JASON PRIESTLEY MAY HAVE BEEN born in Vancouver, Canada, but his worldview was shaped by a particular Hollywood genius. “When I was growing up,” says Priestley, “every show I watched was an Aaron Spelling show.” Well, is this karma or what? Mr. Spelling (renowned for such ’80s video candy as Dynasty and The Love Boat) now heads the company that produces Beverly Hills, 90210—Fox’s comedy-drama about L.A. high schoolers who endure pubescent traumas while sporting terrific clothes and fab hairstyles. And the 21-year-old Priestley, who looks like a fairer, blue-eyed Johnny Depp, is the show’s chief heartthrob.
Priestley plays Brandon Walsh, a very cute, very earnest Minneapolis adolescent whose family has recently moved to L.A. The “90210,” alas, is their zip code, not their cumulative Nielsens—but the ratings have been getting stronger. The show has been renewed for 22 more episodes and—with the likes of Priestley and Luke Perry, who plays West Beverly High’s resident James Dean-type, Dylan McKay—it’s already way up there on the Teen Dreamboat Index.
Priestley would like you to think he’s something of a nightmare-boat. “Brandon is such a nice guy,” says Jason, whose previous major credit was as an orphan on NBC’s sitcom Sister Kate in 1989-90. “Far nicer than me.” For starters, Priestley has—at the moment, anyway—that hip, disheveled look: a few days’ stubble, jeans and a T-shirt. He’s a chain-smoker. He likes to go to Vegas and gamble. The bilious Elvis Costello is one of his favorite rock stars, and his video collection includes such bad-for-the-young classics as Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange. And surely Brandon’s parents would not let their only son try bungee jumping—leaping off a bridge while still attached to it.
Priestley loves the daredevil hobby and has a videotape to prove it. Here in the modest three-bedroom Woodland Hills home he shares with actor buddy David Sherrill (The Rookie), he pops a tape into his VCR: He and Perry, who calls Priestley “my partner in crime,” are preparing to dive from a bridge that spans a canyon in the Angeles National Forest, north of L.A. Their waists are strapped into harnesses, the harnesses are tied by bungee cords to the top of the bridge—aaaaaaaaaand they plunge over the side. “You jump off,” says Priestley, “and the first thing you think is, ‘I’ve just willingly committed suicide!’ ” (Spelling and the show’s hierarchy, by the way, are less than thrilled with their star’s thrill seeking.)
Priestley’s leaping may be genetic. His maternal grandfather, he says, was a circus acrobat, and his mother was a ballerina and choreographer. (Priestley, who refuses to discuss his family in detail, says his mom is now a real estate agent in Vancouver, where his father is a manufacturer’s representative for a furniture and textile company. He has one older sister, who lives in London.) But, unlike his ancestors, young Jason wasn’t so much athletically graceful as gloriously rough-and-tumble. “It seemed like once a week I broke something or got cut,” says the onetime rugby enthusiast. “I gave my mother many early heart attacks.” She gave him something more useful. By age 5, Priestley had signed with her former agent, and soon was landing parts in commercials and Canadian TV movies.
In high school, though, he decided he just wanted to be, you know, a teenager. “I didn’t want to worry about losing my job if I cut off all my hair or cut my face,” he says. In fact, he ended up—oh, Brandon!—shearing the sides of his head. “Kind of a mohawk,” he says. “I jumped on the tail end of the punk movement. Chains, black jeans, combat boots.” By the time he was finished with school and with punk, he was ready to return to acting. Priestley moved to Los Angeles in 1987, cushioned by the savings from his Canadian career, and began making guest appearances on 21 Jump Street, MacGyver and Quantum Leap. “I never once thought I should give up and go to college,” he says.
90210’s West Beverly High is education enough. The fan letters (100 a day) aren’t at the Kirk Cameron level (at the height of his popularity, the Growing Pains throb received thousands of letters a day), but by now Priestley can expect adulation from onlookers at Torrance High (where the show films) and from teenage girls every where—especially in England, he has found, where 90210 is the No. 1 program.
Meanwhile, not far from the real Beverly Hills, Priestley says his long days shooting the series leave him too exhausted to do much else. He tackles the occasional challenging book (including Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which he abandoned after three chapters and dismisses as “an overhyped piece of s—”). He whips around on his Yamaha motorcycle. He plays hockey with a local league. “And weekends,” he says, “I just kind of hang out.” Or maybe he’ll indulge in some wild activity good old Brandon wouldn’t dream of. Priestley says he’s up for anything “if it’s dangerous and life-threatening.” Beverly Hills, 90210 already airs against Cheers—isn’t that danger enough?
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles