Men's Look Magazine
August 1987

Mark Linn-Baker: No Stranger to Perfection

From the Yale School of Drama, to Broadway, to feature film, to the weekly grind of sitcom television, very little seems to intimidate this co-star of Perfect Strangers.

by Michael Sheeter

A little nervous, but glad to be in his element, Mark Linn-Baker waits to go on behind the high wooden partitions that screen him from the view of tonight’s audience.

It’s just past seven p.m., and the familiar bump, shuffle and clatter of more than 200 people settling into their seats invokes the ritual urge to peek through the curtains and check out the house.  But there are no curtains and no checking out the house, and tonight there will be no empty seats to fret over, thanks to the pervasive power of network television.

Despite the comforting outward similarities – the cotton-mouthed adrenaline rush of an opening night, the last-minute flurry of tech activity on the set, the imminent gratification arising from doing what he does best – this is not legitimate theater, and most of Linn-Baker’s new fans couldn’t care less.

This is soundstage 24 on the venerable MGM lot in Culver City, the point of manufacture for ABC’s situation comedy Perfect Strangers.  The show was a mid-season replacement that cleaned up in the ratings when six hastily assembled episodes were aired last winter.  Network execs have voiced unusually high hopes for this, the first full season, which begins tonight.  Mark Linn-Baker and co-star Bronson Pinchot have been encouraged to plan for an extended engagement, and the press has taken to comparing them to the great buddy teams of TV history: Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden, Desi and Lucy, Rocky and Bullwinkle, you name it.  Pretty heady stuff for two nouveau baggy-pants comedians who learned most of their best moves at Yale.

Outside, near soundstage six, the lot is in a state of flux.  Last October Lorimar Telepictures bought MGM’s physical plant and re-named it, and workmen have only recently dismantled the gigantic likeness of Leo the Lion, the former studio mascot, which stood atop soundstage six for 50 years.

The lot’s new masters have wisely chosen to retain the names of the old studio buildings, though, savoring their historic associations.  The Barrymore building, the Gable building and the Tracy building all stand within 100 yards of where Linn-Baker now reports for work, and every one of them is named for a dedicated stage actor who defected to a more popular medium, seduced by more money, more recognition, more power.

Mark Linn-Baker, whose considered preference for the theater may be genetic, is pretty sure that the same temptations will never alter the priorities he brought with him from New York.  Money aside – which he likes – power and recognition do not figure in his long-range calculations.

"I’m fortunate a show came along I can feel good about doing," he says.  "Granted, we’re not curing cancer, but throughout the cast and crew, there’s a general respect for one another’s abilities.  Bronson and I have the latitude we need to keep our creative edge, and each episode offers us the excitement of performing in a little play every week in front of a live audience.  All in all, it’s not unlike the family feeling you get in a repertory theater group."

At present, though, Linn-Baker stands on his mark, absorbed by his mental reconnaissance of the script at hand.  A score of writers, camera assistants, and stage dressers eddies around him, accustomed to his need for a little pre-performance isolation.

The muffled voice of the warmup man can be heard from behind the walls, gamely plugging away at one of the most thankless jobs in town.  The pacing of his routine gives everyone in the cast and crew a running gauge of the time remaining before the cameras start rolling.  It won’t be long now.

Grips remove the partitions and, at the audience’s first sight of both stars, Linn-Baker looks up into the gallery long enough to grin and wave at a boisterous, cheering claque of college kids.  He then consults briefly with Pinchot about a bit of physical business and, immediately after their conference, ducks back down into his meditations as abruptly as a prairie dog seeking its hole.

The warmup man has lost his audience, and he knows it.  Below and behind him there are too many events gathering momentum on the set, which is dressed as the apartment shared by Linn-Baker and Pinchot, the two cousins of the show’s premise.

