Luke Perry’s first appearance on Beverly Hills, 90210 as West Beverly bad boy Dylan McKay aired on Perry’s 24th birthday. That was relatively young compared to some of his co-stars (Gabrielle Carteris turned 30 midway through that first season), but Perry had a lived-in face and physicality. And as the breakout star of Fox’s enduring Nineties teen drama, Perry became the easiest butt of jokes about hiring grown-ass adults to play high school sophomores and juniors.
Today, that calculus was painfully flipped on its head. Perry died of complications from a stroke at 52. It’s much too young for anyone to suffer that fate, but feels particularly ironic for someone whose adult life and career were forever defined by his boyish alter ego.
Perry wasn’t even in the two-hour 90210 pilot, which may be one reason most pundits and critics treated the series as an afterthought among the flood of high school shows debuting in the fall of 1990. (Others included a Ferris Bueller TV spinoff, a Ferris ripoff called Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and a teen musical called Hull High.) The others largely faded away (though Parker Lewis turned out to be much better and longer-lasting than Ferris Bueller), where — thanks in large part to the jolt of electricity Perry added to the show after the pilot — 90210 lasted 10 seasons. It launched an even more popular spinoff in Melrose Place — the two shows originally linked, of course, through Dylan — and a second-generation CW spin-off that itself ran five seasons. Shortly before Perry suffered his stroke, plans were announced for a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque revival with the original cast of 90210 playing themselves as they tried to mount a show-within-a-show sequel series.
Every generation has its own brooding teen heartthrob. For Generation X, it was Dylan McKay. Perry was so instantly cool and magnetic in the role that he transformed what had seemed an earnest culture clash comedy into something more addictively melodramatic and soapy. Dylan would, in time, become so much larger than life that the show didn’t know what to do with him. (While the other characters were college sophomores, Dylan was off recruiting a mercenary to help reclaim his stolen fortune. That kind of thing.) But those early days, and particularly his role in various love triangles, helped make the show into the phenomenon that’s still being developed decades later.
Hollywood is a business that typecasts, particularly when you become as famous as Perry did playing a character as young as Dylan was supposed to be at the start. Over the years, Perry did his best to escape the box the industry put him in. He did a memorable stint on HBO’s first drama series Oz as an incarcerated televangelist, becoming the only character on that violent show to essentially be murdered twice. He was one of the earliest celebrities to lampoon himself on The Simpsons, playing Krusty’s half-brother who is badly injured doing a stunt. (“My face!” he screams. “My valuable face!”) He kept taking dramatic roles when he got them, sometimes playing off his own image (as a surfing talent scout in John From Cincinnati), often not. In recent years, he had taken a crucial torch-passing role as Archie Andrews’ father Fred on Riverdale, a high school soap crazier than anything the 90210 writers dreamed of. Perry didn’t play Fred with a wink, but there was a weight to his work that made clear the guy had been through some wildness himself when he was Archie’s age.
Throughout his career, he seemed invariably good-humored about the nature and origins of his celebrity and the particular hold he had over fans of a certain age. He wasn’t attached to the latest planned revival, perhaps because he had that Riverdale day job. But it was easy to imagine him turning up as a Very Special Guest star, cocking an eyebrow and maybe making a joke about how he was done growing out his sideburns. But he won’t get to do that, or explore other opportunities in the second act he built for himself by continuing to show up and work, long after the West Beverly Class of ’93 graduated.
In hindsight, 24 really isn’t too old to be playing a teenager. But 52 is far too young for Luke Perry to be gone.