San Francisco Chronicle

 Quirky Actor Pinchot Believes in Balki

by John Stanley
Chronicle Staff Writer
Photo by Tom Levy

At first, as he sits in the dining room of a San Francisco hotel, Bronson Pinchot seems a bit aloof, a touch distant, as if he doesn't trust the situation.  As if his body is there, but another part of him is in Peoria, maybe, or Philadelphia.

There's also this sense of frenetic energy, as if he might fly off the face of the earth at any moment.  Or perhaps it's the jitters.  Whatever the case, he has an eager appetite.  He not only orders a club sandwich, which he wolfs without hesitation, but he asks for an extra helping of potato salad the moment the original portion is consumed.  And he dutifully eats it all up, as if that plate of food in front of him was the only thing of any importance.

It is when the majority of food is put away into his lean body that the actor, 28, begins to take on new characteristics.  He becomes very interested in being the interviewee, and at one point, when the interviewer is not looking, he lowers his head to surface of the dining table and begins slowly approaching with his chin brushing along the smooth surface, his limber 5-foot-9 body moving like Plastic Man's and his bulging hazel-tinted eyes staring intently as if he's a Cookie Monster or maybe his version of a Goonie or a Gremlin.  Maybe the creatures are hairy like his chest, which is exposed through his unbuttoned black shirt.

Suddenly the rubbery faced Pinchot -- aloofness turned to charm, distance turned to warmth -- has transformed into the comedian-actor, having fun with the situation, apparently deciding he is on safer ground than he first thought.  And for a few moments he's playing Balki Bartokomous, late of the Mediterranean island of Mypos.  Balki is that lovable Greek shepherd-turned-immigrant innocent who is always fracturing the English language in his state of agitated confusion on "Perfect Strangers," the ABC comedy series now in its second season.

It's a combination of wacky language and physical comedy as Balki and his American cousin Larry Appleton (played by Mark Linn-Baker) yuck it up every week in their Chicago apartment.

For reasons of his own, Pinchot decides he'd like to talk about something he normally doesn't talk about: Balki, as far as he's concerned, "is a real person.  He exists.  He hibernates inside me.  And it's important that he get out of the guest room so I can change the sheets.  And I have to unleash him from within before I leave for the studio.  I must get him out into my home and let him run all over the place.  Through the living room, through the kitchen, in and out of the bathroom.  And then I just go to the studio and I'm Balki.  It's that simple."

And that complex.  "Balki is the great joy of my life.  He has breadth.  He can do drama, comedy, imitation, great buddy-buddy stuff.  Anything with characters Balki can do -- but I as Bronson Pinchot can't.  His character is more capable than my character.  He's physically stronger.  More athletic.  Don't forget, Balki's been carrying sheep under his arms for 25 years.  He has influence over people.  He goes into a room and can make everyone see things his way.  The real Bronson Pinchot can't do that."

It really gets a little weird, the way Pinchot keeps talking about Balki and himself as two distinctly separate people.  Especially when he says, "Women fall in love with the character of Balki and expect to find that quality in me.  And when they meet me they suddenly realize I'm either more interesting than they thought, or I'm not interesting at all."  Even he admits this dual-identity business is something he's articulating for the first time, and he wonders why.  "Why all these deep personal thoughts today?"  Maybe it's . . . the potato salad?

Since playing Balki, Pinchot has refused all villain roles.  "I won't play evil," he says.  "I don't want that inside me.  I'm not interested in playing negative qualities."  He says it with a trace of fear, as if he believes even make-believe could be harmful to an actor's health.

Pinchot, who was nominated for an Emmy for best leading actor in a comedy series last year, has made offbeat characters such as Balki his specialty.  His wide range of dialects came about from a workshop in 1983, starting with French and working through Dublinese, Parisian, cockney, Israeli and Greek.  "Some [dialects] I made up, though I must have heard them somewhere and I just don't remember where."  One of these undefined accents is what led to his great success in 1984 when he portrayed Serge (a haughty, pretentious art gallery clerk) in "Beverly Hills Cop."

Pinchot, who describes Serge as a "fruity little guy" as the script originally was written, was asked to improvise something.  After waiting in the outer office for two hours, he said, "What the hell," and decided to play it zany.  He got the part.

The final scene lasted less than five minutes, but it was the rave cameo role of the year, and removed him from obscurity forever.

It was only a few months after the Eddie Murphy comedy-action film had been released when producers Robert Boyett and Tom Miller asked Pinchot to star in the TV pilot "The Greenhorn," an earlier incantation of "Perfect Strangers."  Pinchot's role would be that of a European from an underdeveloped nation.  The idea had been inspired, the producing team told Pinchot, by the international spirit of the 1984 Olympics, when athletes from different nations got together and struggled to overcome different customs and languages.

Pinchot immediately said no, thinking it was a rip-off of the Serge character with a funny accent.  He told his agent, "That sounds really stupid.  Let's forget all about it."

By chance he was leaving just then for a vacation to Europe, where "a strange coincidence occurred.  When I got to Europe I looked at the people and realized they had a special way of looking at the world, quite different from ours.  In Greece I experience village life firsthand and saw things you just don't see in America.  Here we throw a paper away but in Greece they turn it over and use the other side.  There's a generosity and simplicity of the people."

He returned to Hollywood "with a new understanding" and went back to the producers to tell them he had changed his mind.  They weren't startled -- they "knew I'd be back sooner or later."  Part of the original premise was tossed out at Pinchot's suggestion.  The country was based on Greece, based on what Pinchot had seen and learned, and he helped to refine his character, until then named Vev.

The producers suggested a new name, Apollo Galaxidi.  Pinchot winced.  Then he thought of his sister's dog, Balcony, whose name she had shortened to "Balcy."  Hence, Balki Bini Bartokomous was born.  [Editor's Note: In other interviews Bronson says he was the one who came up with the name Apollo for the character and Miller / Boyett were the ones who nixed it]

Another good thing that happened about then was the death of his comedy series "Sara."  It was a good thing because the show was bad, and the cancellation freed him for something good again.

From the age of 3, Pinchot was brought up in Pasadena, his father abandoning his mother when Pinchot and his brother and sister were still quite young.  Times were hard.  Food was scarce.  Restaurants were never visited.  (Perhaps explaining his voracious appetite.)

A graduate of South Pasadena High School, Pinchot enrolled at Yale to further his penchant for painting, but was sidetracked into acting by playing Jacques in "As You Like It" and George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Pinchot did one play in New York ("Poor Little Lambs") before he was seen by a casting director and brought into "Risky Business."  There were parts in "Flamingo Kid," "After Hours" and "Hot Resort" before the phenomenal break in "Beverly Hills Cop."

His next project will be "Second Sight," in which he will play Bobby McGee, a psychic ghost chaser in a Boston detective agency who assists the local police in a kidnaping investigation.  "This man sees the unseen and sees a direct connection with the divinity.  He's the genuine article.  He can channel to another world, he has an open channel to the garbage of the universe."  The $15 million Lorimar production will be directed by Joel Zwick, who helmed 50 episodes of "Perfect Strangers."

Beyond that, Pinchot sees "a new turn ahead.  Right now I'm an accepted TV fixture, associated with good laughs.  It's time to risk my neck and do other things.  I have to face the danger of falling on my face as another character.  What kind of character?  Which accent do you want to hear next?"