Weirdness of Meego
Bronson Pinchot cheerfully admits to being goofy. In fact, he's in the lucky position of being famous for being goofy. His explanation of the genesis of Meego, his most recent television show, is that the producers were looking to exploit his goofiness, and they concluded that having him play an ancient alien who could change his shape and talk to animals might fit the bill.
Though Meego was cancelled after sweeps month, it seems likely that Pinchot will be back in the science fiction genre. "If you're an alien, you can make up anything," he points out. "The alien thing wasn't, 'We want to do an alien show, let's hire Bronson,' it was more, 'We want to do a show with Bronson, how do we show off his weirdness?' I couldn't totally go nuts on Perfect Strangers because I knew I had to be somewhat Mediterranean, but with [Meego], I can make up anything, and I can literally change my form and turn into another thing."
Meego is a thousand-year-old alien who comes to Earth and becomes the nanny for the three children of a busy doctor. He morph into King George III of England, he can morph into a policeman, he can morph into a Scottish weight trainer, plus he can read books by pulling them through his head and cook food with his mental powers, besides. Pinchot had pitched a premise along the lines of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, "a guy who knows magic but he's kind of a bumbling goof," and the producers noticed that he related well to children - "as opposed to being totally childlike, I was someone who children could talk to and relate to, we figured out that it had to do with the fact that my then-girlfriend had a little daughter who I was in a parental position towards, I had gone from sort of jolly uncle to actual father."
The producers took these ideas and "put them in the Cuisinart," according to Pinchot. They came back to him with, "'OK, what if you were an alien who was an au pair to three children and talked to animals?'" For Pinchot, who'd already played a raving psychopath in Stephen King's The Langoliers, it didn't sound like that much of a stretch.
Pinchot is best known for playing lovable Balki on Perfect Strangers, and for the five minutes of comic perfection in Beverly Hills Cop which made him famous. He's also been in a number of critically acclaimed movies - Courage Under Fire, The First Wives' Club - but one thing that stands out on his resume is how often he's worked with children, like in the recent Stinkers. "It has its own complete set of pluses and minuses," the Manhattan native reports. "One kid can be like a 25-year-old in a 5-year-old body, and another kid can be like a 3-year-old in a 5-year-old body. There's absolutely no way to say, 'This is what kids are like.' They can be absolutely horrifying or they can be wonderful, just like adults."
Working on Meego with child actor Jonathan Lipnicki, who wanted Pinchot to pick him up between shots, was a pleasure. Pinchot also has a lot of praise for Ed Begley Jr., who played the father and thus the straight man: "He's just so sunny. His professional credo is, 'Never let your effort show and never complain.' He's just completely giving, he's so unselfish." The pluses and minuses of working with adults as opposed to children, he adds, are that sometimes one gets to work with Dudley Moore and have a fabulous experience, whereas sometimes one has to work with Denzel Washington, which Pinchot describes as "the greatest punishment known to man."
Pinchot does not have a lot of patience for what he terms "movie-star crap," which is how he characterizes Washington's behavior while shooting Courage Under Fire. "The official story was that he was so in character that he had to be a rude jerk with me, because his character didn't like my character, but then he could have sent his assistant to me with a note saying, 'Denzel has to be in character 24 hours a day, it's nothing personal.'" But Pinchot sounds skeptical of this sort of acting technique altogether. "If he was playing a rapist, would he have to rape everybody?"
The idea that every moment on the set must be in character is not one to which this actor subscribes. "When you're first starting out in acting, you're thinking, 'Real! Real! Real!' I've got to be real!" he exclaims. "I've got to go and have a drink so I can be drunk, I've got to have sex with my co-star so I can be horny!'" But as he grew in the business, Pinchot says he realized he was going to run out of steam if he didn't rely more on his imagination. This discovery served him well working on Meego and The Langoliers, since so many of his reactions had to be to things which were not present.
