"I'm not James Dean. And no one else is either. There's always someone being called the next James Dean. But there was only one. And he's dead."
But from the second Dylan McKay drove onto the lot of West Beverly High in his black Porsche 356 Speedster, such was the comparison Luke Perry—with his perfect hair, scar splitting his right eyebrow and brooding soulfulness that suggested he just needed the love of a good woman to make him whole—would be hearing, a lot.
But as Perry noted to the Chicago Tribune above, somewhat broodily, Dean was gone, destined to only reach the age at which Perry started playing a high school junior (then sophomore, because high school lasted a little longer than producers originally planned).
Rather unfathomably for anyone who watched Beverly Hills, 90210, unfold in first-run episodes between 1990 and 2000, Perry is gone now too. He died in March 4, 2019 after suffering a stroke. He was only 52 and had acquired a new generation of fans—and recaptured the fascination of many of his longtime admirers—playing Archie Andrews' tenderhearted single dad on Riverdale.
The role of the always-supportive Fred Andrews also could come across as Dylan 2.0 thanks to his deliberate, husky voice, still-perfect hair and perennially concerned expression.
Which may have been the last thing Perry was going for, but he couldn't help it. He played the hell out of Dylan McKay starting 30 years ago, and turned him into a character for the ages—all the ages, even the ones who discovered 90210 in reruns on Soap Opera Network.
Before that star-making role came along, the aspiring thespian from small-town Ohio had worked on a couple of soaps—Loving, Another World—since moving to Los Angeles after high school, where he was voted "Biggest Flirt." He made ends meet selling shoes, working as a chauffeur and laying asphalt in between auditions.
"I always felt like something of an outsider," Perry told Geocities in 1993. "But I identified with people up on the screen. That made me feel like I wanted to be up on the screen too. I felt like eventually I would get there."
After auditioning for the role of arrogant rich kid Steve Sanders, which eventually went to Ian Ziering, Perry was eventually asked back to try out for the role of Dylan. Living primarily alone in a hotel suite, Dylan still had a poor-little-rich-boy quality to him, but as played by Perry, he also radiated the kind of enigmatic charm and depth that you just don't see in many real-life high schools.
Combine that with his leading-man good looks, and a household name was born.
Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered on Oct. 4, 1990. Perry's first episode was Oct. 11, his 24th birthday.
Cue the frenzy.
"It's hard and sometimes it's scary," he said about the almost overnight A-list fame that resulted from 90210. "It still amazes my mother. I went home for Christmas one year and there were fans all over the front lawn, hoping to see me."
He had trouble processing the mania that greeted the show because, really, he just wanted to give the best performance possible. Screaming hordes at shopping malls aside, "I realize what my job is," he told the Chicago Tribune in August 1991. "They didn't hire me to get fan mail. They hired me to act."
"He's a complex character. He's fun to play," Perry said about Dylan.
"Originally, people thought we were a flighty, superficial show," he added. "But I think we've proven that we have some real substance. Other shows about teenagers are either preachy or put on a candy-coated view of life. We're not preachy, and we're certainly not candy-coated."
To be fair, at that point Beverly Hills, 90210 had not yet become the "oh come on" pile-up of issues and love triangles and quadrangles that it would in later seasons (people call circles of friends who all hook up with each other a Melrose Place scenario, but it could just as easily been a 90210 situation).
It was, as Perry described, a show about real issues, from drinking and driving, drugs, accidental gun deaths and mental illness to sex, AIDS and breast health, not to mention intense, all-consuming love, both unrequited and memorably consummated. And that's all from the first two seasons!
Dylan was heard before he was seen on 90210, when for some reason he's hanging out in a tech-lab-type room (always exceeding society's expectations, that one) where two jocks show up to harass the nerdy Scott Scanlon (Douglas Emerson). When they threaten to erase what Scott's doing on the computer (designing a floor plan for "the perfect dance club," for the record), you hear the invitation to get wrecked from off-camera: "Touch that board, my friend."
And around spins Perry, looking awfully fresh-faced in hindsight but at the time rather calm, cool and manly. He proceeds to tell the bullies with a slight smirk that he's "feeling a little hostile," and that's all they need to know. They slink away. Scott's adoration is secured and Jason Priestley's Brandon Walsh, still the new kid in town from wholesome Minnesota, is duly impressed.
"Your friend's pretty cool," Brandon tells Scott, looking as if he can't believe what he's just witnessed.
"I've never seen the guy in my life!" Scott marvels.
Nor had most people, but within a couple months "the guy" had become "Luke Perry," his name as laden with heartthrob meaning as "Tom Cruise" or "Brad Pitt"—only "Brad Pitt" as we know him, and especially as he was in the 1990s, was still a few months away, with Thelma & Louise and his abs not arriving in theaters until May 1991.
"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," executive producer Aaron Spelling, who was the one who insisted to the studio that Perry become a regular cast member, told Rolling Stone in 1992. Added creator Darren Star, "When Luke walked into the audition, 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."
Priestley had his devoted fan base too, of course, as did Ian Ziering and eventually Brian Austin Green when his character, David Silver, ascended to being one of the gang.
But Perry was The Guy, heartthrob No. 1, the bad boy, "the next James Dean."
"Cher's saving herself for Luke Perry," Dionne earnestly explains to Tai in 1995's Clueless. (Incidentally, Christian later asks Cher, holding up a leather jacket, "Is it James Dean or Jason Priestley?")
Fans clamored to find out all they could about the rip-out-his-picture-and-put-it-in-your-notebook actor. And he both met and defied expectations at every turn, smoking during interviews like a lot of hot young thangs did in the 1990s but also being one of the first prominent celebs to have a pot-bellied pig (or three) as a pet. His down-to-earth nature and aversion to the trappings of fame became apparent as interviewer after interviewer tried to tease out his inner Dylan, only to find a super-solid dude who didn't have much use for the Hollywood game.
"I go bungee-jumping with Jason [Priestley]. Go camping," Perry told Geocities. "I go four-wheeling in my truck. I also like to fish, cook, do stuff around the house. I even studied fencing for awhile."
As for the bad-boy scar, "I was at a bowling alley and I ran into a soda machine."
Perry also didn't take his shirt off for photo shoots (lots of tank tops in those beach pics) or talk about his love life. Asked about his girlfriend, he acknowledged he had one, but wouldn't say anything else about her because she wasn't in show business. And since most people weren't on the internet yet…that was that.
He explained to People in 1991 why he had stopped dating actresses: "Sooner or later, 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."
And he stuck to it, marrying Minnie Sharp in 1993. They had two children together, son Jack and daughter Sophie, before divorcing in 2003. When he died, he was engaged to Wendy Madison Bauer.
After Dylan's winning first impression, Brandon finds him reading a paperback on the stairs (it has to be Burroughs or Kerouac, right?) and introduces himself. For the next seven episodes Dylan remained a mostly peripheral character as Brandon's friend, equally impressed by Brandon's salt-of-the-earth quality amid all the Beverly Hills phonies. Then, on Jan. 3 1991, 90210 put him and Shannen Doherty's Brenda Walsh together and, as the life lessons flurried around them, they became the beating heart of the show.
Of course, you can't have a serious series about high school (and then college) with one couple going along blissfully with no drama, so despite their impressive chemistry, their star-crossed relationship gets screwed up a million ways till Sunday as they break up, then reunite, then they're pushed apart, and reunite, and break up, and Dylan dates Brenda's best friend, Jennie Garth's Kelly Taylor, and then they break up…Then he and Brenda kinda reunite on Doherty's farewell episode.
Really, that was as good as any a thing to have happen to Brenda as she prepared to "move to Europe."
When Doherty was first battling breast cancer back in 2016, Perry said about his former onscreen love at REWind Com, "She was a very big part of the success of the show. None of us are up here today without Shannen. She's been through a lot. She's not doing well right now, but sometimes her contributions are minimized."
When news first broke that Perry was hospitalized, Doherty posted a photo of them from the famous "Spring Dance" episode, in which Dylan and Brenda are blissfully in love and she ends up losing her virginity to him—in a hotel room upstairs while the dance rages on below. It's all very adult, and these people can in no universe pass for 16, but that's OK.
The actress ended up playing a pivotal role in the episode of Riverdale in which Archie finds out his dad has died after being hit by a car. Doherty played the woman whom Fred had pulled over to the side of the road to help, another good deed for the endlessly good Fred Andrews.
As he became one-half of one of the most memorable TV couples of all time (and then half of another couple, and another, and another after that), Perry branched out into movies almost immediately—most memorably with the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, opposite Kristy Swanson, and then the rodeo drama 8 Seconds, playing real-life bull rider Lane Frost.
Though Beverly Hills, 90210 lasted 10 seasons, its mojo largely rode off when Perry did in November 1995, in the middle of season six, after his brand-new wife, Toni (Rebecca Gayheart), is accidentally killed by her own father, who was aiming to get rid of Dylan—who had been aiming to get rid of the father as revenge for killing his own father, but Dylan fell in love with the guy's daughter instead. (After Brenda left, Dylan's plotlines were a variety of substance-addled instability and persistent ruthlessness.)
Perry had just turned 30.
Not a year went by that didn't include Perry on a screen somewhere. Among the highlights, he landed in the sci-fi blockbuster The Fifth Element in 1997, returned to 90210 in its ninth season and stayed through the end, and had a meaty arc on HBO's gritty prison drama Oz. He guest-starred on everything from Spin City and Will & Grace to Law & Order: SVU. He also was cast in numerous series that didn't go past one season, including John From Cincinnati (David Milch's first series for HBO after Deadwood), and had his own post-apocalyptic Showtime drama, Jeremiah, run for two.
Not until Riverdale, which premiered in 2016, did it seem that Perry had found a potentially long-term home again—having graduated all the way from hot broody bad boy "teen" to hot, wise father of a teenager. Which, with all the wink-wink pop culture twists packed into Riverdale, was not an accident.
"I still have all my hair, and I don't think anybody thought I would at this stage in the game," Perry quipped, laughing, during an interview at New York Comic-Con in 2018. But overall, he loved working with KJ Apa, who plays Archie, and whom he bonded with on set from the start.
At the same time, he seemed beyond content at that point to sit back and let the twentysomething "teens" on Riverdale be the overnight sensations on this show.
"Man, I hate those two f--king words!" Perry told People back in 1991, referring to the words "teen idol."
His real-life self and Dylan shared an aversion to phoniness, pack mentalities and ostentation (the character's Porsche aside). "Porches are glorified Volkswagens, man," Perry told People. "I climb over Porsches in my Blazer. 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. That s--t isn't what I'm about."
"I love where I come from," he added, referring to Fredericktown, Ohio. "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."
When Brandon and Dylan first meet on 90210, Brandon asks Dylan if he wants to go grab a bite to eat. Dylan scoffs at him, not realizing the offer is genuine, and says, mockingly, "Yeah, let's do lunch." (Even though his jacket, worn over a white t-shirt, was black and not red, the Rebel Without a Cause vibe was unavoidable.) It takes him a beat before he senses that Brandon is the real deal.
"I think, in a way, if they make the association strong enough, I'll have to pay the price for the fact that he checked out, and I don't want to, you know," Perry reflected again on the James Dean comparison on Today in 1992. "I hope to be still working when I'm 30, and 40 and 50, and for ever how long I want to. I think when I can no longer fulfill that James Dean fantasy for them, they'll look and get it from someone else and I'll be gone."
He also said, "When my time here is up, I don't want to look back and see that I didn't do anything. And by that, I mean [thinking] I didn't have an effect on anything else. I see a lot of people that let their life happen to them, and I want to happen to my life. I don't want my life to happen to me."
Fatefully, the role of Dylan McKay fit Perry like a glove and turned him into an iconic celebrity, and on his own merits. (Moreover, it's doubtful that too many hardcore 90210 fans were out to fill a void left by Dean 35 years prior.)
But like every other main star from the show's first season, no future part came close to equaling the impact of what transpired for Perry between 1990 and 1995 (and 1998 to 2000). And that may have been frustrating for a guy who was up for anything—and who got tons of work that showed off his versatility but was usually overshadowed by what came before. When Garth, Doherty and Tori Spelling signed up to be on the CW's 90210 in 2008, in which Kelly is the mother of a child she had with Dylan, who's no longer in the picture, Perry was of course asked if he'd be showing up in the old zip code anytime soon.
"It's just not something that I've thought about to be quite honest," he told Access Hollywood at the time. "I don't see it happening."
Which isn't to say he had turned his back on Beverly Hills, 90210 or didn't keep in touch with the crew who once comprised his circle of everyday best friends. While he wasn't up for playing Dylan again, Perry regularly joined his castmates at events where tribute was being paid to their classic Fox show.
Perhaps all he needed was more time to think it over.
He joked on Today in 2017, raking his hand through his still-enviable 'do, that if he got "the hair back up" he'd be down for a reunion. But, he added, they had "talked about it recently" and he would "very much be interested in doing it this time. I'd like to get back with them and work with my guys. I'd been doing something else and that's been fun, but I would love to do scenes with Shannen again" and see how all the characters turned out.
Perry did not, however, appear to be involved with BH 90210, the six-episode Beverly Hills, 90210 meta-reinvention that Fox aired in 2019, on which the rest of the principle actors played versions of themselves, reunited at Spelling's behest for a reboot of their hit show. Perry's absence is noted solemnly, but without explanation.
Perry did, however, pick a hell of a project to be in: Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and Pitt won for Best Supporting Actor last month, having scooped up every major award in his path along the way.
But even though Dylan McKay was spoken of but remained unseen on the CW's 90210 and the new show had no choice but to go on without Luke Perry, just the mention of either name conjures an indelible presence. And while hearing his name continues to hurt, remembering and appreciating that presence will always help.
(Originally published March 4, 2019, at 11 a.m. PT)