Perfectly Strange

updated 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A DECADE AGO, AS AN IDEALISTIC young magna cum laude Yale drama graduate, Bronson Pinchot came to audition for a part at New York City's Circle in the Square theater. The director asked him for a German accent, and Pinchot replied, "I don't do accents. I think they're a cheap means of seeming interesting."

But Pinchot eventually changed his mind—and landed the part. He has been accentuating the positive ever since: first with his vaguely Mediterranean shtick as Serge, the art gallery assistant in 1984's Beverly Hills Cop, next for a seven-year run as Perfect Strangers' remotely Slavic "Coozin" Balki, and again this month as one of the best things about Beverly Hills Cop HI, which finds Serge as proprietor of a chic Los Angeles gun boutique. Still, Pinchot is greater than the sum of his linguistic tricks. "There's bittersweet pleasure in having people stroke me for playing these little comic creations," he says in the modulated voice of a classically trained actor. "You're like the champagne bubbles that have nothing to do with the grape. I haven't done close to what I can do."

Which might be guessed from seeing what he does do. When not developing a stage act with comic Roger Kabler, Pinchot spends lime in his minimalist Malibu beach house honing his life to almost Zen-like simplicity. He reads voraciously (most recently the diaries of art historian Bernard Berenson), savors Mozart and is a "beyond passionate'' collector of Greek and Roman antiquities. "They've been knocked off their pedestals by earthquakes or 5th century Christians," he says. "Yet that they've survived is incredibly poetic."

The same might be said for the actor himself. When Pinchot was 3, his father, Henry, abandoned his wife (tm) and four children. "He was an out-of-control, substance-abusing wife-beater," says Pinchot, who last saw his father, now 77, about 10 years ago. "To me, he was scarier than the boogeyman. He would show up high as a kite and try to break through the windows. He came home one Christmas, kicked the presents around the house like soccer balls and beat my mother with a telephone cord."

Pinchot's best childhood memories focus on his mother, Rosina. "She was interested in giving her kids more than the usual," he says, remembering how she would quiz them on Shakespeare while she rolled dough in their California kitchen. "She was like taking an arc light into a grimy garage. She made all the rats and creepy-crawly things run into the corners."

On full scholarship at Yale, Pinchot moved to New York City after graduating in 1981 and soon struck pay dirt as the irrepressible Serge. "All of a sudden somebody waved a wand over me, like Glinda the Good Witch of the North," he says, recalling his mildly wacko period induced by sudden lame. "I was like a puppy that's just been allowed to run around the living room."

Nevertheless, he was adamant about refusing a part in 1987's Cop If. "I didn't want to be like some kind of pasta people lose their taste for, and then I'd be done," he says. It was a role in last year's violent True Romance that allowed him to resurrect Serge. "Serge is like a strawberry dipped in white chocolate," he says, continuing the food analog•'. "True Romance is the meat and potatoes."

No matter how satisfying, the demands of his career have also taken a toll on his personal life. "I'm too self-involved right now to be a good father or a good mate," says Pinchot, whose live-in relationship with an animal-rights activist ended a year and a half ago, and who sometimes dales director Amy Heckerling (Look Who's Talking). "There are times when I just want lo spend a week by myself." As someone who loves children, that does leave him with a dilemma, but not an insoluble one. "I think," he says with a smile, "I'm going lo pull a Charlie Chaplin and have kids when I'm 60."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

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