"There are times when you're doing a special effect and they tell you, you're talking to this woman and you make her freeze. So I get to have one run-through just to check and see what height she is, so I know where my eyes should be, but then they take her out and I just do it to the air," he explains. "That's the way it is with special effects - you just use your imagination. Sometimes the actor you're working with didn't get his hair quite right, and he's not even there."
In Meego the effects were carefully scripted so that they could be budgeted and shot on schedule, which interfered a little with Pinchot's instinct to improvise: "You have to do [the shot] three times - you have to do it once on the set, then you have to go in front of a green screen and do it again, then they have to take shots of the room without you, and the computer puts that all together." When he played King George III, he improvised nearly the entire monologue, but on shows which featured the children heavily, "we shot the whole thing line for line like a movie, with no audience, because you can't throw off kids - they need to say what they've been coached to say."
The Langoliers required that Pinchot do a lot of performing to the air and to the camera, since his character, Craig Toomy, was completely over the edge. The idea behind his casting, the actor explains, was, "Let's put someone who's associated with playing the nicest person on Earth, i.e. Balki from Perfect Strangers, into the role of the most vicious person on Earth, and see what happens. Stephen King was there on my first day of shooting and he was just giggling with glee - he'd always had an idea to do a piece of material that was like a guy who did a kiddie show Saturday morning, dressed as a clown, who giggled and tickled the children and then murdered them."
This was almost the next best thing: Balki stabbing little girls in the chest. But it was a difficult shoot for Pinchot, who felt that he had to be standoffish to nail the character, and started off with a group of scenes where he was covered with blood, wearing earplugs and sunglasses so he could concentrate. Then one day he was approached by a little girl who wanted him to sign a picture of Balki. "So I signed her thing, and her grandmother took a picture. Three days later I had a difficult scene, I was standing in the corner working myself up, trembling and foaming, and I feel this pull on my pant leg. It was the little girl - her pictures had been developed. That was the day I said, hell, if I can break out of it for a little girl and then go back in, then I can do it for anyone." So he started to fool around on the set, imitating the director and relaxing between takes, "and it was much better."
In the book, Craig is described as a rabid dog, vomiting and sweating and gnashing his teeth. "All the stuff that my dear friends the reviewers chalked up to me overacting was in the book!" Pinchot groans. He had not read the book when he was offered the part, but "I knew I was going to accept it just based on the fact that it was a Stephen King thing and the guy was a murderer." He'd first read King when a producer suggested that he could play the lead in Thinner, so he read Thinner and said, "'Geez, you can't put this guy down!'"
The Yale-educated actor's favorite author, however, is Charles Dickens, whom he also discovered via an acting project. "I mean, I read Great Expectations in school when I was fourteen and I thought it was snoresville, but when I read it at twenty-five, I was electrified," he reports. When he was asked to play Dickens in a film about time travel, he called a biographer to learn about the character, and discovered that Dickens had an irresponsible father and wanted to be a comic actor, like himself. He read all of Dickens' novels, and "became just the world's most foaming-at-the-mouth obsessive Dickens fan." Pinchot spent ten years collecting original letters and manuscripts: "Everybody knows A Christmas Carol, but I had to have that autographed copy of A Christmas Carol that was signed two days before the book even came out."
Though he's not particularly a genre fan, the actor says that he gets interested in projects quickly once he's involved in them. "I never cared a thing about Elvis Presley until I had to shoot an episode of Perfect Strangers where I was hypnotized and became Elvis Presley, so I watched a tape of every single thing he did - and now I always smile when I see Elvis, and say, 'That's an outtake from a 1956 Sun Records session.'" The homework makes the work more enjoyable for him. To get into the head of a thousand-year-old alien, he concentrated on his long-time belief that human souls are ancient, that people can incarnate and reincarnate.
