April 21, 2023 Interview – Bronson Pinchot
There are characters from film and television which transcend the screen. These types of characters almost immediately provoke a smile, touching our hearts, and stick with us forever. Seasoned Actor Bronson Pinchot is well aware of this, both as a lover of cinema, and someone who portrayed one of the most iconic characters in ’80s television – Balki Bartokomous from the hit sitcom Perfect Strangers. Starring as the innocent, loveable Balki for eight years, Pinchot earned tremendous fame and recognition. A special time in his career, however, Pinchot’s talents did not cease as the Myposian from Perfect Strangers… in fact, they go far deeper.
Getting his start in big films such as 1983’s Risky Business, 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, among others, in 1993 he would take on a different kind of role among the star-studded cast of True Romance. From here Pinchot would continue to showcase his broad range with roles in 1996’s Courage Under Fire, as well as various other Dramas, Comedies, and even Horror films/series through the decades. A testament to his talents, yet still, there is even more to Bronson Pinchot. In fact, he is also a well-rounded student of history, art, and architecture. A compelling individual, Pinchot recently took the time to talk about his career, what comedy means to him, plus diversification not only with his acting roles, but in life.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in acting professionally for over forty years now. Having success in television, feature films, and in the theater, how would you describe your incredible journey as an actor to this point?
Bronson Pinchot – That is a really interesting question, and I don’t get asked it that often. I will tell you exactly what describes my journey, and that is discovering little by little that I don’t need to do much of anything for the performance to come across. It’s nobody’s fault, but some people have green eyes, some people have freckles, and some people, apparently, if you just think the correct thoughts that the character is thinking… then the audience and/or camera picked it up. They never told me that when I was in acting school; they told me you have to go for it. I think early on in my career I did too much.
One of the big moments in my acting journey was within a sequence in True Romance. The character Elliot is penetrating this meeting, double-crossing his boss and his associates in the coke ring… so he has to show no emotion that way they don’t realize it. So, I kept saying to myself when we were filming it, “show nothing, show nothing, show nothing.” Then I saw the movie, and everything was showing. I said, “That is what it is like when you show nothing? That is nothing!” Then I did an unscripted television show called The Bronson Pinchot Project. Since I was myself, I didn’t feel the need to do anything. It was a renovation show with antiques, and every once in a while, they would say, “when you open that lamp, which is broken, can we do it again, and can you be more disappointed?” I would tell them, “I opened it in real time, and I was disappointed, you got it… what do you want?” They would tell me they needed more, and I would say to them, “You mean the other Bronson Pinchot?” I’m Bronson Pinchot, it’s called The Bronson Pinchot Project, I just opened an antique lamp that was broken in real time. They would tell me, “Well, you just stared at it.” I told them, “Well, that must be authentic!”
Things like that really did teach me that I don’t really need to do much. Most acting training is project, project more, and get it out there. It turns out not to be necessary for me. I’m sorry I didn’t know that decades earlier. Although, in things like Beverly Hills Cop, Risky Business, and The Flamingo Kid (1984) I am doing next to nothing. I didn’t know that was the key though.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting. Isn’t that always the story? We always wish we knew then what we know now.
Bronson Pinchot – Yea! There is a great line in the movie The Madness of King George (1994), and it’s an amazing movie! After his big bout of madness and he is kind of back to normal, they ask him, “What did it feel like to be insane?” and he said, “Well, I was the same person, I just forgot how to seem.”
The thing about acting is if you do it long enough, you are rigorous enough when you watch yourself, you listen to people, and trust people… you learn how to seem. You can’t do that as a writer or a painter; both of which I’ve done. As a writer or a painter, you can put it across anyway you like, but as an actor, you have to learn how to seem and to what degree to be at peace with yourself. It’s a gift and a lovely thing to be able to do.
It’s really weird when you’re doing absolutely nothing and people say how funny it is. I was just doing a scene recently in a new murder mystery. I came out in a raincoat with a hood, and the director said, “We need to see briefly that it is you.” This was even though the other characters in the scene (watching through the windows) must not know who it is, but the audience needs to know. So, I found some way to do it by just scratching my head or something, and there were all these laughs off camera as if that was considered to be some great comic choice… but it wasn’t at all.
