Luke Perry Had Complicated Feelings About Being a Teen Idol: 'I'm a Simple Guy'
Read PEOPLE's 1991 cover interview with late actor Luke Perry
Luke Perry died Monday at the age of 52, fives days after suffering a massive stroke. As friends, family, fans and costars grieve, take a look back at PEOPLE’s 1991 cover interview with the star, when he was a young actor skyrocketed to fame thanks to Beverly Hills, 90210.
Call Luke Perry a teen idol and you’ll get a cannon-shot response. “Man, I hate those two [bleep]ing words!” says Perry, with more than actorly passion. Hey, man, okay.
So instead of reminding him about the 2,000 fan letters he receives each week or the time he had to escape a mob of 4,000 screaming girls by hiding in a laundry hamper or the stacks of unauthorized biographies with titles like Luke-Mania! and Loving Luke, let’s try these two words: speed bump.
Good, now we’re on smoother ground.
It seems that last spring, while shooting a scene from the Fox network’s hit series Beverly Hills, 90210 in the parking lot of Torrance (Calif.) High School, Perry pointed proudly to the pavement and told producer Paul Waigner, “See that speed bump? I made it.”
Sitting with his shirt off on the sunny patio of his leased two-bedroom Hollywood home (sorry, he always keeps his shirt on for photos), Perry grins. “S—, I was laying asphalt the week before I got Beverly Hills, 90210. I’ll do whatever it takes to pay the rent.”
Is this possible? First Elizabeth Taylor marries a construction worker, and now TV’s heartthrob of the hour brags about his blue-collar gigs. Perry’s squint-eyed rebel, Dylan McKay, may have superseded costar Jason Priestley’s transplanted Minnesota do-gooder, Brandon Walsh, as TV’s big man on campus, with gaggles of adolescent girls—and grown women—tuning in to watch him brood each Thursday night. But Ohio-born Perry, 25, hasn’t given up being a regular, midwestern kinda guy.
Showing not a drop of sweat in the 100°F heat, the sideburn-cool Perry smokes Marlboro Lights and spices his sentences with street-hard, regular-guy words. “This [fan] s—- makes you crazy once in a while. But all of that is just fantasy. This,” he says, pointing to his bare chest and the firmly grounded soul inside, “is reality.” Gesturing at his surroundings, he adds, “I’m a simple guy. Look around. I don’t need a whole lot.” He flicks ashes onto the hardwood floor, which could use a good waxing. Near the sagging sofa, a TV cable lies in a tangle. In his bedroom, a black metal frame holds what is presumably a large mattress, but it’s impossible to be sure because the bed is covered with clothing. Suddenly Perry shuts the door. “That’s my private sanctum,” he says, mysteriously, “my chamber of horrors.”
All in all, the place is a dump in a seedy neighborhood where window bars are needed to keep the burglars at bay. In the yard hang a hammock and an Everlast punching bag—Perry’s only source of exercise. He shuns fancy health clubs, fancy clothes (he says he shops at the Gap once a year) and fancy cars (he recently—and reluctantly—succumbed to middle-class consumerism, sort of, when he bought a used, black Chevy Blazer). “Porsches are glorified Volkswagens, man,” he says. “I climb over Porsches in my Blazer.” Often he travels by dirt bike. “Some people would say that I’m not an actor, simply because I don’t own a Harley-Davidson and I’ve never been to a poetry reading,” he says. “That s—isn’t what I’m about.”
To explain what he is about, he reflects on the days when “nobody was putting makeup on my face,” in the rural farming town of Fredericktown, Ohio (pop. 2,300), an hour’s drive from Columbus. “I love where I come from,” says Luke, who was christened Coy Luther Perry III. “The people there are good people. When they say, ‘Thank you,’ they mean it. A lot of people say nice things to me out here because they’re getting paid to.”
His father, Coy Sr., a steelworker, and his mother, Ann, a homemaker, divorced when Luke was 6 (he has a brother, Tom, 26, a Navy recruiter in Round Lake, Ill., and a sister, Amy, 21, a secretary). Luke regards the split as fortuitous. His relationship with his dad, in a word, “sucked. I used to be very bitter about it, but I’m not now. It’s not worth my time.” Luke refuses to elaborate on their problems, except to say, “I don’t like anybody who hurts my mom.” Tom, whose potential recruits now beg him for his little brother’s address, will add only, “There was definitely a clash of personalities.” Luke attended the funeral after Coy Sr. died of a heart attack in 1980 but says he and his father never reconciled.
When Luke was 12, his mother married construction worker Steve Bennett, who had a daughter from a previous marriage, Emily, now 15 and a student at Fredericktown High School, from which Luke graduated in 1984. Steve, says Luke, is “the greatest man I know. I love him. I wish he was my real father. He’s the one who taught me the important things I needed to know about being a man.” Says Luke’s mother: “Steve used to take Luke and his brother to work with him on weekends, and they learned a lot about the construction business. They learned what it really was to put in a hard day’s physical labor.”
But Luke had already felt the visceral pull of Hollywood. He remembers lying in bed at age 5 and listening while his mom watched Cool Hand-Luke on TV. “I kept hearing Strother Martin saying, ‘Luke this’ and ‘Luke that,'” he recalls. “I got out of bed and snuck around the comer just as he’s whacking Paul Newman over the head with a blackjack. I was very proud that my name was Luke from that point on. When I found out that Paul Newman was from Ohio, that intrigued the hell out of me. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can do the same thing.”