Five feet forward of the front row, cameramen and their assistants are fitting film magazines onto the big, mobile Panavision cameras, and director Joel Zwick darts between them, parceling out the coverage of the first sequence.  Linn-Baker is still absorbed in his mental rehearsal.  Seconds before the cameras start rolling, the slate man draws near with his clapper, which serves to calibrate the film strip for later editing.

The clapper, or slate, or whatever you call it, is a futuristic job, with a digital display of flashing red numbers.  Linn-Baker catches the unfamiliar red out of the corner of his eye, and murmurs in a stage whisper, "What is that?"

MARK LINN-BAKER’S WEST COAST home is a highrise apartment building on the beach, and his modest one-bedroom apartment is on the 16th floor, with a commanding ocean view. In order to see it, you have to go onto the balcony and make a half-turn to the right.

The altitude and the identical building 100 yards away is as close as you can get to a Manhattan-like proximity to the masses in sunny Santa Monica, but the Pacific ocean is always there to counterbalance the effect with a remedial slice of nature.  The apartment itself is furnished in the minimalist style of a man whose primary residence is elsewhere.  Linn-Baker has recently purchased a co-op in New York.  The living room of his West Coast bivouac is dominated by a large, spanking-new sofa with a wicker frame.  Its owner sometimes reaches down in mid-sentence to knock wicker, the superstitious gesture apparently meant to block the fates from visiting him with supernatural paybacks.

Few people would begrudge him a certain financial pragmatism in the face of his current situation: After all, he has a top-rated television show, a lucrative residual income from several television commercials (let’s not forget that he’s got a high TVQ, the visibility scale by which Hollywood’s power brokers pick their television stars), plus a bravura film performance, keeping his reputation lustrous through the video-rental arena.

Still, his conversation invariably returns to the East Coast and the life of the theater.  The effect is somewhat wistful, as if he were not so much of the pop culture as enmeshed in it.  He undoubtedly feels his present circumstances temporary.  And arguably, he trusts in his own caution and detachment to tell him when the time is ripe to blow Hollywood’s popsicle stand.  He jests at the West Coast riptides, but this season he will have to test himself against their gravitational pull.

Ask to name the work he is proudest of to date, he says promptly, "That would be a production of Waiting for Godot in Boston, with Bob Brustein’s American Repertory Theater.  He had been the head of Yale’s drama school when I was there, and had moved to Cambridge to accept a similar job at Harvard.  I had wanted to do the play for years, and so had Andre Belgrader, a Rumanian director I knew from Yale and around New York.  The production won the Boston Critic’s Circle Award for best production of 1983."

Linn-Baker can give similar thumbnail sketches of every other play he has ever been associated with, the first taking place well in advance of his own birth.

His father was directing a play at the University of Missouri when he met Mark’s mother-to-be, a dancer.  Several years after they married, and Mark was born, the family settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford.  Mark was about seven at the time, and his childhood memories are vividly highlighted by the continuing involvement of his parents in community theater.  He began attending rehearsals, helping out backstage, and artfully politicking to be cast in children’s roles.  His father went on to found the Open Stage Theater in Hartford, and he takes satisfaction in recalling the stir the Open Stage caused with its non-discriminatory casting policy, daring for its time.

His lust for the footlights still unsated, he stayed in community theater all the way through to his graduation from Wethersfield High, where he also acted in student plays.  Then we was accepted at Yale.

In his last undergraduate semester at New Haven, he had enough credits to graduate early with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.  Instead he enrolled in the drama school’s post-grad Master of Fine Arts curriculum.

The Yale School of Drama is famous for the stress it places upon the theatrical work ethic and, as an acting major, Linn-Baker spent the next three years immersing himself in his craft for 14 hours a day, at times struggling with as many as three plays simultaneously.  He was a part of the Yale rep, a professional theater group associated with the school, and on the side he earned extra money by organizing a cabaret act with friends, touring the area schools and clubs with his one-man mime show.

During his second year of grad school, he was invited to participate in Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, appearing as Bertram in the N.Y.S.F. production of All’s Well That Ends Well.

