11 October 1966 – 4 March 2019
Luke Perry, Buffy movie actor, dies aged 52
Luke Perry, who has died aged 52 from complications following a stroke, was a popular screen heart-throb of the 1990s. With his aloof manner and sharply defined handsomeness, he became an obvious pin-up – a poster boy for poster boys. He was a regular on the hit television show Beverly Hills, 90210, which was watched by more than 21 million US viewers at its peak and syndicated across the world.
Along with Jason Priestley, Tori Spelling and Shannen Doherty, Perry was part of the original cast of this glossy teen phenomenon about the lives and loves of a group of wealthy and blemishless southern Californian students (the digits in the title refer to a renowned Beverly Hills postcode).
But Perry arguably received a more intense dose of idolatry than his co-stars. Tabloids compared him to James Dean and linked him romantically to Madonna; a character in the 1995 film comedy Clueless is said to be “saving herself for Luke Perry”. Countless fans were similarly devoted. After one public appearance, Perry had to be smuggled to safety in a laundry basket to avoid being mobbed. He never hid his profound discomfort with the hysteria that accompanied his fame.
His character, the rebellious loner Dylan McKay, did not appear in the pilot episode in 1990. But the producer, Aaron Spelling, best known for Dynasty, called for a character who was “a little dangerous, a little on the edge”. The show’s creator, Darren Star, said: “When Luke walked into the audition, it was like ‘Wow, that’s the person.’ He seems exactly like James Dean to me, but it isn’t a conscious imitation – he’s really being himself.” Before the first two seasons were over, Dylan had struggled with alcoholism, seen his tycoon father arrested for white-collar crimes, taken his girlfriend’s virginity on prom night and moved in with her against her parents’ wishes.
The show itself was not an instant smash. Ratings were initially poor but they improved after new episodes were screened during the summer, a time when the US TV schedules are traditionally dominated by repeats. When it tackled difficult subjects, such as Aids, rape and cancer, it could be compulsive viewing. (Responding to its penchant for tragedy and sensationalism, Mad magazine nicknamed it Beverly Hills 911.)
As the series went on, the plots became somewhat strange. Perry’s storylines alone were a mark of how detached the show was becoming from its origins. His character’s heroin addiction and near-bankruptcy were one thing. But by the time Dylan was discovering a past life while undergoing hypnotherapy, or setting out to avenge his father’s death by wooing the daughter of the gangster who killed him, only to then fall in love with her, the early seasons seemed like social realism by comparison.
After the gangster nonsense, Perry sensibly jumped ship. He had already proved himself an appealing film actor in the original movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), which later spawned the successful TV series with a different cast, and as the rodeo rider Lane Frost in 8 Seconds (1994). Having left the show, he was free to accept challenging roles that went against the grain of his image.
The most rewarding of these was Normal Life (1996), in which Perry swapped his 90210 pompadour for a seedy moustache to star as a rookie cop in love with an all-round bad girl played by Ashley Judd, who turns up to his father’s funeral on rollerblades. Falling under her spell, he robs banks to support her. The film came close to trashy John Waters territory but Perry’s muted and vanity-free performance gave it an emotional grounding. Few of his other roles were anywhere near as interesting, and he rejoined Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1998, staying until the show ended two years later.
He was born Coy Luther Perry III in Mansfield, Ohio. His father, Coy Luther Perry Jr, was a steelworker, while his mother, Ann (nee Bennett), raised Luke and his two siblings, Tom and Amy. He grew up mainly in Fredericktown, also in Ohio, which he described as a redneck backwater and a rural paradise. “Both are true,” he said.
He was 12 when he realised he wanted to be an actor. After graduating from Fredericktown high school, he moved to Los Angeles to take acting lessons, though it was in New York that he got his first work, appearing on the daytime soaps Loving (1988) and Another World (1988-89). He was doing odd jobs, including laying asphalt and working in a doorknob factory, when he was cast as Dylan.
Once the series finished, he had a recurring role in the tough, highly original HBO prison drama Oz (2001-02) and appeared in many other TV series. He took the Billy Crystal part in a 2004 London stage adaptation of When Harry Met Sally, though most critics agreed his looks worked against the character’s supposed awkwardness. Matt Wolf in Variety said, “he’s in no way right for the role” while Michael Billington in this paper called his interpretation “under-cooked”.
He chose not to participate in a 90210 reboot planned for this year. Recent work included playing a grizzled but gentle divorcee in the popular television drama Riverdale (2016-19). His last completed performance came n Quentin Tarantino’s thriller Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (due to be released this summer), set in Los Angeles in the late 60s and early 70s, and also starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Perry is survived by his fiancee, Wendy Madison Bauer, his children, Jack (also known by his professional wrestling name, “Jungle Boy” Nate Coy) and Sophie, from his marriage to Rachel Sharp, daughter of the screenwriter Alan Sharp, which lasted from 1993 until the couple’s divorce in 2003, and his mother, brother and sister.