If Bronson Pinchot was ever afraid he might be typecast for his over-the-top foreign accent in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, eight seasons of his over-the-top foreign accent on ABC’s Perfect Strangers confirmed it. Premiering in 1986, the buddy show featured Pinchot’s sheep-herding Balki Bartokomous clashing with modern Chicago and cousin-slash-roommate Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) in a quest to be less ridiculous. Check out the details on recasting, spin-offs, and how they won over Lucille Ball.
1. THE SHOW WAS INSPIRED BY THE 1984 OLYMPICS.
Television producers Thomas Miller, Robert Boyett, and Dale McRaven all agreed that watching international athletes experience American life while in Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics got them thinking about exploring that kind of culture shock in a series. While Pinchot was their first choice for European immigrant Balki, he had already committed to another show, Sara, for NBC. When that show was canceled, he agreed to do Perfect Strangers.
2. TOM CRUISE WARNED PINCHOT NOT TO DO TV.
Before landing Perfect Strangers, Pinchot had a supporting role in 1983’s Risky Business starring Tom Cruise. While on the set, Pinchot told US Magazine that Cruise picked up on the fact he was low on funds. Cruise offered to lend him money and cautioned him against ever doing television. “Whatever you do, don’t do it,” Cruise allegedly told him. Pinchot explained that, as he was not Tom Cruise, he wasn't in a position to turn down anything.
3. LOUIE ANDERSON WAS ORIGINALLY CAST AS LARRY.
In a slightly more cynical version of the pilot, comedian Louie Anderson appeared as Cousin Louie opposite Pinchot’s Balki. Producers thought the chemistry was missing, so Anderson was let go; of the several actors to audition after his departure, everyone agreed Pinchot had the best dynamic playing against fellow Yale graduate Mark Linn-Baker.
4. THE SHOW WAS ON THE AIR THREE WEEKS AFTER THE FIRST SCENE WAS SHOT.
While ABC loved the premise and script for Perfect Strangers, executives thought the show might get lost in the wave of new shows premiering in the fall of 1986. Instead, they proposed producers quickly assemble six episodes to debut in winter 1986 as a mid-season replacement. In order to do this, episodes were taped in record time, with one show airing just one week after it had first been rehearsed.
5. PINCHOT AND LINN-BAKER NEARLY KNOCKED EACH OTHER OUT.
In a network-authorized, pre-Internet newsletter circulated among fans of the series, author Paula Wilshe related a story of a 1988 taping that resulted in a bloody mess. For a scene where Larry is teaching Balki how to be more assertive, Pinchot grabbed his co-star and shook him so violently their heads collided. Both men went down: Pinchot damaged a tooth on Linn-Baker’s forehead, requiring a root canal, while Linn-Baker needed stitches.
6. MYPOS WAS CREATED TO AVOID OFFENDING ANYONE.
After some discussion over making Balki a character of Greek descent, producers decided that he would hail from the fictitious country of Mypos. According to Pinchot, this was done because the bizarre customs mentioned in the show might prove offensive to a real territory.
7. LUCILLE BALL WAS A FAN.
Both Pinchot and Linn-Baker perceived Perfect Strangers as a kind of spiritual cousin of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, with physical, character-driven humor that was in contrast to the topical, “issue”-oriented sitcoms of the 1980s. When the show returned for a second season in August 1986, Lucille Ball told press that they were both “just great” and that “I love those two guys.” Pinchot was impressed. “It’s like being a watercolorist and having Renoir say, ‘Interesting, good work,’” he said.
8. BALKI WAS NAMED AFTER PINCHOT’S SISTER’S DOG.
Sort of. In 1986, Pinchot told TV Guide that "Balki" was short for “balcony,” which is what his family considered naming his sister’s dog when they were kids. They ultimately named the pet something else, but Balki stuck: Pinchot remembered it when producers were trying to decide what to name his character.
9. CREDIT (OR BLAME) THE SHOW FOR FAMILY MATTERS.
It’s not often that a spin-off exceeds the popularity of the original, but ABC’s Family Matters proved otherwise. The elevator operator in the duo’s apartment building was Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Payton), who made regular appearances in the third and fourth seasons along with her police officer husband, Carl (Reginald VelJohnson). The characters migrated to their own series in fall 1989, making a star of Jaleel White’s Urkel. (Pinchot and Linn-Baker filmed a cameo for the Family Matters pilot, but it never aired.)
10. THE SHOW HELPED ANCHOR ABC’S TGIF DYNASTY.
TGIF was ABC’s very clever, very effective marketing campaign that turned a block of its Friday night sitcoms into one marathon viewing session. To promote the idea, the cast of the various shows would shoot promotional material, usually at the very end of a long workday. It was unpaid work, and many casts (including Family Matters) felt it was fatiguing, but Pinchot and Linn-Baker were happy to do it because they were close enough friends to make it fun. “We would do hours, hundreds and hundreds, of those interstitials, and nobody … could have talked us up and said, ‘This is why this is good for you,’” Pinchot told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. “We did it for each other.”
11. THE ENTIRE CAST WAS PART OF THE RAPTURE.
In an exceptionally bizarre reference, the rapture-like disappearance of part of the world’s population in HBO’s The Leftovers apparently included the entire cast of Perfect Strangers. It’s a throwaway line, but it also cost Mark Linn-Baker an acting gig: After he auditioned for a role on the show, producers agreed they couldn’t cast him since “their” version of Linn-Baker had gone on to his great reward.
12. THE STUDIO AUDIENCE WOULD USUALLY ASK THEM TO DANCE.
After a studio taping, Linn-Baker and Pinchot would field audience questions. In many cases, someone would ask them to do the Dance of Joy, Balki’s signature piece of performance art. Owing to relief the long shoot was over, or just expressing gratitude the show was a hit, they’d usually do it.