This was in 1978, and Woody Allen, who was then filming Manhattan, decided to include a snippet of Mark’s performance as a background to one of his sequences.  The appearance was later cut from the movie, but Linn-Baker received a Screen Actor’s Guild card for his shadowy contribution, and was later unnerved to learn that Allen had mistakenly carried him on Manhattan’s credit roll as Mary Linn-Baker.  Ironically, Bronson Pinchot had also been cut from an Allen film, Annie Hall.

Linn-Baker received his graduate degree in 1979, and stayed with repertory theater for the next two years.  Then, in 1981, fledgling feature-film director Richard Benjamin gave Mark his only cinematic leading role to date.  An accomplished stage and film actor in his own right, Benjamin had been searching for a seasoned young unknown capable of holding the screen opposite co-stars Peter O’Toole and Joseph Bologna.  A casting director saw Mark onstage at the Public Theater in New York, doing The Laundry Hour.  Greatly impressed, he talked Benjamin into flying the actor out to Los Angeles for a screen test.

"I kept being introduced to people associated with My Favorite Year, Richard’s film, at MGM," Linn-Baker chuckles reminiscently.  "And I finally made up a S.A.G. rule to the effect that if they introduced you to more than three people on a picture, they had to give you the part."  He adds, "MGM has always been lucky for me."

As it turned out, the implied threat of a union beef proved to be unnecessary.  Still, one of Linn-Baker’s ardent fans, Richard Benjamin, recently took time off from editing Little Nikita, his third film, to talk about the star of his first.

"He got the part because of his physicality and self-confidence," Benjamin recalls.  "And a week or so into filming, Peter O’Toole approached me to talk about him.  Peter is very kind and tactful, but from his roundabout manner, I thought he was about to register a complaint.  ‘About young Mark Linn,’ he said, ‘You did well to find yourself a stage actor of such quality.  Very well-cast indeed. He’s professional far beyond his years, and very, very funny.’  That exactly summarizes my opinion too.  I think you can only acquire that fearlessness of Mark’s in the live theater.  It’s an invaluable learning laboratory."

Queried about being intimidated by the likes of O’Toole, Benjamin and Bologna, Linn-Baker looks honestly perplexed by the notion.

"Intimidated?" he responds.  "Not really, no.  The assumption I operated under was that I had worked hard to get the benefit of my training, and now it was time to put my training to some use.  Certainly, My Favorite Year offered me a challenge, but I had learned to defuse the stress of challenges in repertory theater by hunting them out before they found me first.  Then too, the people I was working with were all products of a similar background on the stage, and we had a lot in common."

A thumping critical success, My Favorite Year is the story of Benjy Stone, a young writer in the early days of television, who inherits the hazardous duty of babysitting a self-destructive movie star guest on his employer’s show.

Richard Benjamin says that Benjy’s character was a composite of two present-day industry giants: "The situation was based on Norman Lear’s early career.  He had been a writer on the Martha Raye show when Errol Flynn did a guest shot.  Benjy’s personality derived from the young Mel Brooks.  Mel himself would sometimes drop in on our dailies, and he was thrilled with Mark’s performance.  He said to me, ‘God, that kid is good!’"

His name thus linked to television history, the events that were to culminate in Perfect Strangers and Mark Linn-Baker’s present role began to knit themselves together.  After the release of My Favorite Year, he contentedly returned to New York and involved himself in a new project, New York Stage and Film.  A professional theater company he helped found, N.Y.S.F. is to Vassar College what the Yale rep is to Yale University.

His position with the company allowed him an experimental forum not only as an actor, but also as a teacher and director.  One of the first plays he directed, Savage in Limbo by John Patrick Shanley, enjoyed a run on the New York stage.  "I could quite happily spend the rest of my life teaching and directing," Linn-Baker sighs, "always providing they let me act occasionally."

