Rest in peace, Luke Perry — you walked so Jordan Catalano could run. The first time most of us saw him, he was bad boy Dylan McKay on the Nineties hit Beverly Hills, 90210, easily the best TV teen drama ever. He was the new kid in town, all smoldering eyebrows and Elvis sideburns. The first time he meets his best friend, Jason Priestley’s Brandon Walsh, he picks him up in his convertible. Brandon finds a book on the passenger seat — “Ah, a little leisure reading.” He’s shocked by the book: the collected works of the Romantic poet Lord Byron. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know,” Dylan says. “That was him and that’s me.”
Now that’s how you make an entrance. Luke Perry would never go back to being un-famous after that moment.
I bet Dylan was reading Byron’s “Manfred” that night, or maybe “The Giaour” — but the point is, only Luke Perry had the Byronic presence to turn Dylan into an unforgettable teen-rebel archetype, a Gen-X surfer outlaw reading poetry and breaking hearts, making 90210 a sensation. Tragically, Luke Perry died today of a stroke, only 52 years old, while having his biggest career resurgence in years as Archie’s dad in Riverdale. But even on that hit CW show, playing the kind of TV father he used to terrorize, Perry seemed as mad, bad and dangerous to know as ever.
He made Dylan a high school hero worthy of his rock & roll name, a freewheelin’ outlaw whose answering-machine message was, “Hey, this is Dylan, you know the drill.” (Like half my friends, I had that on my answering-machine by the next commercial break.) You didn’t have to be in high school to love this show obsessively, and Luke Perry was the main reason why. He was fond of uttering proverbs like, “May the bridges I burn light the way!” Dylan was dating Shannen Doherty’s Brenda, but his true soulmate was Jennie Garth’s Kelly — after they spent the summer of 1992 exchanging steamy eye contact to Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” they finally got together. They liked to begin their mornings eating strawberries and cranking the latest Dinosaur Jr. album. (Where You Been, a great one.) When Kelly purrs, “Why don’t we just skip school altogether and stay in bed all day?” he drawls, “I can’t. Gotta go to AP English.” Only Luke could have made that moment credible.
In true Nineties style, Dylan had a fierce feminist conscience and hated bullies more than anything. As he told the jocks at West Beverly High School, “The tragedy of this country is that creeps like you end up running it.” This was a time when things were changing fast in pop culture — the simultaneous explosion of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, along with “riot grrrl” became a household phrase, made Dylan seem like a new breed of male heartthrob. And oh, his ever-touching friendship with Andrea Zuckerman, the show’s designated Smart Girl. They’re both outsiders in their way, the only ones who really understand each other. As he tells her, “I can just be myself, and there’s no strings attached. You don’t want anything from me. Everybody else does.” I am an unrepentant Dylandrea ‘shipper and I plan to die on that hill, my friend.
Beverly Hills, 90210 addressed issues like eating disorders and sexual violence with way more empathy than teen TV had ever tried before. Dylan was one of very, very few TV characters at that time going through post-addiction recovery; he was the first to go to AA meetings and have a “sponsor,” for one thing. He relapses in the episode where his white-collar criminal dad shows up, gets blown up by the Mob and turns out to have been an FBI agent. (It was both ridiculous and poignant — the ultimate 90210 combination.) At the end, the young man meets his inner child — that’s how the little kid was billed in the final credits: “Dylan’s Inner Child” — and finally puts an arm around him to give a consoling hug, as the soundtrack played the Williams Brothers’ “Can’t Cry Hard Enough.” A melodramatic moment, but an emotionally powerful one. Luke Perry’s moral gravitas is the reason it worked.
Luke wasn’t giving out his age when the show hit — it was the last moment in history when a star could successfully hide a minor detail like that. (He was born in October 1966, a few months before Kurt Cobain.) When he posed on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1993, he revealed that he came from small-town Ohio and used to work in a doorknob factory: “I cleaned up, scraping up big fucking glops, cleaned the acidic waste off the shit … it was horrendous, man.” He had the blue-collar appeal of Brad Pitt, who got famous at exactly the same time and in the same way. “After the pilot, we felt there should be someone who is a little dangerous, a little on the edge, and we came up with the Dylan character,” Aaron Spelling said. “When Luke walked into the audition,” said creator Darren Star, “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.” In fact, he looked so much like James Dean, there was an entire episode based around the Rebel Without a Cause scene where hot-rodders play a game of chicken. (Great episode, too, especially when he sneers, “Hey, you guys wanna go play Teen Outlaw, be my guest.”)
He proved himself with his first kiss with Shannen Doherty, already a star on the basis of Heathers and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. “It was very hard for me,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was in some fucking frustration. It was my first really big show. I was very nervous. I felt under the gun.” But he got through it. “I was wearing a long coat, and I just sat down on the sidewalk and threw that coat over my head until I was ready to go. I was screaming at Shannen like a fucking crazy man off camera before I came on to get the emotion. I was screaming and sobbing.” Asked about her costar, Doherty said, “Well, you can definitely say that Luke sleeps with a pig.” She meant his beloved pet Chinese potbellied pig Jerry Lee. Perry was devoted to this animal — as he said, “Jerry Lee’s the Yoda force in my life.”
The actor became a teen idol at a time when fan armies didn’t merely mobilize on their phones — they took over shopping malls and turned them into mob scenes. As a Fox executive put it, that’s how they realized he show was a hit: “It wasn’t the ratings, it was the riots.” When Perry came by a Florida mall to sign autographs, the fans turned it into a combat zone; the EMS commander said, “I don’t even know who that kid is. But I’d like to pop him one.” What greater compliment could he get? As a 17-year-old girl told the local paper, “He’s just a nice guy who’s fine looking and who’s not afraid to show his feelings. If all the guys in the world were like him, everything would be perfect.”
Luke specialized in being the male figure in a female-character-driven story, which is why he was perfect in the original move version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (He wore a wig, a clever Hollywood in-joke about the 90210 cast’s much-noted hairlines.) He got his Paul Newman on in 8 Seconds, the only movie about bronco riding I’ll ever see … but I went because it was the new Luke Perry movie. He was a surfer on John From Cincinnati and a scholar in The Fifth Element. Yet Dylan was the role of a lifetime. Like he said on 90210, “I don’t believe in winning through intimidation. Unless, of course, I’m doing the intimidating.” Mad, bad, impossible to forget.