," he confesses.  "I think probably I became an actor because that was a good antidote for that . . . Larry Appleton, unfortunately, doesn't have that antidote!"

One of Linn-Baker's personal obsessions is the theater.  Every summer, when his TV work is done, the actor heads to Vassar College, where he directs plays, develops scripts and conducts workshops with New York Stage and Film, a production company / training program he helped establish five years ago.  He's already planning this summer's projects.

But the man who does slapstick and Shakespeare doesn't plan on leaving Perfect Strangers anytime soon.  Playing Cousin Larry, he says, is still a lot of fun: "I think it has to be because we do a comedy, and if it's not fun, it's awfully hard work . . . We do have a good time."