Meanwhile, by the spring of 1984, Perfect Strangers creator and co-executive producer Dale McRaven was closeted with Tom Miller and Bob Boyett.  The team of Miller and Boyett is a formidable combination in situation comedy, having won its spurs on show like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.  The three men were trying to come up with a suitable television showcase for the talents of Bronson Pinchot.

Pinchot was fresh from a triumph of a bit part in Beverly Hills Cop.  Serge, the snooty immigrant art-gallery clerk he played, had eclipsed Eddie Murphy in every scene the two of them had shared together.  People all over town were leaving the theater echoing Serge’s catch phrase: "Doan be stupid."

McRaven, Miller and Boyett cast about for a way to adapt Pinchot’s immigrant for prime time.  Pinchot’s unquestioned talent and originality aside, there was a certain amount of precedent to guide them.

The uniform of Balki Bartakomous (sic), the Pinchot Perfect Strangers character, is clearly recognizable in Punch cartoons of the 1870s, and more recently, on television as Ricky Ricardo, Uncle Tanoose, and Latka Gravas.  The premise of helping the funny foreigner to assimilate may be so enduring because of the implicit appeal of reshaping the rest of the world to more appropriate, more American proportions, at least in our imagination.

Plainly, an all-American babysitter / mentor was needed to help Balki adjust.  My Favorite Year had been out of release for several years by then, but Miller and Boyett had fortuitously caught Mark Linn-Baker’s recent guest shot on the popular TV show Moonlighting.  He had done to Bruce Willis exactly what Bronson Pinchot had done to Eddie Murphy, and upon enquiry, he was willing to read for the part of Larry Appleton, Balki’s American cousin.

"Mark literally invented his own part on the spot," remembers Bronson Pinchot.  "The pages he was handed to audition with were really very nebulous, sort of a generic piece of writing.  He just sat down and figured out what I was doing and cued into that.  And he did it so effectively that within 50 seconds I felt I had known him all my life."

As it happened, Pinchot and Linn-Baker had briefly been on the Yale campus at the same time, but had never met.

"Mark’s creative vitality was strongly apparent from the first moment he walked in the room," enthuse Tom Miller.  "We went immediately into production.  The film was still wet on those first six episodes when we showed them to the network.  Brandon (Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC entertainment) loved the chemistry between Mark and Bronson from the very first, and he has given us his unstinting support."

Thus, ABC’s smash entrant into the regular fall lineup, the survivor of an arena so competitive it would make a champion pit bull blanch.  In the collaborative, derivative alchemy of the sitcom, you get a lot of cheap alloys.  And from time to time, when the people involved in the project are right, something very like gold.

MIDWAY THROUGH THE FILMING of the first episode, Linn-Baker, Pinchot, and director Joel Zwick put their heads together.  They decided to backtrack long enough to reshoot a troublesome sight gag.

"Seventy minutes at the halfway point," moans a production assistant, looking at her watch.  "This might go two, two and a half hours!"  Her despair had reference to Perfect Strangers’ reputation for speedy shooting schedules.  The cast and crew often gets a 24-page episode in the can in less than two hours.  By comparison, other sitcoms often take three or four hours to do the same thing.

Within the past few minutes Linn-Baker and Pinchot have performed their own state-of-the-art variations upon Abbot (sic) & Costello doublespeak, the athletic swarming shtick of the Marx Brothers, and the interpersonal bumbling of Laurel and Hardy.  Both Linn-Baker and Pinchot are still full of vigor and energy of their youth, and heretical to say it, their timing is as good as that of the old masters.  Maybe even better.

"We are eclectic," Bronson Pinchot admits.  "We appropriate material constantly.  We ransack the television work and filmography of everybody from Tom Hanks to Harold Lloyd."

As Oscar Wilde once observed, mediocrity borrows, and genius steals.  On the soundstage below, Linn-Baker and Pinchot break their huddle and proceed to demonstrate exactly what he meant by that.