When Luke Perry died on Monday at age 52 after suffering a stroke last week, most fans instantly thought of his role as the heartthrob Dylan McKay on the Nineties megahit and cultural phenomenon Beverly Hills 90210. It was as iconic a role in modern television as they come and one Perry would be synonymous with, however reluctantly, throughout his life.
Still, despite the overall significance of Beverly Hills 90210, Perry’s roles in cult films like 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997’s The Fifth Element and, especially, 1994’s 8 Seconds have had a lasting impact on smaller portions of the population.
While most TV fans of a certain age understandably view Perry as the sideburned Dylan (younger viewers knew him as Archie’s dad on Riverdale), kids across Texas, Oklahoma, the American West and even Western Canada are just as likely to identify him with Lane Frost.
In the rodeo biopic 8 Seconds, Perry starred as the famed bullrider Frost, who died tragically July 30th, 1989, as a result of injuries sustained after being rammed by a bull known as Takin’ Care of Business while competing at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. Only 25 when he died, Frost was one of the biggest stars on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) circuit. In 1987, he was crowned World Champion of the PRCA. A year after his death, Frost was posthumously inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
As a child of both the Nineties and of West Texas, Perry’s impact as Lane Frost is immeasurable. Even while my mother was a diehard 90210 fan, 8 Seconds’ shadow loomed larger in the Lone Star State. Cruise through nearly any rural town in the region and you’re bound to run into some child named after Frost.
I wasn’t personally involved in rodeo, but I was connected to that world in adjacent ways — my father was a horse-trailer manufacturer, one grandfather was a veterinarian, another was an amateur rodeo and ranching cowboy in the Sixties. And my grandmother was a lifelong fan of the circuit, often dragging me and my cousins to rodeos in Pecos, Del Rio, Odessa, Midland and other West Texas towns.
Before 8 Seconds, those small rodeos felt isolated and cut off from the world. But after the spring of 1994, they somehow became important, something that, at least during the run-up to the film, everyone was talking about. It was a national spotlight illuminating the most local of pastimes, and watching Perry portray Frost (not as some hero cowboy archetype, but as a flawed real-life everyman) felt like the world learning what a cowboy’s life was really like.
This is largely due to Perry’s dedication to the role: his portrayal of Frost was raw, visceral and, above all, sincere. Perry brought to life someone you’d only heard about in story. The character’s vitality was also due in part to the leading man’s chemistry with Stephen Baldwin, who played Frost contemporary and friend Tuff Hedeman. The actors, who both learned to ride themselves and studied with rodeo professionals, captured the candid camaraderie and restless spirit not only shared by Frost and Hedeman, but by the rodeo world at large. It felt real because it was.
Despite not being a box office success — the film grossed more than $19 million domestically — 8 Seconds’ impact was similar to that of Urban Cowboy in the 1980s. While Urban Cowboy saw waves of people learning to dance in their freshly bought cowboy boots and brushpopper pearl snaps, 8 Seconds witnessed a new round of rodeo fans punching their tickets to see what real cowboys did. If Urban Cowboy was a city slicker, 8 Seconds was its twangy, rural cousin who’d actually been bucked off a horse a time or two.
Like Urban Cowboy, the film also arrived with a bona fide soundtrack featuring Nineties country megastars Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and a host of others. In a strange way, their inclusion was just another confirmation — like Garth Brooks’ 1991 hit “Rodeo” before it — that this world of cowboys, bulls, blood and dirt was relevant and worthwhile.
8 Seconds depicted folks not too dissimilar to those who inhabited dusty, small towns around the country. Perry may have been at the height of his 90210 stardom at the time, but as Frost, he felt like he was one of our own — even if only for a few fleeting seconds.