Pinchot started out as an illustrator, though an art teacher predicted early on that he would end up performing. He finds himself increasingly drawn to directing since he has ideas for other actors' characters, "which is not so terribly normal for an actor - normally the actor's credo is 'Me, me, and more me.'" He says that it's hard for him to explain why something will be funny, but he can tell a co-star, "'Say your line, take a pause, don't look at me, then turn around and see me, and you'll get a big laugh,'" and it does. "That's just pure directing, taking the words and saying, how do you shape them and move around so it's funny."
In terms of fantasy projects where he acts, writes, directs, designs, and produces, Pinchot reveals that he wants to prove that busboys are out to torture the world. "You know how they wait - if you and I were in a restaurant and we were talking and all of a sudden we got to an unbelievably juicy topic, and my eyes filled with tears, that's when they would come in and pour iced tea, and reach in and grab my plate with all the potatoes that I still wanted so I'd have to fight with them? Please, leave my iced tea alone, it has exactly the amount of Sweet 'N Low I want! Thank you!"
The film he wants to make, called "Sex, Busboys, and Hell," takes this problem to hilarious heights. "They want to take away everything as you finish with it, they're just assuming everything has to be sequential, right? If part of your salad is still there when the main course comes, they're like, 'FINISHED WITH THIS?' They couldn't possibly imagine that you would still want a little salad with your meal! So my idea is, you're making love, and you start by kissing the girl, and they come and go, 'FINISHED WITH THAT?' and then lift her head off. And you start kissing her chest, and they say, 'FINISHED WITH THAT?' and lift her thorax off. They just keep taking parts away, just making you go with their sequence."
Pinchot laments that he's sent pitches for ideas more often than actual scripts, and when he is offered serious roles, the movies conflict with the TV schedule. He believes that Beverly Hills Cop made him bankable because it was clear that he was making it up as he went along, and could adapt to almost any kind of spontaneous material: "Not too often have I played a scripted role that set the world on fire - it's mostly when I create it that good things happen, since my persona is specifically about being slightly outside the bounds of what's allowable." He wishes the studios would bring back silent movies, which he believes would put him in his element. "But can you imagine Kevin Costner in a silent movie? You would take a knife and eviscerate yourself!"
Comedy is not something Pinchot believes can really be taught. At Yale he studied serious acting, but he likens being funny with having perfect pitch for musicians: people either have it or they don't. No comedian is ever always funny, he notes: "I pee myself watching Billy Crystal on the Oscars, but I couldn't watch him in a movie if you paid me. There are times when I watch part of a Jim Carrey thing when I'm just in ecstasy and awe, and there are times when I feel I could be happily shot in the head before I could watch one more second. Nobody has a contract with Thalia, the muse of comedy, twenty-four hours a day."
His own favorite role was in the drama True Romance, precisely because he hadn't played a serious part in the ten years he'd been out of school. "In 1992, when I shot it, it was of immense importance to me - no one said, 'Bronson Pinchot is using his own voice for the first time on film!'" He likens the theme of that movie was to a Bosch painting with Heaven on one side and Hell on the other. "To get there, I would do stuff like stay up all night and not eat, so I felt trapped in this situation. It was my artistic Bar Mitzvah."
Pinchot will probably remember the high point of Meego as being a group guest shot by the Gilligan's Island cast, which the star enjoyed greatly since he was a youthful fan of that series. "When I was a little boy, I was chubby, and my sister was Maryann and always made me play the Skipper, but I wanted to be Gilligan," he recalls. "I told [this to] Dawn Wells, and she said, 'Well, you've been playing Gilligan for the past fifteen years, so you finally got your wish!'"
"And it's true," he concludes. "That was the story of my life: I was kind of in a chrysalis until I started acting, and then I cut loose. I got in touch with my Inner Gilligan." It seems likely that Meego won't be the last time this actor will play a weird alien. After all, that's practically his trademark.
