By Joanne Kaufman Victoria Balfour
July 17, 1989 12:00 PM

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis have not talked to their lawyers, filed a brief or issued any subpoenas. But it’s probably just a matter of time. Most moviegoers would say that the stars of Ghostbusters have an airtight case against Peter MacNicol, who in his small role as the lecherous Janosz Poha, a bewitched, bothered and bespooked art restorer, does the most spectacular bit of screen stealing since Bronson Pinchot sauntered through Beverly Hills Cop. We’re talking grand larceny here.

Even though MacNicol, 32, is short (5’7½” when a part requires him to stand up straight) and slight and surrounded by the big boys of comedy, he’s impossible to miss. He’s the one with the high-pitched voice spewing out fractured English in an accent no known country could produce. The one with the hairdo that looks as if it had just been plugged into an electrical outlet. The one who sidles up to resident Ghostbusterssexpot Sigourney Weaver to suggest, “Do you vant to go and hoff a brunch vit me?”

His star may be on the rise in Hollywood, but MacNicol, who played Meryl Streep’s puppyish suitor Stingo in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice and portrayed a vulnerable Richard II in a 1987 New York Shakespeare Festival production, swears he’ll stay down to earth. Standing in the booklined one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, Marsue Cumming, 40, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Peter gazes at two pictures of galaxies from an astronomy book. He carried the illustrations to the premiere of Sophie’s Choice. “Every once in a while I’d take them out from my coat pocket and look at them,” MacNicol remembers. “Then I would think, ‘Geez, it’s just a little film.’ ”

This is not the gesture of a conventional actor. But then, MacNicol might be defined by his quirks. In his spare time, he plays the bagpipes. In conversation, he tosses out words like “ecto-skeleton.” The vocabulary is a throwback to the time when, as the youngest of five children born to John, a Dallas executive turned Episcopal priest, and Barbara, a housewife, Peter decided he wanted to be a paleontologist.

That notion fossilized when McNicol discovered that math was required. Then, at age 9, he was recruited to take the part of a statue of St. Peter in a church play. “I remember trying to achieve a stonelike complexion with talcum powder,” he says. “But when I stood up, the talc rose from me like a squall line and started moving over the front pews.” Still the performance was received with such hilarity, he immediately decided to make acting his goal.

After graduating from high school—where MacNicol developed the “devastating wit” that has protected many a short guy from more muscular barbs—Peter went on to the University of Minnesota. “I played a lot of old men, with silver hair spray,” he says. “I probably looked like a teenager who had been at Chernobyl.” After a stint at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, he moved to New York in 1980—and a part in the Pulitzer-prize winning play Crimes of the Heart, in which he was spotted by a casting agent for Sophie’s Choice.

MacNicol, though flattered, didn’t think he was up to the role. Literally. The character was supposed to be more than 6′ tall. “So I put those portable packs of tissues into my shoes, and I arrived at the audition 5’9″.” For a callback, MacNicol padded his boots with a few more packs. Another callback, another few packs. “But my pants were cut for somebody 5’7½”,” he says. “When I sat down to do a scene with Meryl, my hemline shot up to my knees. I looked like I was wearing lederhosen.”

There was considerably less paperwork involved in the Ghostbusters II audition, but an equal amount of fancy footwork. According to MacNicol, the character as written “was one of those guys that 5,000 actors could play.” In his audition, Peter gave Janosz a homeland (Carpathia) and an accent as thick as stuffed cabbage. To prepare for the role, MacNicol hung around a Romanian tourist agency and devoted considerable time to conjuring up Carpathia. “I envisioned our flag. It was a snake stepping on a man. Then I invented our national product. I thought maybe we make those little barrels that Saint Bernards wear.”

But not one of Carpathia’s quaint customs prepared MacNicol for being slimed. “Six times I wore that stuff. It doesn’t wash off in the shower,” he says. “It shifts. It’s like some kind of oil slick that changes harbor. It left a pink residue. In Los Angeles, I thought, ‘I’ll bet they think I’ve had a bad Retin-A reaction.’ ”

Quite understandably, MacNicol’s star turn in Ghostbusters II has brought “a very strange assortment” of offers. But right now he’s considering his options and spending time with Marsue, who is executive director of the 52nd Street Project, a theater program for homeless children. Married 2½ years, MacNicol and Cumming met on a blind date during which the evening’s chief diversion was a sharply contested game of Password. “She got me to say ‘pneumatic,’ ” MacNicol remembers, “and we knew we had that kind of connection.”

Even with the praise he has earned for Ghostbusters II(“the funniest performance in this film,” wrote the New York Times’s Vincent Canby), MacNicol isn’t absolutely sure he’s in the right profession. “There’s this need to be a tough hombre, which I’m just not,” he says. On the other hand, “I’m not thinking paleontology.”

—Joanne Kaufman, Victoria Balfour in New York