I remember Tony Scott said to me when we were making True Romance, “Are you sneaking in funny stuff? I told him “Absolutely not,” but he said, “Alright then… are you sure?” I told him I was absolutely sure; the character has a conscience of what is funny, but I was not sneaking in comedy bits. Yet, some of it is really funny, but it was not because I was sneaking in comedy. It is because life is funny and danger is funny. Predicaments are not unfunny, and there is an awareness of that. It’s been pretty interesting, and people keep letting me do it… so I like that.
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Well you have done a lot of interesting things for the years. You mentioned Risky Business, which was your debut feature film before you went on to other features. Thereafter you moved into television in a big way with your leading role in Perfect Strangers. You were on Perfect Strangers for eight seasons. So, what was it like for you to segue into television, and portray this singular character for as long as you did?
Bronson Pinchot – I’m trying to remember; sometimes if you answer automatically, you forget how it is to put yourself in the shoes you wore at the time. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, certainly not in an interview, but to find the character, I decided I would lock myself into a bungalow at a hotel near Santa Barbara. When I was there, I would not allow myself to come out until I had the character. That’s what I thought I needed to do and I was there for two to three days. One day I woke up, and there were these weird slip-on shoes that I had actually purchased in Greece that were woven leather and they were blue. They were sitting on the floor, I woke up, looked at the shoes and went, “Ohhhh!” (Like what a miracle, I have shoes). That is how the character came to me and then I let myself go out to get something to eat.
I think for the first four years work was so exciting, the fame was so great, and you see the character’s big heart and innocence resonated with people in a way that isn’t that common. It was bigger than acting because families, children, grandmas and grandpas appreciated the character’s innocence, inclusiveness, and kindness. So, I might have gotten a little tired of it a bit earlier if it really had just been a dramatic character. People responded to it in a beautiful way, so it was a little bit broader than just an acting assignment.
The fame was extreme. We are hardwired to not like being stared at. So, when people are staring, when they don’t know any better, and you have an inner reaction of, “I don’t like that,” that takes some doing. I don’t think I really started to have some feelings of – I wish I was not locked into this until maybe year five. At that point I realized that I was missing speaking in my voice and making character choices in my own voice. Then fortunately True Romance came along, and there is this great dramatic role in my voice. The character was a much smaller human being than Balky; he was selfish and fearful. I did that and everyone responded well to it, so I breathed a sigh of relief and stepped over the chasm of – all he can do is speak in an accent.
I mostly remember the excitement of it, not so much playing the same character, but how Mark Linn-Baker and I would make a big deal out of going to the door. It was, how can we make that kind of a comic ballet, and that was marvelous. It was more like being on the stage than being on TV to tell you the truth. Mark used to make me promise that we would get everything in one take; so that it would always be fresh. There was this incredible excitement, like, I have to do it, I have to, and I can’t laugh. I used to be allergic to makeup and my nose would twitch, but it was all wonderful.
At a certain point the characters start to grow old. I was thirty-three at the end of the series and that started to be a little long in the tooth to play somebody who has never seen anything, but it was ok. Then it ended and I was able to do other things and not be type-cast; so, I was very grateful for that.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like you have very fond memories of that time in your career. Balky is one of the most iconic characters from that decade of television; everyone knows that character, regardless if they watched Perfect Strangers or not. The series had a very long run and it never grew long in the tooth for viewers because you and Mark appeared to have great chemistry.
Bronson Pinchot – We had a great belief in our duo and in our capability to come up with things that were really finely tuned. It was great because we were in it together and we would reach, reach as far as we possibly could, and reach a little more.
One of the great things that really shows that relationship was we did an episode where one of us dreamed we were The Honeymooners. I was doing this silly, loose-limbed bit, and during it I fell flat on the floor from about four feet up in the air. They ended up using the take, but you can see Mark Linn-Baker fall out of character for a second thinking, “Oh my god, there is my friend, I hope he didn’t break anything.” Then I picked myself up, he quickly layered his character back on, and we carried on. I loved that I had fallen on the floor, and I said to them, “I rarely ask any favors, but can you please keep that take? It would mean the world to me.” They kept it! It’s just twenty seconds long, but it’s a great record of us and the way we wanted to achieve something. You can see in Mark’s face (who was a young kid himself) and he is terrified thinking – did Bronson just break his face.
Cryptic Rock – That is a crazy story, but as you said, it shows the comradery that yourself and Mark had together on and off screen. Perfect Strangers lasted for nearly a decade, and that is very long for any television series. After the series ended you went onto other roles, as stated. You clearly have a knack for Comedy, but you have proven to be quite diverse. Do you enjoy working in various genres?
Bronson Pinchot – Yes, and I will tell you why. Bea Arthur spoke really eloquently about this in an interview where she said, you can see perfectly wonderful actors go to a crazy place when they are doing comedy where it has to be an alternate universe, and I’m not sure why they just don’t stay super grounded. The thing that is tricky about Comedy is that if you are working for a writer, director, or producer who thinks that the fabric of Comedy needs to be a crazy world (with K for crazy), then you could be on slippery ground. Perfect Strangers was an 8 PM family hour show, but when I’m doing Comedy now, I don’t want it to seem any different than Drama. I do just want it to be like when you see a falling star or a firefly for a second; I don’t want to telegraph it. For that reason, it is tough to be in a Comedy and get away with that; because people want to amp it up and turn the color up.
I am doing a Thriller now, and of course there are funny moments in it, but they are not framed or telegraphed… they just happen. The thing is, in life you can have a super high-stake situation; you can be in an elevator and think maybe it’s going to fall on you, or you can throw a look at somebody you don’t even know, have a laugh, and go back into the seriousness… I kind of prefer that. Doing Comedy with a whole big group of people who think Comedy is with a capital K can be a real slippery slope. I don’t think it needs to be an alternate universe; I think some of the funniest stuff ever just seems straight.
I am also not really sure if I completely believe in the genre. One of my great enjoyments in life is to be walking the tie rope of what is considered drama or suspense, and just letting a little lady bug off my finger of comedy to let it fly through the shot. I love that and you can do it because you can say the character has an appreciation for absurdity. The cocaine scene in True Romance is really funny, but the situation was intense. It plays that way, then there is this absurd thing that happened, which could have happened in real life. Tony Scott said to me, “Listen Mr. Giggles, it is going to take us forty-five minutes to clean you up, so please don’t laugh when the cop comes up. I know you want to, but please just hold it together.” I feel like you can still see on my face in that scene that I’m holding it together, but it works because in that moment when you are covered with $500,000 worth of coke… it is so absurd. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) It has to be hard to hold it together in such absurd situations. In real life, even in the most horrible situation, we always throw something comic in.
Bronson Pinchot – Always! Of course! That’s where it comes from. I think about the scene at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939) where they are all saying goodbye when the wizard’s balloon is going to take off. Here you had these three big time vaudevillians, who have been nothing but wonderfully silly for the whole movie, and they are all crying. They were crying because they were going to lose their friend, and it’s terribly moving. You can do it and you can pull it off. You can definitely pull it off if you are committed and brave; which is a great thing to have to be in an art form or any job.
I remember I was playing a character in a Shakespeare play who was this great singer. I said to my singing teacher, “How am I going to hit this note?” She told me, “There are five technical things I can tell you, but you are just going to be brave.” I love that, and she was right.
Cryptic Rock – Right, it is about heart and soul many times. You have remained very active in recent years. In fact, you will be reprising your role in the forthcoming Beverly Hills Cop film. How did that come about?
Bronson Pinchot – I will tell you how it came about. It was in the wind for months and I thought, “Wow, they are doing it, and they didn’t even ask me? How hurtful!” I did the typical actor thing of; they didn’t ask me, so they must not care. Then one day I got a call that the director wanted to meet me. I went down and we spoke for a long time about the character; he told me he developed a thing that is a great entrance, and he hoped I would do it.
Anyway, we had a great time. Eddie (Murphy) and I still have this weird and completely inexplicable chemistry. Then I said to him on the first day of shooting, “We started doing this thirty-eight years ago, and that’s a whole career, and here we are.” My character drives a Bentley in it, because he is very successful, so I said to Eddie, “Do you like cars?” And he said, “Well, I used to love lots of cars… but now, eh.” I said “Me too, I used to love lots of houses… but now, eh.” That’s what happens if you’ve been around forty years, you can talk matter-of-factly about your previous excesses. There we are, still having fun, and it was wonderful.