From Griffin to Stan Laurel
Bronson Pinchot doesn't come out and say that Meego's cancellation was one of the best things that happened to him last year, but the demise of the short-lived television series meant that he was available when the role of a lifetime came along. "Literally within fourteen days after Meego was cancelled, I had the greatest part known to man," he says, only half-joking. The comic actor was given the opportunity to play one of the greatest comedians of all, Stan Laurel, in Kenneth M. Badish's All New Adventures of Laurel and Hardy.
And he has barely had a moment to breathe since. Pinchot can be heard as of this weekend as the voice of Griffin in Quest For Camelot. After recording that part, he did some commercial work, performed in a Stephen Sondheim revue, then left the U.S. for a role in the World War II movie The Virtuoso, which the actor describes as "the first time in my life I've played someone with testosterone and no accent." During a break in shooting, Pinchot will be traveling to Cannes for a showing of the Laurel and Hardy film. If his short-lived science fiction series was still on the air, he would have had to turn down all these opportunities.
"It's so much fun," Pinchot says by telephone from Estonia, where The Virtuoso is shooting with himself, Keith Carradine, Mercedes Ruehl, and Brian Dennehy. "The funny thing is that wherever I go, Meego's playing now, in South Africa and Eastern Europe. You really do learn that if they take it away, you go take a voice lesson and label your CDs, because there's going to be something else."
In the animated Quest For Camelot, Pinchot plays a gryphon, an enormous creature that's part eagle and part lion. "In the initial stage it was also part snake, with these enormous condor wings. They said, we don't know what we want [for the voice], we just know it has to be otherworldly. So I went home and obsessed over 'otherworldly,' and looked at the picture." Griffin was an enormous beast - about ten feet tall in proportion to the other animated characters. "I thought, well, the most otherworldly voice I ever heard was when I did Love Letters with Amanda Plummer. She has a voice that is just out of this world."
So Pinchot took Amanda Plummer's voice, put it in a baritone range, "and then made it raspy, as if she was in a cage...if you took Beelzebub and Amanda Plummer and had a cloven-hooved child that you plunged into the darkest circle of hell, that's what I did." He warns that viewers who don't know that he did the voice are unlikely to recognize him in the film, which he describes as "a myth outside the myth," the traditional Camelot story.
"The whole story is just staggeringly unwieldy and huge - what we know as the myth is just chosen at random, it never had that nice, neat shape that we think it had from the musical," the actor explains. "Sir Thomas Malory's adaptation, which was written in about 1555 in prison - I like my medieval stuff - is more rambling than Don Quixote." The central character of the Warner Brothers production is the daughter of a Knight of the Round Table who must help save Camelot when he is unjustly murdered. Pinchot first heard the story when he was offered the role, which required several different studio sessions to develop.
"You bounce it back and forth like badminton - when you start out, they give you a sketch, or in my case it was twenty-five sketches of his face in different positions because I need to see how the mouth looks. My voices are based on...could it come out of that mouth? This is a big curved beak! So you record all the lines, then they come back to you several months later with partially animated pencil drawings and storyboards. If you squint, you can kind of see how it's moving, and you can see that it's much much larger than you thought, and it's scary and has big wing span, so you buff it up a little bit - or in my case you do it all over again, because why not?"
"Then they come back with a more finished version and say, we loved when you did that hissing sound, so we want more hissing in three more places, and the scary stuff is more compelling so we want to re-record the parts that were funny. Then they come back and say, well, one of the executives thought that we made a big mistake in that the funny parts were the good ones, so let's do it so it's completely funny. And then they come back three months later and say, we voted that person down and we all want it to be terrifying. I never say no to anybody's help, I've gotten great ideas from prop people, I don't have any kind of attitude because you just don't know where it's going to come from. So you just keep doing it, and different things kick in."
