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.
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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 beast 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."
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