remembrances

Luke Perry Was the Ultimate ’90s Heartthrob

Luke Perry in 90210.
Luke Perry in 90210. Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection

Luke Perry spent the ’90s starring as consummate bad boy loner Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210, where he rode a motorcycle and read Kerouac. In recent years, the former teen idol made a cable resurgence as TV dad Fred Andrews on the CW’s Riverdale. In light of the actor’s untimely death today at the age of 52, seven women share their fondest remembrances — from his affinity for Lord Byron and ability look good in a drug rug to his grounding presence and down-to-earth charm.

“He conjured the quiet cool of James Dean without any of the simmering conflict or filth underneath.”

On Wednesday nights in the fall of 1993, my roommates and I would gather in the drafty living room of our Victorian flat just off Haight Street in San Francisco and watch 90210. Even though we were fresh out of college and therefore aggressively fixated on what was and wasn’t cool, we loved the frothy, self-parodying Californian emptiness of 90210 and Luke Perry was our boy prince (albeit a clear inferior to self-destructing queen Shannen Doherty, the obvious gravitational center of the whole show). Luke Perry was hot in a smoldering, arched-eyebrow, Robert Pattinson way back when Robert Pattinson was still running around in pajamas with feet. Perry was older than us, so we liked to laugh at his wrinkled forehead and swaggery This Is Not a Teenage Boy affectations, but in his character Dylan McKay, Perry knew just how to embody a safe, lovable version of the rebellious, too-cool-for-school boyfriend so many teenagers long for but rarely succeed at wooing. He conjured the quiet cool of James Dean without any of the simmering conflict or filth underneath. He was moody but well-manicured, skeptical but hardworking. We didn’t know any guys like that. We were already a little tired of foggy nights sipping bitter beer with bed-headed slackers. We wanted sunshine and milkshakes and Luke Perry instead.Heather Havrilesky

“He read because he felt it, man.”

You know the drill. When you’re 12 or 13 and there’s a character on a high-school TV show who’s hot yet deep, cynical yet earnest, damaged but desperately trying to be whole, you’re hooked. Even better if he embodies so many of the clichés you will later find tiresome, but at the time feel nothing less than profound. Dylan McKay was a bad boy who loved Bukowski, Lord Byron, and Jack Kerouac, none of whom he was assigned for school. He read because he felt it, man. He wasn’t a rebel like grunge in the ’90s or punk in the ’80s — he was cool like the ’50s, all sideburns and motorcycle jacket and youthful rebellion like James Dean. Classic. Worldly Dylan McKay would scoff at the TV heartthrob Luke Perry turned out to be, but my love for him was tender and pure in ways that didn’t even matter if it was entirely uncool. Maris Kreizman

“You were not like other guys.”

Before Jordan Catalano, there was Luke Perry. And before I became a devotee of Beverly Hills: 90210, I rented a video of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the original 1992 movie starring Perry, Kristy Swanson, and a surprisingly funny Hilary Swank. In this highly underrated classic, Perry plays Pike, a misfit with a motorcycle and a soul patch who wishes he could be as cool and cryptic as Dylan McKay. He’s fairly hot and mysterious, yet a bit goofy and vulnerable — powerless against vampires and Buffy’s charm both. No wonder why she falls for him when he shows up at her high school’s dance, and no wonder why their chemistry has spawned a modest collection of Buffy-Perry mashup videos on YouTube. “You’re not like other girls,” Perry tells Buffy during their slow dance. And Luke, aside from your serious Rebel Without a Cause vibes in this movie, you were not like other guys. Nona Willis Aronowitz

“He managed to make a drug rug look sexy.”

It took a special kind of actor to sell Dylan McKay, a brooding James Dean–inspired heartthrob character that was often found reading Jack Kerouac on some remote corner of the West Beverly High campus. The Beverly Hills, 90210 writers were never big on subtlety and as such, they seemingly threw every bad-boy archetype at the wall to see which ones would stick: Mom issues? Check. Dad issues? Yup. Drug problems? Sure, but we imagine living in a high-class hotel without parental supervision and getting to tool around in a vintage Porsche helped ease some of his abandonment issues.

