Martin Brest's "Beverly Hills Cop" continues to roll. In the 10th weekend of its release, it was the No. 1 movie of the week; the box office so far totals more than $150 million. The success can be credited in large part to Eddie Murphy, the fast-talking foulmouth who has become, in a couple of years, an American institution. But the movie also owes its popularity to the quirky Brestian touches around its edges. Particularly the brief but indelible performance of a then-unknown 25-year-old actor named Bronson Pinchot.
"You never know what's gonna happen," says Pinchot. "In order to get some money to pay some bills I did a bit part in a movie and it's turned my life around."
Pinchot plays Serge (pronounced "Sayarrzh"), a haughty, epicene clerk in an art gallery whose wild banter with Murphy is the high point of a high-flying movie. Serge admires Murphy's "chic" sweat shirt and ogles his physique, discourses on what is "sexy" and what is "animal," and offers him "espraaayso with laaaaymon" in an accent that is identifiably foreign, but whose origins are obscure.
The role has made Pinchot an instant celebrity, who thinks Merv is "sweet" and Joan Rivers is "a nice Jewish lady" after spots on both Griffin's and the "Tonight" shows. A major record company has proposed an album of Serge monologues, and in his time off from the sitcom "Sara," he plans to make four of the movies he's been offered.
"One writer that I know called me and said, 'A little boy is sick at home and he idolizes you, and he's seen "Beverly Hills Cop" six times. You're his life, and would you call him?' And I said, 'How can this possibly be?' So I called him up and on the answering machine he was doing Serge, and not a bad one either. So I said, 'Excuse me, but this is Serge.'
"For this little kid who had this hernia operation, I did it for hours -- I would do it all day. But when the woman from People magazine said do it, I said, 'I don't do circus tricks.' It's a character. Would you ask Dustin Hoffman to do Tootsie?"
Pinchot has big, licorice eyes and a long nose that, when his face is at rest, lends it a doleful cast. But his face is never at rest -- expressions flit across it like tunnel lamps seen from a subway window, his favorite being an ingratiating Chaplinesque doodle, chin tucked in chest, idiot grin, eyes imploring. His talk is littered with exclamations: "beautiful!" "just amazing!" "no can do!"
He was suggested for "Beverly Hills Cop" by casting director Margie Simkin, who brought him to Brest's trailer on the Paramount lot for an audition. "He really wasn't into it because in 'Risky Business' he had this costarring role, and this, as written in the script, was a tiny, tiny part," remembers Brest. "He came in and he said, 'I don't want to do this part, but I have this idea for it. You know how in Beverly Hills there's all these guys who work in stores who have these accents and you don't know where the heck they're from -- they're Armenian, French, Israeli, Iranian, Russian. They all have this bizarre accent and they're very effete and very snooty.'
"And I said, 'Yeah, howdaya mean?' And he started to do this voice. Literally, I think his first words were, 'Hel-lo, my name is Sayarrzzh.' And I just fell right on the floor, physically fell on the floor, laughing hysterically. I got up on my knees, and I said, 'I beg you, you must be in this movie.' And he just started laughing and saying, 'Oh my God, a director on his knees begging me to be in his movie, oh my God.' And he decided to do it."
What's remarkable is how much thought Pinchot contributed to his few minutes on camera. "That accent is based on an Israeli accent," he says. "I did a film for Golan-Globus, and the entire crew were Israeli, including this weird makeup woman. I was fascinated by the difficulty of that accent, and I picked it up. But the real thing I picked up, which is 20 times more vivid than the accent, is the attitude. One of the things I do, which a lot of pretentious foreign people do, is they'll hear something once, and instead of asking to hear it repeated, or really becoming familiar with what it is, they'll parrot it, and it's in a mishmosh shape. Like 'What it's pertaining?' is someone who's heard 'What does this pertain to?' about once.
When they said, 'Play gay,' I said, 'Oh, forget it.' But what it really came down to is that gay people have that quality of being incredibly aloof and incredibly hip at the same time. If you go into a shop and there's some straight officious jerk, you'll never get through. But part of the gayness was that the character had that flexibility to get into what Eddie was doing while everyone else in the film is doing double takes. Serge could be a jerk or he could play around, and Eddie picked up on that.
"Unfortunately, when people meet me nowadays they want beautiful colors all laid out like Serge, and have everything kaleidoscopic, and that's not appropriate for every role. They want me to be nouvelle cuisine, and I'm really just ham and eggs."
