Here is what I remember about Luke Perry: He played a bad boy who read poetry. A loner whom every girl wanted to make less lonely. A surfer who rarely seemed to get his hair wet.
Probably free verse wasn’t really Perry’s thing, and who knows if he surfed on his own time. But through most of the 1990s, he played Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210, a role that stuck to him like teen idol Super Glue. Of course, he wasn’t really a teenager then; he only played one on TV. But if you were a tween and then a teen, as I was in the ‘90s, living in neighbourhoods that were almost close to Beverly Hills, he was the stuff of notebook doodles and college walls.
I’m older now, and I know what a disaster man like that can be. (The poetry he read was Charles Bukowski, OK?) But back then, if I’d met him outside some lucky-starred frozen yoghurt shop, I probably would have passed out. He taught a generation of us, wrongly, that difficult, damaged men were only waiting for you to fix them.
Perry’s death was announced Monday, a few days after he had a stroke. He grew up in small-town Ohio, was once voted “Biggest Flirt,” and was, quite consciously, an actor in the James Dean mode, portraying bad boys who weren’t really bad at all, just misunderstood. He had effortless masculinity and a slightly more effortful sensitivity. His face was handsome, narrow, with a prematurely wrinkled forehead, sideburns you could roll around in and a scurf of stubble. Because why waste time shaving when you could just gaze soulfully instead?
How good an actor was he? It didn’t really matter. Gifted with charisma, he needed only to squint his eyes or press his lips tight, and girls my age — and certainly boys, too — went swoony. He spoke softly; you leaned in.
On Beverly Hills, 90210 and more recently as a “hot dad” on the kid-noir Riverdale, he walked the line of naturalism and subtle parody. If he knew how ridiculous some of his lines were (“May the bridges I burn light my way”), he never let on. He made movies, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rodeo flick 8 Seconds. But he seemed made for the small screen. He filled it. He was smallish, 5-foot-9 or 5-10 and skinny, but television enlarged him.
After 90210, which he left and then returned to, he played a behind-bars televangelist on Oz, a post-apocalyptic loner on Jeremiah, a surfing promoter on John From Cincinnati, and gunslingers in TV Westerns, roles that tended to rely on his dappled magnetism.
It’s fitting, somehow, that Riverdale — where he played Archie Andrews’ perma-concerned father, Fred Andrews — is the show that shoved him back into the public eye. Another nighttime teen soap, it has created a new crowd of tabloid-cover pinups to make Gen Z weak-kneed. His castmates include Molly Ringwald, Mädchen Amick, Skeet Ulrich, other ‘90s actors now passing the heartthrob baton.
Back in 1992, peak 90210 craze, he told Vanity Fair, “I don’t take myself that seriously. I don’t always have to be this guy.” But he did. That’s how Hollywood saw him or how he came to see himself, or maybe it was actually all that he could do. But if you used to sprawl on the sofa at 9 every Thursday night, biting your nails as his pompadour bobbed, it was enough.