Luke Perry was the right teen heartthrob at the right time
Luke Perry, who rose to prominence on Beverly Hills, 90210 in the 1990s and more recently in Riverdale, died Monday after suffering a massive stroke a week earlier. He was 52.
During the '90s, Perry was a heartthrob who channeled the smoldering good looks of James Dean, and his acting ability brought a certain nuance to the role of Dylan McKay on 90210 that the writers could never achieve themselves. Perry was in the midst of a career renaissance when he died, with a part in the upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The big joke about Beverly Hills, 90210—the knee-jerk joke, the one even someone who’d never seen the show would make—was that everyone in the cast was twice the age of an actual high school student. This, of course, is true. It is also, as anyone who watched the show religiously would tell you, completely irrelevant. In 1990, you didn’t turn on the brand-new Fox network for realism. You wanted escape, and beauty, and Kelly Bundy. You wanted sex and smolder, and if you had to watch a 36-year-old take the PSATs to get it, it was a fair trade.
Luke Perry was a comparatively young man of 24 when he first appeared as Dylan McKay on 90210, and though he in no way resembled an actual high school student, his appeal was timeless. Perry, who died Monday at the age of 52, arrived on our television screens like an updated 1950s matinee idol: the hairline of James Dean with the knowing smirk of a Baldwin. Dylan McKay—the surfing, Byron-reading, Marx Brothers movie-watching mysterious boy in denim overalls with one strap undone and a difficult relationship with a distant father—was a specific kind of heartthrob we hadn’t seen in years.
Our male archetypes at the turn of the decade were either Aqua-Netted in the style of a Bon Jovi, or as aggressively youthful as a New Kid on the Block. Luke Perry gave you a grown-up sensuality that made you understand why Brenda and Kelly would both hit it. To have seen him in those early episodes, working on Brandon’s car, flirting with Brenda, white t-shirt stained with carefully-applied car filth…well, it stays with you.
But the guy had real depth. While the writers of 90210 often wrote their characters haphazardly (were we supposed to like Brenda or not? I still don’t know!), Luke Perry’s performance did the work for them. Dylan bounced back and forth between bad boy, addict, and the Walsh family’s most trusted friend in a way that wouldn’t make sense in another actor’s hands. But Perry, with his natural, weary charisma, made it work. He exuded brooding bad boy with a good heart so naturally, the writers’ work was largely done for them. Surely his was the hardest-working head of hair in television.
If you were between the ages of 16 and 24 in 1992, you had the sideburns and it is pointless to pretend otherwise.
Audiences reacted to him as they always do when things are working exactly as they should, which is to say they went apeshit. Fox put the cast on an autograph-signing tour of shopping malls in 1991, and a solo Perry appearance at the Fashion Mall in Plantation, Florida lasted 90 seconds and ended in around a dozen fans being treated for injuries. In Bellevue, Washington, he had to be evacuated out of the mall’s delivery area in a laundry hamper. Even the boys who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Luke Perry event were powerless to his pull; if you were between the ages of 16 and 24 in 1992, you had the sideburns and it is pointless to pretend otherwise.
90210 hit its peak when I was in college, and the show was a weekly communal experience. Every Wednesday night at 8 pm, our campus pub would swell with students, watching the show in a reverent silence. This was senior year for the Peach Pit posse, the year of Donna Martin graduates, and Dylan choosing Kelly over Brenda, and poor Jack McKay’s car getting bombed. It was the show at its soapiest, but Perry kept the Grand Guignol grounded.
I remember once, we were all packed in watching the show and a rowdy bunch of football players came in to celebrate a recent victory. It was a big episode (I think the one where Dylan takes Kelly to the Pigskin Prom), and I was elected to be the one to ask them to quiet down. I approached timidly, and said simply, “Uh, guys? Nine-oh.” They looked at the screen, and then at me, and said, “Sorry.” Even the jocks got it.
Once he left the zip code, Perry took chances on the roles he chose. It was almost certainly his bankability that got a movie called Buffy, The Vampire Slayer made, and if 8 Seconds wasn’t the Days of Thunder of its time, at least a rodeo movie was a risk. He did two seasons on HBO's Oz, with all the full-frontal that the job entails, and one season on a forgotten HBO show in which he was the starring character: John From Cincinnati. That show was too much for audiences accustomed to the gore of The Sopranos and the glitz of Sex and the City. If it came out today, people might be referring to John From Cincinnati in the same breath as the Golden Age of Television. More recently, Perry introduced himself to a new audience with a supporting role in Riverdale and was poised for a mid-career renaissance with a part in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
But it’s Dylan we’ll remember, and it’s not because of the writing or direction. (I mean, let’s be honest: “Let the bridges I burn light the way,” as cool as it sounds, does not make sense.) It’s because the character’s soulfulness, fragility and smolder seemed to radiate from Luke Perry himself.