The interesting thing is, my mother (who I had cared for the last few years of her life) died right before that movie. What I tell everybody who knows me is, she immediately rolled up her sleeves when she got to heaven and got to work. First, they called and asked me if I wanted to do Beverly Hills Cop 4, then they called immediately for this HBO show called Our Flag Means Death.
Our Flag Means Death is kind of a cult favorite right now and they told me they wanted me to play a hideous, sadistic torturer. I called the director and asked him, “How do you want me to play it?” He told me, “I want you to play it to terrify me. I don’t want comedy. I saw you in a play twenty-five years ago in New York, and that’s what I want.” I did it, and he said, “You were even more terrifying than I thought!”
Before that was done, I got the offer to do this new Shonda Rhimes show called The Residence. It takes place entirely in the residence of the White House. It is a Murder Mystery and they re-created the entire residence of the White House on seven sound stages; which is the most extravagant attempt to recreate the White House. These are all happening at once… so that is Rosina Pinchot pulling the strings in heaven.
Cryptic Rock – Wow, it sounds like everything is very busy for you at this time. Your mom certainly seems to be watching over you.
Bronson Pinchot – She lived a beautiful life. She was ninety-four, and lived a fantastic, long, vigorous life. I feel like everything that was normally spread out over a few years… now is simultaneously all happening in the same month. I get a kick out of it, but it’s no big thing for me… that’s what I was born to do. I’m a rubber band and can stretch anywhere.
Cryptic Rock – And acting is only a small part of you. You went to Yale; you are a student of history, art, and architecture. A very eclectic individual, what inspires all your interests?
Bronson Pinchot – I went to Yale to study fine arts; I didn’t go to study acting. I very actively do landscape design, architectural design, collage, and drawing in my studio at home. I create little buildings using architectural salvage from before the Civil War. That’s just a great passion of mine. I also love to do landscape design. I also create my own antique wallpaper using antique elements.
It’s what I like, and I’ve always liked it. I didn’t get that at Yale, I got that at my mother’s knee. I studied to deepen my knowledge, but I had always been interested in visual arts, architecture, gardens, etc. I do it, and it’s really healthy.
Have you seen the movie M3GAN (2022)? It’s really fun; she is this artificially intelligent killer doll. Anyway, when they turn her off, her eyes go dead, then they turn her on, and she comes alive and does cute things. What can happen, if you don’t have other involvements as an actor, is you can turn into an artificial, intelligence killer doll baby. You will be off until they offer you something, then you are on, and off, and on again. That is why actors and actresses go off the deep end; because if it’s up to someone else to turn you on and off, that’s not healthy. I can happily stay up all night working in my art studio, but then look at the clock and say, you better get some sleep, because you’re not to have bags under your eyes for a scene. It’s a continuity of creativity, which is important. Otherwise, it’s dangerous if your emotional USB cord is being put in and yakked out by forces beyond your control.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very good analogy. It’s about being a whole person outside your profession. Someone can get wrapped up in that with anything in life though.
Bronson Pinchot – It also helps quite a lot. I remember recently I was stumped. I was doing this show called Project Blue Book and there was a moment where I had to briefly be inhabited by a creature from outer space that was kind of satanic. The director came up to me and said, “Your kind of blanking, aren’t you?” I told her, “Yea, I’m just waiting for it to come to me.” She told me to give her the weird contact lenses because she thought those were keeping me from doing something good, and she gave me some space. I finally thought, why am I having trouble with this? Then it came down to a sculptural effect where I thought – if I was drawing this, I would imagine the aliens were draping the body of the human over a hanger like a piece of dry cleaning… then the voice would come out. I didn’t tell her I was going to do that, that is just what I pictured in my head and made a little sculpture out of it. She told me I had it after that.
Then when we went to fix the soundtrack they said, “That’s one of our favorite scenes in the series, what is going on there.” I told them I was just stumped, but then I came up with how it would look, and that helped me.
The point is, it can help you if you can see it in your head. If you like the visual arts, you can create it visually, and then step into it emotionally. That can be useful.