Everybody has been talking about Bronson Pinchot’s comments on Tom Cruise in his AV Club “Random Roles.” Including Cruise’s legendarily touchy publicity team. I always enjoy reading anecdotes about how a Cruise or a Denzel Washington or a Bette Midler was no fun to work with (you notice how often B-level actors have to keep up the pretense that everybody is great to work with? they have to; they need to keep working). But being me, I focused even more on his comments on Perfect Strangers. I loved that show as a kid, but even then I had a suspicion that, as he says right off the bat, “the writing was weak.” So what does an actor when he’s on a show with weak writing and only one other good character to play off? Particularly when the actor thinks (wrongly, in this case) that he deserves better material? Well, he channels his energy into the stuff that’s not scripted, or the things that the script gives a lot of leeway for the actor to create.
I mean, I received my training in Shakespeare, Shaw, and Beckett, and all of a sudden I’m doing this stuff, like… What the hell is this about? Who cares? And so I put all my energy into coming up with physical business, and all of a sudden I was a physical comic, and that is exactly how it happened. I’d always admired physical comics, but I didn’t think there was that much going on. The character wasn’t stupid, but you’d look at the script and say, “What is this about?” So I made my own life up, and I had a lot of fun doing that with Mark Linn-Baker, because he loved all that stuff, too.
That show was pretty much saved by the physical stuff, not just the pratfalls but the bits of physical business and interaction that the two actors created along with their director (Joel Zwick, the best director of bad TV). It gave some kind of individual identity to a character who, on the page, was just a Latka Gravas ripoff. Today, it’s actually quite surprising how few shows — but particularly comedies, which need this most — have any kind of physical characterizations for the leads, the stuff that has to be worked out on the set (albeit in consultation with the writers). How I Met Your Mother does (for everyone with the possible exception of Ted), but on mediocre comedies, everything is talking heads. Which is too bad, because a mediocre comedy can actually be salvaged by encouraging the actors to do more non-verbal things. It’s a way of giving the audience something it hasn’t seen before, even if there isn’t a single new thing in the script itself.
Actually, I shouldn’t use “talking heads” as a pejorative, because The Office has shown that you can have physicality even in the segments that are literally called “talking heads.” The posture the characters adopt during the talking-head segments is one of the quickest and easiest ways to characterize them, and the actors are usually pretty careful to have the right kind of body language in those segments. On quality shows or TGIF shows, movement and body language are tremendously important things.