A lackadaisical student at Fredericktown High, Luke admits, “I was one of those a—holes who thought they knew more than the teacher.” He played baseball and searched for outlets for his dramatic impulses. Betty Weller, a computer and typing teacher who coached the cheerleading squad, vividly remembers one Perry project: playing Freddie Bird, the school mascot. Luke was “mischievous, a thrill seeker,” says Weller. For one football game, he got his stepfather’s company to airlift him by helicopter onto the field, where he emerged dressed in yellow tights, red plumes, a cape and giant webbed feet.
One time, Luke, who was in the business vocational program, was able to apply his daydreams to his studies. According to his junior high math teacher, Don Falk, when the class was studying percentages, “Luke informed us he wanted to be an actor. I informed him of the 10-percent agent’s fee, and from there we developed a lesson on percents and how much he would pay the agent when he became successful. I then, of course, offered to be his agent when he became a success.”
Falk never got Luke to sign on the dotted line—and neither did any of Luke’s female admirers. Perry was voted Biggest Flirt his senior year. As brother Tom recalls, he was “awesome with the girls. He was a killer. They’d always be calling him.” Seconds his mom: “If Fredericktown ever had a ladies’ man, it was Luke. It broke our hearts when he had to go off and pursue acting. But it left the phone free.”
A few months after graduating from high school, Perry, who says he was “chomping at the bit,” struck out for L.A. He earned money for acting classes by working in a doorknob factory and laying asphalt. “I had dug everything else back in Ohio: dirt, horse s—, cow s—,” he says. “The shovel works the same, no matter what you’re shoveling.” He also came up with a wheelbarrowful of acting rejections: 216, to be exact. He counted.
His perseverance paid off at audition No. 217, when he landed the part of Ned Bates (Luke calls him “a country bumpkin with a heart of gold”) in the ABC soap Loving, for which he relocated to New York City in 1987. “I didn’t hit a home run with Loving,” says Perry, “but I did gel on base, lie spent one year on the show, during which he clashed regularly with producer Joe Stuart, who complained that Luke had an attitude problem. Perry survived two more years in Manhattan by working in commercials for, among other things, Levi’s 501 jeans, and doing a short stint on Another World before moving back to L.A. in 1990 and winning the part on 90210 in June of that year.
It was Dylan McKay’s after-prom seduction of Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) last May that turned many 90210 viewers’ gazes from Priestley to Perry. Offscreen, Luke is, by all accounts, just as capable of enchanting the opposite sex. In his New York days, recalls Lauren Marie Taylor, a Loving costar, “He made a point of complimenting all the women, but not in a gross way. He wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, ooh, baby,’ but rather he’d give you a massage while you were in makeup and ask how you were.”
90210 casting director Dianne Young, who first met Perry when he tried out for the title role in NBC’s now-canceled Ferris Bueller, has seen Luke work his charm on her assistant, Kelly McDonald. “She’s pregnant right now, and he comes up to her, puts his hand on her stomach and talks to the baby. How much nicer can you get than that?”
Perry owns up to dating “a lot of girls” but won’t drop any names. He’s been spotted with Soleil (Punky Brewster) Moon Frye, 15, and singer Paul Anka’s daughter Amanda, in her early 20s, but says they are strictly friends. “I love women, but I’ve got a time problem,” he says. “It’s that simple.”
He claims he has had only one serious girlfriend: Yasmine Bleeth, who starred on the ABC soap Ryan’s Hope when Luke was on Loving. (She now appears on One Life to Live.) They lived together in Manhattan but broke up shortly before he moved back to L.A. Neither will discuss the relationship, but Perry says he now prefers not to get involved with actresses. “Sooner or later,” he reasons, “the relationship is going to become competitive. You’re going to be competing for each other’s time, or somebody’s career is going to be at a spot where the other’s is not.”
Perry’s career has hit a high spot with a freshly inked two-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox; he hopes to begin filming one of the projects during next spring’s 90210 hiatus. Meanwhile, he chums around with Priestley and fellow ex-soapie Ian Ziering, who plays Steve Sanders on 90210. When the guys are not watching sports or videos, or visiting piano bars, or bungee jumping in Angeles National Forest, Perry hangs with his pet Vietnamese potbellied pig, Jerry Lee. It is the pig who keeps the actor down-to-earth, says Luke’s friend Alexa Fogel, ABC’s director of prime-time casting, who owns one too. “National magazines and Mike Ovitz and god knows who else are calling him,” she says, “and he’s calling me from the set to tell me what kind of cat litter to use for my Pig.”
Grabbing an apple from the kitchen, Perry holds it between his teeth, kneels on the porch and pokes the apple at Jerry Lee. The pig starts chewing on the fruit, which Perry finally relinquishes after several tugs. “That’s how we have breakfast every day,” he says, wiping the juice from his face.
The pleasures of porcine companionship are obvious, yet once in a while, Perry fantasizes about taking a human companion on the perfect date. That, to his way of thinking, would mean driving out to the desert and lighting a few explosives. “You’re out there away from everybody in the beauty of the desert,” says Perry, with a faraway look. “And I just love pyrotechnics—that BOOM! So I think it would be great to sit there in the back of the truck, drinking a beer and throwing sticks of dynamite.” Surely there’s a woman out there who has a match?
MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles, BONNIE BELL in Fredericktown, LISA RUSSELL in New York City
In lieu of flowers, the Perry family ask that donations be made to Fight Colorectal Cancer and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.