Luke Perry’s big break came in 1990, playing Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills 90210. Which I always thought was a bit of a blessing and a bit of a curse. The former is obvious. Not only did Perry land a gig on a show that ran for ten seasons (although he did not appear onscreen in 1996-97), he was also a big part of a legit cultural phenomenon. As McKay, Perry went from unknown to instant heartthrob. It had to be a heady time for a young actor whose most significant previous credit was a ten-episode run on the daytime soap Another World.
There was another side to that coin though. At 24, Perry often suffered jokes about being the oldest high school student on earth. Let’s face it, he never for a second looked like a passable teenager, and while viewers of the show had no trouble suspending their disbelief, many on the outside had a hard time taking the handsome brooder seriously. 90210 was a lot of things but loved by the critics was not one of them.
Of all the members of the original cast, I always thought Perry had the most chops. He also had a presence you couldn’t deny. While he was saddled with unfair comparisons to James Dean (as ever sandy blonde-haired hunk playing a bad boy with a heart of gold was back then), I always got a sense that there was more beneath the surface with Perry.
Outside of 90210, much of Perry’s career was more miss than hit. He was on the poster for the original film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but it would be years before that project morphed into the TV classic it later became. His star turn as rodeo rider Lane Frost in 8 Seconds in 1994 for Rocky director John G. Avildsen put his name above the title but came and went without much notice. He had a cameo at the beginning of The Fifth Element, did a lot of work on television as either a series guest or as a lead on shows that never quite took off (Jeremiah, Windfall, John From Cincinnati).
His career came full circle in a sense when he was cast as Fred Andrews, father of Archie, on Riverdale. It may have seemed like a bit of a wink at the camera to bring Perry back to a teen-based hour-long series as a – finally – age-appropriate character, but he and the show were well received. Seventeen years after 90210 left the air, Perry was back on a show with a rabid teen (and older) following. Whatever irony one might want to associate with his new success there was no doubt that Perry had caught a bit of the zeitgeist for a second time.
However, in reading about Perry’s passing today, another title came to mind. Way back in 1996 Perry was the co-lead in a little seen crime drama from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton called Normal Life. Paired with Ashley Judd, who at the time was between her high profile turns in Heat and A Time To Kill, Normal Life told the story of a young man who falls head over heels in love with a beautiful young woman who is compulsively unstable, leading to tragic consequences as they embark on a life of crime.
Judd is an absolute firecracker in the broader, showier role. She gets inside of the character’s pain and breaks not only Perry’s heart, but ours too. But it’s Perry’s quieter, sweeter work as a young police officer so taken with his new love that he is willing to throw his whole life away (as one does for Ashley Judd) that stood out to me. At first, their romance is sexy and electric. Things soon take a dark turn as Judd’s mental issues and drug addiction take over their lives. Perry is so overwhelmed he turns himself into someone else just to stay in her orbit. He does everything wrong. His obsession begins with enabling, then job loss, then bank-robbing, then death.
Despite all the machinations, his character must go through to justify his actions, there is never a second that you don’t believe him. As powerful and persuasive as Judd is in her role, it is Perry who supplies the sad, wrenching core of the film. He does so more than ably – with great aplomb, in fact. Unfortunately, Fine Line Studios knew not what they had and gave the film a cursory release before dumping it on home video. What a shame. Normal Life is one of the grittiest and best unseen films of its decade. What it might have done for Perry had it actually been seen.
Today, I wondered about that Luke Perry. What kind of career that guy might have had if Normal Life been given half a chance. Because Luke Perry had chops. More than most ever saw. A Normal Life proves that. I mean this as no disrespect to the resume Perry collected in his more than thirty years onscreen. Perry was a fine actor with a long career. He worked steadily and held the screen with ease. It’s just that when asked, he was capable of more. Much more. As he showed in Normal Life .
Luke Perry died today due to complications from a massive stroke. He was 52 years old.