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Luke Perry Was a Generational Teen Idol—and Far More

The iconic ‘90210’ and ‘Riverdale’ actor died Monday at the age of 52

A young Luke Perry Getty Images/Ringer illustration

He looked like James Dean, but didn’t always act like he looked like James Dean. We meet Dylan McKay, a brooding and soulful and only slightly ridiculous high school hunk played by a budding teen idol named Luke Perry, in the second episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, the medium-sexy Fox prime-time soap opera that premiered in 1990 and went on to define the medium-sexy ’90s as a whole. His first big line, delivered to a pair of knucklehead bullies, is: “The tragedy of this country is that cretins like you two end up running it.”

Also: “I’m not in a good mood today. In fact, I’m feeling a little hostile.” He doesn’t sound hostile, is the thing, his sonorous voice nonetheless a little too high, his tone a little too sardonic. Those bullies back off less because Dylan is intimidating than because this dude is clearly cool as hell.

Soon, our man is formally introduced to 90210’s other main hunk, musing on Jason Priestley’s character’s name with his trademark inquisitiveness: “‘Brandon Walsh.’ Scotch or Irish?” Dylan is reading a book in this scene, and I really wish I knew which book, exactly. Not On the Road. Something cooler. The Dharma Bums, at least. A deep-thinking ’90s heartthrob was born, and Dylan would brighten the show with his moody incandescence full-time until Season 6, when he rode off on a motorcycle with his dead wife’s cat in a carrier strapped to the back. I’m leaving out the Brenda-Kelly love triangle, the mob entanglements, the hypnotherapy, the boozy and near-fatal car accident, the heroin. Soap operas, man. Transcending them—surviving them—is a nigh-insurmountable challenge for any serious young actor. You’ve got to be willing to not take yourself so seriously. You’ve got to be awfully soulful.

Luke Perry died Monday morning, five days after reportedly suffering a massive stroke. He was 52. The tearful obituaries will all lead with 90210, as well they should. He first left the show in 1995 in hopes of bolstering a film career that, with a few exceptions—1992’s OG Buffy the Vampire Slayer, top billing in the 1994 bull-riding drama 8 Seconds, a small role in 1997’s sci-fi cult classic The Fifth Element—never quite caught fire. But even when he rejoined the 90210 fold later in its run, he kept his head, his dignity, his wits about him. He could handle both the opera and the soap. And many years later, in 2017, when the CW’s recognizably sensational and sensationalist Riverdale needed somebody to play Archie’s soulful dad, Perry was the only choice, a gravitas-laden pro who could take even a bullet in stride.

At the height of his fame, from his Saturday Night Live hosting gig (“Kick his ass, Luke!”) to his self-mocking Simpsons cameo to his armed and shirtless Vanity Fair cover to his penchant for causing mini-riots at shopping malls, Perry carefully balanced reveling in his success and decrying the way most people defined it. A 1991 People magazine cover story begins thus: “Call Luke Perry a teen idol and you’ll get a cannon-shot response. ‘Man, I hate those two [bleep]ing words!’ says Perry, with more than actorly passion. Hey, man, okay.”

But as he evolved, he found modestly prestigious roles that didn’t require ostentatiously burning himself in effigy, where he could cuss without getting bleeped out. For a while he was an unlikely but quite soothing presence on HBO, playing a crooked evangelist on the fourth season of the prison melodrama Oz in 2001 and 2002 and starring in David Milch’s ill-fated but beguilingly strange 2007 metaphysical surfing show John From Cincinnati. He took risks; he contained multitudes. His saddest role, given that he was an Ohio native, was “lifelong Browns fan.” Another way to put it is that in 2009 he joined the bonkers cast of a star-studded audiobook version of the Bible, playing the roles of both Saint Stephen and Judas.

It all came full circle with Riverdale; Monday, in response to news of Perry’s death, the show issued a statement praising him as “a father figure and mentor to the show’s young cast,” which in his case sounds far more legitimate and heartfelt than that sort of statement usually does. Perry got a humble but striking monologue late in Season 1: “I’ve been pouring concrete and laying brick since I was your age,” he tells his son, who, to repeat, is Archie. “That’s who I am. It’s all I know.” It’s the sort of prestige-soap-opera moment that could sound ridiculous, but doesn’t; you believe him completely even as you know it’s not true.

Last week Fox officially teased a bizarre upcoming 90210 reboot with the meta-conceit that the show’s original stars—including Priestly, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, and Tori Spelling—would play “heightened versions of themselves” gearing up to star in … a 90210 reboot. It was not immediately clear whether Perry (or resident series bad girl Shannen Doherty) would participate, or whether any of this was at all a good idea. A longtime Luke Perry fan might’ve been torn between hoping he’d grace this project with his presence and praying he’d have enough grace and good sense to avoid it.

His final film role is a far less fraught affair: Perry will appear later this year in Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. No matter how debased his actions and debauched his words, he’ll doubtless be great in it, recognizably his brooding and still-handsome self without betraying any great need to subvert it. He deserved better, but still made everything he was in better. The tragedy of this country is that guys like him don’t end up running it.