Editor’s note: This article originally ran in Newsday on Feb. 25, 1994.
Luke Perry, the "Beverly Hills, 90210" phenomenon who plays jaded Dylan McKay on the hit TV series, hopes his days as a teen idol are numbered.
Today his new movie, "8 Seconds," opens. Last Sunday, in anticipation, he was almost manic. He shook the reporter’s hand so long it seemed he would never let go. Then he chased down a cigarette. When he came back to the living room of the Four Seasons Hotel suite, he couldn’t get enough of the city view from the 34th floor.
"I’m not looking to do the home run," Perry, 27, claimed when he finally sat down. He put his long legs up on an ottoman and flashed one of his high-voltage smiles. "I just want to get better each time. And I think I’m better this time than I have been in anything before."
Perry plays Lane Frost, a legendary, real-life bull rider who lived fast, loved hard and died young. It’s a project Perry put his heart and soul into for three years, even doing his own rodeo stunts. And he hopes he’ll never again be dismissed as a bimbo.
Until now, Perry, a lean, antic guy with dark eyes and a large sense of himself, has made it mostly on charisma. Dubbed as a James Dean for the ’90s, he exudes the aura of an angry rebel with a heart of gold. He became an overnight sensation as Dylan McKay, a loner and recovering alcoholic who had packed his Mike Milken-esque father off to jail, waved as his mother sailed to Hawaii, and then went off to high school.
People Weekly featured a brooding Perry on a 1991 cover alongside the caption "Biggest Flirt." A year later Vanity Fair celebrated the Perry phenomenon with a cover photo of the bare-chested actor looking sultry and slinging a gun that rested provocatively against his thigh.
He has never been cast as anything but the good-hearted bad boy. He even tested for a comedy pilot with Grant Tinker a while ago and claims he made everyone laugh. But Tinker didn’t give him the role. "He said, `You know, you’re really good, I think, but you look as if you may have stolen a car.’ "
Although he married Minny Sharp, a non-actress he had been dating for three years, last November, he’s still a world-class flirt. After the interview ended, the reporter asked one last question. Perry fell on his knees in front of where she sat and clutched her legs. "What’s really on your mind?" he asked, looking into her eyes while two publicists and a manager played audience. Then he dropped his head into her lap.
The charm belies the seriousness of his ambitions. The actors he admires, he says, are Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Peter O’Toole.
Already he’s thinking about his next movie and the roles he has in mind aren’t those of a TV actor transplanted to the big screen. "I’d like to play someone who’s darker, edgier, less figured out [than Lane Frost]. Or I want to play something like `A Lion In Winter,’ " he said with a perfectly straight face. "I want to play a role like Peter O’Toole. He chews up the scenery."
The second of three children born to a steelworker and a homemaker, Coy Luther Perry III always had a sense that he belonged in pictures.
Growing up in Fredericktown, Ohio (population 2,400), is idyllic, he said, "unless, you know, you want to be in the movies or something, something stupid like that. Then it drives you crazy, because you’re there."
His parents divorced when he was 6. (His father, a drinker with whom he clashed, died in 1980; he and Perry never reconciled.) Perry’s stepfather, a construction worker whom his mother married six years later, became a role model.
After high school, Perry left for Los Angeles. Working in a doorknob factory and laying asphalt, he earned 216 acting rejections.
His first break was on the soap opera "Loving." He was fired after clashing with the producer. In 1990, he won the "90210" role and with ratings rising through the roof, and platoons of young girls completely riveted, Fox realized Perry was a potential gold mine and signed him to a two-picture deal.
From the start Perry had his own ideas about his career. As soon as he spotted the Lane Frost script on a shelf in an office at Fox studios, he knew it was the picture he had to make.
Fox executives disagreed. They didn’t think Lane Frost was a story that would sell. There wasn’t much sex in the script, and no psychotic plot twists. "Directors didn’t get it," said Perry. "They’re all looking for the next `Reservoir Dogs’ or the next `Basic Instinct.’ "
At an impasse, he agreed to appear in the light comedy, "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," as the boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, but he refused to have his name above the title. "They wanted to make it the Luke Perry Show," he recalled. "And I explained to them, `This is not the Luke Perry show.’ " The movie bombed.
All the while, Perry was obsessed. He watched videotapes of Frost and interviewed Frost’s parents, widow and rodeo-riding pals.
Finally, he convinced an independent producer to buy the rights to the story from Fox, and talked John Avildsen, who made "Rocky," into directing it.
Then Perry began to ride the 2,000-pound bulls. Eight seconds, the length of time a cowboy must hold on in competition, is a lifetime and a cowboy who falls is always in danger of being gored or crushed. "I needed to know why these guys did it," he said. "What did they get from it?
"I’m trying to come up with a response that’s not going to sound like it’s just macho talk," he continued. "There are very few people in the world who can do that. And very few people in the world who will attempt it. They know they’re a little bit badder than anyone else."
Riding the bulls, he added, is a metaphor. You hold on tight, but it’s not about conquering the beast, he explained. "You can never beat the bull. You’re battling yourself . . . You don’t let the fear get so out of hand that it’s controlling you."
Now that Perry has had a taste of what he really wants, he predicts he’ll have just one more year as Dylan McKay. Already, he’s frustrated with some aspects of the show. "I don’t think it always has to be this happy, neat gang of kids who have all their problems resolved at the end of the show," he said. "I don’t think we always find the answers in life." Currently, he’s annoyed that the "90210" scriptwriters and producers have packed off the independently wealthy McKay to college along with the rest of the crowd. "They’ve written me there. And they won’t listen to me to get him out."
But there are things about McKay that suit Perry just fine, like his way with women. The interview ended so the actor could make his date at Planet Hollywood. The 25 winners of a nationwide radio contest, mostly young girls wearing too much makeup, were waiting to meet their dream and Perry didn’t want to be late. The actor may complain about being a teen heartthrob, but it’s no mere act when he puts his arm around an adoring fan and smiles for the souvenir snapshot.