Bronson Pinchot was born in New York of Russian nomad (his father's side) and Italian (his mother's) stock ("I want to eat pasta and live in a tent?" he says). He grew up in South Pasadena, raised from the age of 3 by his mother. "My father was caught up in the whole '60s movement of, like, free-spiritedness. He left in '62 and he was just a free spirit until four years ago, when he ended up in some retirement village."
Pinchot's first love was painting; his mother persuaded him to go to Yale, where he could study art at the graduate school while getting a liberal arts education. "So many things in my life have been money-oriented," Pinchot says. "I grew up on welfare, so I said, 'I can't go to college unless I get the most magnificent grades in the world, because I can't go any other way.' So I just did." He won a scholarship and entered in the fall.
His acting career began with the role of Jaques in "As You Like It." "I decided he was syphilitic," he says. "I don't know what made me think that, but I just decided that the real reason he ran away from court was that he was horribly syphilitic and wanted to just wear skins or something, and not sit around in lace. Too itchy. I had sores underneath my collar, which nobody ever saw, but I put them on every night."
But it was later, through a collaboration with Jesse Green, then the Boy Wonder student director at Yale, that Pinchot decided to abandon painting and consider acting as a career. His breakthrough came with the role of George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"You could always count on Bronson to make something interesting, even if you couldn't count on him to make sense," says Green. "We had all sorts of names for his behavior. 'Bronson on Parade.' 'Behaviorfest.' He was the King of Behaviorfest. But when he was good as George, he was mind-boggling. You'd pull away from it and try to remember that he was this kid. That you'd go out with him afterwards for pizza and he'd flirt with the waitress for more feta cheese."
It was at Yale, Green insists, that Pinchot created Serge. "No matter what he says about it being drawn from the Israeli makeup woman, he's been doing that forever. He would purposely and consistently alter the vowel sounds in people's names. He created a language and a way of thinking for himself. It doesn't seem to me that anyone influenced him. I think maybe sunspots, but not anyone human."
After graduation, Pinchot got his first New York role through a Yale connection; and it was in "Poor Little Lambs," a play about the Yale Whiffenpoofs, that he was noticed by casting director Nancy Klopper, who put him in "Risky Business," playing opposite Tom Cruise. "When I first met him, I couldn't believe there were people who called themselves actors whose main leisure-time activity was playing Pac-Man," Pinchot says of Cruise. "Curtis [Armstrong] and I would stay up all night talking about 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' and P.G. Wodehouse and Tom would play Pac-Man. And I would say, 'Where do you recharge your imagination? Where? Where does it come from?' I'm much less of a snob now, but at that time I thought, 'If it doesn't come from 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles, it's not worth anything.' "
What followed were small roles in "Broadway Danny Rose" (a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor) and "The Flamingo Kid," his casting in "Sara" (asked the difference between movies and television, Pinchot replies, "What's the difference between Florence and Teaneck, New Jersey?") and finally Serge.
"My ex-fiance' had legs just like this," says Pinchot, holding up a bread stick, "with no definition at all. And until she started putting on weight, she was very attractive. I'm very lucky that she found herself a couple of lovers, because I don't think I'm ready to be married, although I thought I was last year. Tag around with me -- I'll teach you to love punishment."
In the storm of publicity following "Beverly Hills Cop," Pinchot has taken some pains to emphasize that, although both Serge and the lawyer in "Sara" are effeminate, he is not himself gay. "Every two years some girl would make eyes at me and I would move in with her," he says. "I tried once in my life to have casual sex, and even that turned into a two-month thing. I can't do it. I wanted to so badly, and I couldn't do it. No can do!
"Now I'm dating my aerobics instructor. This is the kind of girl where you have to hold your stomach in if you're naked in the bathroom. If it sticks out she says, 'Oh my God, I wasn't doing it right in class!' So I just suck it in."
"When you tell people you're an actor, at a wedding or something, they say, 'You know, that John Candy is a great actor!' What would you say to a nuclear physicist? I say, 'Never split that atom.' When I was going out with this famous soap star, I was embarrassed to say I was an actor because I wasn't working then, so I'd say I was a dentist. And they'd peel back their lips and say, 'You think I should get this bonded?' "
Pinchot credits that anonymous soap star with making his transition to new-found fame easier. "I saw all of these things that were part of her life, and I observed them at close range. She got tons of fan mail, and people stopped her on the street, people wanted her autograph, and people knew who she was wherever she went. If it hadn't been for that, I think it would strike me differently, but now I get lots of mail and people stop me on the street and I've seen it before." At which point, as if on cue, the waiter arrives. "Would you like some espraaaayso with laaaaaymon?"
And Pinchot orders a cappuccino.