Luke Perry was that special kind of actor who was able ground a character mashed together with multiple rebel-without-a-clue archetypes and sell inherently ridiculous plotlines, like the time he went through a past life regression to the Wild West with a screenwriter he met in rehab. Perry was remarkably convincing when it came to delivering dialogue, like when he described the 19th century Romantic poet Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” During the episode where he took Brenda to Baja, he managed to make a drug rug look sexy. There should be a special Emmy award for that achievement alone. Maggie Serota

“The heartthrobs of my day truly just paled in comparison.”

I fell in love with Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay as a tween watching Beverly Hills, 90210 — except, it was the mid-2000s and I was binge-watching the DVD collections of each season to feed my rampant obsession with the ’90s. His leather jacket! His motorcycle! The ridiculously hot scar in his eyebrow! The heartthrobs of my day — Taylor Lautner, Justin Bieber, One Direction members — truly just paled in comparison. He was the ideal balance of unflappable cool and emotional depth. He showed me what teen romance should be, and then shattered my heart when he started dating Kelly. Solidly Team Brenda, I never fully forgave him until he reappeared in my life — and was introduced to a new generation of horny tweens — as Riverdale’s hottest dad. Perry’s gentle Fred Andrews has been the moral compass of the show and at least 50 percent of the reason I’ve continued to faithfully log onto the CW’s streaming service for every absurd episode. It breaks my heart that we will never see him become the mayor Riverdale needed, but didn’t deserve. When I met him at a press event a few months ago, he was so down-to-earth and normal it almost freaked me out, but the charming, mischievous glint in his eye reminded me that Luke Perry is, was, and always will be an eternal dreamboat. Katja Vujić

“He was the only high-schooler I knew that could take an interest in black-and-white movies.”

“Excuse me, if I brought over my Dylan McKay doll, would you sign it for me?” I stammered out that sentence to Luke Perry when I was 41 years old. And though more than a quarter-century had passed since I first saw him smolder on Beverly Hills, 90210 — he was the only high-schooler I knew that could liberally quote Jack Kerouac and take an interest in black-and-white movies, swoon — I was still a quaking, gawky teenager at heart. I caught him in the green room at my work, where he was shooting a video to promote Riverdale. I panicked that he wouldn’t want a physical reminder of his heartthrob past, but he smiled and exclaimed, “You got it!” I hoofed it back to my office, retrieved the box-enclosed doll that I’d had on display since 2002 and presented it to him. While I breathed as though I had just finished a 5K, he studied his plastic likeness and joked about Dylan’s swimwear. Then he autographed the bottom corner. Mara Reinstein

The signed Dylan McKay doll.
The signed Dylan McKay doll.

“I liked him because he gave the show one foot in reality.”

I wasn’t ever familiar with Luke Perry during the 90210 years — I was too young and my mom was too old for that moment in teen pop culture. But I remember receiving DVD screeners for Riverdale before it dropped and immediately becoming obsessed. Perry’s character, Fred Andrews, was a quiet moral compass, quicker than the other characters to admit his mistakes. I liked him because he gave the show that now dabbles in serial killers and Gargoyle-fronted drug-testing rings (don’t ask) one foot in reality. Last year, I moderated the Riverdale panel at Comic Con; he had been quiet in the green room but lit up when we came on stage, and bantered with me and his panel mates nonstop. He was so willing to riff on other people’s answers, and supply his own jokes, that I felt like it was safe to ask him what I’d written off as a “maybe” question: What was it like to punch Mark Consuelos, as he did in season three’s opening episode? He laughed, and told the crowd his fellow Riverdale Dad went out like a light. After we wrapped the panel, he thanked me for the job I did. I thanked him back, because that’s what you do when someone is so good at their job, they make your job both easier, and that much more fun. —Ella Cerón

Luke Perry Was the Ultimate ’90s Heartthrob