September 8, 1986
Is This Guy for Real?
From Beverly Hills Cop to Perfect Strangers,
Bronson Pinchot leaves ‘em
by Mark Morrison
Photography by Mark Hanauer Onyx
Bronson Pinchot can’t
stop talking. "I really can’t," he says. "I
feel something coming, it’s up to here" – he grabs his throat –
"and it’s out. I don’t know why." Wearing a loud turquoise
print shirt, jeans and wire-rim glasses as he zips along what he calls "the
ugliest freeway known to man," the twenty-seven-year-old Pinchot peppers
his passenger with questions and observations.
"Do you want to be a Jehovah’s
Witness?" he asks out of the blue, then waits for an answer. So you
shake your head and he continues, "I don’t either. I don’t like
not celebrating Christmas, do you?" You admit that would be a
gyp, and he wonders what the origins of the word gyp are.
"Gypsies?" he speculates. "Because they were transient, and
maybe they’d sell you something that wasn’t good?" Then he stops
and says, as if it were necessary, "I think some words have incredibly
unbelievable interesting histories. Like cretin." And he
launches forth on the word’s French etymology, taught to him by a professor of
ancient Greek at Yale. By the time he finishes and says, "Don’t you
just love it?" you’re beginning to eye him like just maybe he’s
If Pinchot can’t stop talking, it’s
because he’s got a lot to say. "Bronson doesn’t have a single
unexpressed thought – and I mean that in the nicest way," says Curtis
Armstrong, the actor who appeared with Pinchot and Tom Cruise in Risky
Business. "When they put Bronson together, they left out the
censor. It’s what makes people love him, and what makes him drive people
up the wall."
It’s also a big part of his
success. His disarming openness has endeared TV viewers to Balki
Bartokomous, the character from the land of Mipos [sic] whom he plays on
Perfect Strangers, who moves in with his U.S. cousin (Mark Linn-Baker).
But when audiences discovered Pinchot in Beverly
Hills Cop, they had no idea who – or what – he was. As
Serge, the snooty art-gallery attendant of uncertain sexual preference and
indecipherable dialect, Pinchot turned in a performance that even the film’s
star, Eddie Murphy, enjoyed. "Eddie was very cool," he
recalls. "He never said my name to me at all, or hi or anything
else. He’d always talk to a third person, like he’d say to the
director, ‘I love what he just did, and I think he should do this.’"
Though audiences and critics embraced
Serge, many assumed that Pinchot’s comic creation was an act. Was he a
comic who’d done Serge for years? Was he just doing schtick?
No one knew what to make of the scene-stealer.
"There are two poles in me,"
Pinchot explains. "One is my acting training and my commitment to
it. Then there’s the other stuff that you just have. People
think if you’re an actor, you have to be Sean Penn, and if you’re a comic,
you have to be Rodney Dangerfield. I think, for me, the two are totally
With Perfect Strangers, this is
becoming more obvious, and audiences are accepting Pinchot as a different
character. True, he has concocted a new oddball accent for the role.
Yes, Balki’s catch phrase, "Don’t be ridiculous," is reminiscent
of Serge’s "Don’t be stupid." And granted, producers Tom
Miller and Bob Boyett approached Pinchot in the first place on the strength of
his work in Beverly Hills Cop. But they soon found they got even
more than they bargained for. "Wide-eyed innocence in a man who is
that smart is a rare combination," says Miller. "Bronson is
grounded in his own reality."
Born in New York City,
Pinchot was named after Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father.
"My mother loved him," he says. She also loved Shakespeare and
Oscar Wilde, and started reading plays out loud to her four children (Bronson is
the second oldest of three sons and a daughter).
The family moved to a tiny two-bedroom
house in South Pasadena, California, when Bronson was still a toddler. His
father, a U.S. citizen of Russian descent who’d lived in France, was a
bookbinder. But Bronson’s parents were divorced in 1965, and his mother
was left to support the family by herself. At first, she cleaned houses;
then she worked as a typist. Welfare kept the family afloat.
"We couldn’t ask for anything – a new pair of pants – ever,"
Bronson recalls. "I never sat down in a restaurant until I was just
about seventeen. We were just lucky not to be in a ditch."
But Rosina Pinchot gave them other
riches. "She used to do these funny mom things," says
Bronson. "When I was fifteen, I was staying up all night to finish
this drawing. At about midnight, I put on some coffee and went in to say
‘Good night, I’m staying up to do this,’ and my mom asked if she could
read me something. I said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘I know you’ve
never read The Importance of Being Earnest, and I want you to hear it.’"
