Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of The Leftovers.
If you had to bookmark a moment when The Leftovers season three officially ran out of fucks, it might be the punchy synth-drum-harmonica sequence that opens this week’s credits, immediately recognizable as the theme song from Perfect Strangers. The entire cast of the hit sitcom about kooky immigrant Balki (Bronson Pinchot) and his uptight cousin Larry (Linn-Baker) was supposed to have disappeared in the Sudden Departure, but in season two it was revealed that Mark Linn-Baker (playing himself in a brief cameo) faked his own disappearance. And here in the final season, the actor who lost his entire sitcom family (just as Nora Durst lost her actual family) gets a full six minutes of screen time to sell Nora on the machine 119 grieving people have already paid handsomely to “go through” in search of their loved ones. Unlike last episode’s Gary Busey balloon or even Linn-Baker’s earlier appearance, this is no butt-of-the-joke cameo. What starts as a semi-comic scene in a St. Louis hotel ends in tears for the former Larry Appleton, a beaten and shrunken man who says, “No, Nora, I don’t want to kill myself. I want to take some fucking control.” We asked Linn-Baker to tell us how it felt.
What were your interactions with the show creators leading up to this appearance?
I had gotten a call and they had asked if they could use clips from Perfect Strangers, which they did in season one, in a few of the scenes where Justin Theroux’s character goes to visit his dad in the asylum. Later, I was a fan of the show and happy they used it in that way. It was kind of a light comic moment in what’s a pretty heavy show. The second season, [showrunner Damon Lindelof] contacted me and asked if I would be interested in playing myself, and that’s when we did the little scene where it turns out I faked my own departure and was hiding in Mexico. Then he had an idea for a scene with this alternate-universe Mark Linn-Baker that set the stage for the third season. That was all I had to hear. I was in.
You didn’t have any misgivings about being the object of a nostalgic joke?
No — the show is well-written and incredibly well-produced. I was very happy to be a part of it. At its best it is wildly dreamlike, engaging, and disturbing in a deep way.
Were you ever ambivalent about being so strongly identified with a period sitcom?
Never. I’ll tell you something, the huge exposure of that television show, which you don’t get anymore because the viewership on channels is not what it was then — we had millions more people watching than watch any specific show now. All that it did was create opportunity. I’ve been able to do a lot of work over the years. So no, I have not had a problem with it.
Maybe it helped that you were the straight man?
I didn’t have an accent.
So how did you prepare for the hotel scene?
Ha, well, I’m playing myself so there’s a lot about me I already knew.
But it’s not quite you, right?
Well it’s not, thank you for that. So it’s figuring out who I am in that very specific world. In this world — and professionally as a comic actor — you’re a bit of a clown, so how does the funny person deal with loss? It’s surprising, because in the two seasons before it was sort of a lighter, funnier moment. And here I am in the third season, and it’s not so funny. It was a great opportunity for me to do something unexpected.
How did you make that turn in the scene, from a figure of fun to a lonely man desperate enough to risk incineration? Did you draw on private memories?
It’s written clearly, and the writing tells you where to go, but yes, nothing reads more clearly onscreen than a real thought, a real feeling, and that’s what you’ve gotta come up with as an actor.
How was the shoot for you? Did you do many takes …
Just a good feeling on that set, and a good understanding that they’re reaching for something that’s not necessarily tangible, but specific — and I think it comes out in the show. It’s reaching — successfully reaching. I’m not sure what that means, but that’s the feeling I get when I’m watching it.
Are you actually still close to the Perfect Strangers cast?
In the real world, we have remained friends over the years. I see Bronson once or twice a year, and Melanie Wilson is a good friend.
So you would be upset if they departed.
But the comparison of a sitcom family to Nora’s kids is still slightly funny, no?
Well, it’s an overlay, a clever Damon Lindelof thing. Loss is loss.
Lindelof has said he was a fan of Perfect Strangers. Do you think we’ll see you again in a Lindelof property?
Well, you know, I smell spinoff!
With you and Busey?
I think that’s it!
This interview has been edited and condensed.