Though the film has a big-name cast - Pierce Brosnan, John Gielgud, Jane Seymour, Eric Idle, et al - the only person Pinchot even saw in the studio was Cary Elwes, "and that was just purely by chance." He thought he would get a day in the studio with fellow villain Gary Oldman, but had an inner ear infection which precluded his working that day. "This is the second movie I've been in with him, and we've never been in the same room," he sighs. "That would have been astounding. He's one of my top five favorites, and it's a pity because I bet we would have done some interesting things. "
Though the film is a musical, Pinchot's character does not sing, which is less of a pity because "I imagine he would be pretty bizarre if he sang." Still, since he's a trained singer, "It's too bad, because that musical kind of singing is exactly the kind of singing that I do. My singing voice is a sort of high baritone and it's not goofy. I have sung songs in animated things, but it was always in a fake screechy voice."
Pinchot had agreed to do a commercial for Target stores, on the theory that "I can afford to make independent movies for the rest of the year if I make one commercial." The day he shot the ad, he learned that director Cameron Mackintosh and composer Steven Sondheim were putting together a new version of Putting It Together, a Sondheim revue which originally featured Julie Andrews and was being retooled for Carol Burnett. "They said, we need Bronson to come in and do his thing, and I'm thinking, I don't know how my voice is, but they gave me the most absolutely delightful role in it." He plays a part which "breaks the fourth wall."
In addition to getting to fulfill that musical ambition, Pinchot was ecstatic to win the role of legendary comedian Stan Laurel. "The Laurel and Hardy thing is worth having stuck it out in show business all these years," he says. "If Perfect Strangers was the gulag, this is like walking back into St. Petersburg. It is simply the best thing that has ever happened to me."
Ironically, Perfect Strangers was the genesis of the actor's involvement with Laurel and Hardy. "You know how, towards the end of every sitcom, they do fantasy episodes - everybody fantasizes that they're Elvis, because they run out of ideas? We fantasized that we were Laurel and Hardy. The guy who owns the rights to the characters, who's the original Bozo the Clown, said that if I needed any pointers, he knew Stan and he would happily spend some time with me. So I went over to his house and he was so pleased, because he cared so much about Stan - he actually lent me Stan's shoes, which fit exactly, I should have known as soon as the ruby slippers were on."
Six years later, when it came time to cast the movie, the producers called in Pinchot, explaining that they really wanted to make "a valentine to Laurel and Hardy, bringing them back to people who don't even know they lost them." Gailard Sartain, cast as Hardy, fit the bill physically. But with his "deep-set eyes and Al Pacino nose," Pinchot did not exactly look the part - nor had his recent workouts, which gave him muscular legs and a broader chest, made him any easier to costume as the bandy-legged, "There are a lot of people with little tiny rabbit eyes and turned-up noses who would have photographed a little bit more like him," the actor admits. "It was a wonderful, terrible shock to get it. But once I was in character, everybody started to say I was a dead ringer, even though of course I'm not. I was trained to do it without realizing I was trained to do it."
When he returned from filming that movie, Pinchot got a call asking whether he would be interested in a juicy role in a drama being shot in Estonia. "I thought they meant Astoria, New York," he groans. "That's where I shot The First Wives' Club. So I said, 'Oh yeah, put me anywhere there's Greek restaurants,' and there was this awkward pause." Now he's in Eastern Europe in a country just rebuilding after years of Soviet occupation, filming a heart-rending movie about Jews trying escape Estonia before being deported to Dachau.
"In this movie, Keith Carradine hacks his own legs off," Pinchot warns. "The wardrobe lady said, you can go through all these period watches and pick which one you want to wear in the nightclub scene, and all of a sudden I saw this thing, it was a watch with Hitler right in the middle of it, like a Mickey Mouse watch. Like someone needed to see Hitler whenever they looked at their watch. I have never seen anything more epitomizing the banality of evil."
Pinchot was pleased to be offered a role in a drama which allowed him to be "a grown-up man in a suit and not Peter Pan" - in many of his roles, he has not used his own voice and accent. Of course, for a project like Quest For Camelot, it's more fun that way. "No one will dare ever ask me again if I've been pigeonholed, unless it's in a really great way - 'Do you play super-delightful innocent physical characters?'" he says of his past several performances. "I am really having fun."