Though Bronson was the only one to pursue
an acting career, everyone in his family enjoyed clowning around and imitating
one another. When his sister was nine, she arbitrarily decided that the
word balcony deserved a nickname: "balki." "My
younger brother hated it and said, ‘Don’t ever say that word again.’
And she would torture him with it for years." (Bronson surprised them
by resurrecting the name for his character.)
An honors student who was bored with his
classes, Bronson couldn’t resist a great setup for a punch line when he saw it
coming. "I was this incredible smartass. I had an F in
citizenship, but I had A +’s – not just A’s – in class." So,
with his mother’s approval, he started staying home instead, and read Kafka
and Thomas Wolfe on his own.
Nevertheless, Pinchot says he graduated
first in his class and went to Yale to study art. Once there, he became an
instant hit in a campus production of As You Like It, and was encouraged
to study acting by a professor who told him he had "the know-how to make
people look at you." The same thing happened when he moved to New
York in 1981. Desperate for work, he auditioned for a French operetta and
was asked to do a French accent. The play was a flop, but Bronson was,
again, a hit.
After appearing in an off-Broadway play, Poor
Little Lambs with Kevin Bacon, he made his film debut in Risky Business.
When actor Curtis Armstrong first got to know Pinchot on location in Chicago, he
didn’t know what to make of him. "I couldn’t figure him
out. One day we were driving, and I was playing a tape of the Beatles’ White
Album and he said, ‘Who’s this?’ I thought he was pulling my
leg. But he had such a solitary childhood, he’d never heard the
Beatles. I would play him their records, and he was hearing them for the
first time. It was like being with Mork."
Despite the pending success of Risky
Business, Pinchot continued to struggle. He broke up with his fianceé
(a soap-opera actress), lived on peanut butter and lost a lot of weight.
When things got really bad, Pinchot began
selling off his prized collection of Wizard of Oz posters.
"Tom Cruise told me, ‘Bronson, sell them to me, and I’ll give them back
to you.’" But Pinchot declined the offer. Cruise also
counseled him against doing television. "Tom said, ‘I like your
work, and I think that when Risky Business comes out, you’ll be offered
a lot of TV, but whatever you do, don’t do it.’ I said, ‘Tom, I’m
not going to have your career, and I need the money.’ He said, ‘If you
need money, I’ll lend it to you, just don’t do it."
But when Pinchot was offered
$4500 a week to play a gay lawyer on the short-lived sitcom, Sara, he
grabbed it. "I’m not the same kind of actor Tom Cruise is," he
says. "He’d get lost on television. He needs to be on the big
screen, and kind of monumental, like an icon. On television, you have to
pull a Jackie Gleason and wing it."
Pinchot parks his Toyota
Tercel on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna and heads for an austere
storefront. He has a passion for eighteenth-century Swedish antiques –
his West Los Angeles apartment is filled with relics – but today, he’s out
of luck: the antiques store is closed. "I don’t believe it!"
he says. Looks like he’ll save some money this time.
Not that he cares about saving
money. He’s not used to having any, and prefers to remain unaffected by
it. But he is not a conspicuous consumer. He’s bought himself a
letter penned by Charles Dickens and an Oscar Wilde autograph for his mother.
And as for his father – it is three
years since he reluctantly agreed to visit him in the leisure village outside
L.A. where he lives. But his father didn’t recognize him when he drove
up. Quicker than most people to open up, Bronson is just as quick to cut
people off. "I don’t even know him not to like him," he says of his
Aside from that, everything in Pinchot’s
life is going well. Almost. "I feel a little undernourished in
the female-companionship department," he says. "My average
relationship in New York used to last a year. Ever since I’ve been in
California, my average has dropped to about four weeks."
But right now, Pinchot has to satisfy more
immediate needs. He is hungry, and ducks into a high-tech gelato store –
and orders a giant scoop of gooey chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. He
looks openly at the girl behind the counter the same way he did at Eddie Murphy
in Serge’s art gallery. He asks her if she eats a lot when nobody’s
looking, and whether she ever eats ice cream with her hands. She smiles at
him, figuring he’s just shooting the breeze. But he’s waiting for an
answer, and suddenly it dawns on her: this guy is for real.