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12 Things We Learned About the Late Teen Idol Luke Perry From a New Biography

A book about the ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ and ‘Riverdale’ actor reveals surprises five years after his death

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Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Left to Right: Aaron Spelling Prods/Courtesy Everett Collection; Cate Cameron/The CW/Courtesy Everett Collection; Simon & Schuter; New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Anyone who turned on the TV (or saw a magazine cover) in the 1990s knew Luke Perry. The actor, originally from a small town in Ohio, took over the small screen as the pompadoured, leather-jacketed Dylan McKay on the hit show Beverly Hills, 90210, and he rocketed into teen idol stardom.

Perry spent the rest of his life pushing past those boundaries as an actor on TV, in movies and on the stage, working to age gracefully out of teen idolatry. In 2016, at age 50, he appeared on the cover of AARP The Magazine. With his arrival on 2017’s TV show Riverdale (playing the dad of iconic comic book teen Archie Andrews), it looked like the transition was complete. But two years later, Perry suffered a stroke that ended his life when he was just 52.

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 The arc of Perry’s shortened life is brought to vivid life by Margaret Wappler in A Good Bad Boy: Luke Perry and How a Generation Grew Up, a new biography of the actor publishing on the fifth anniversary of his March 2019 death. Wappler, a pop culture and entertainment journalist who’s written for publications such as the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, weaves in her own personal narrative of growing up in the era of 90210, reflecting on how Perry’s work impacted a generation. Though his family declined to be interviewed for the book, it features exclusive interviews with friends and colleagues, including director Fran Rubel Kuzui, 79; Riverdale actor Marisol Nichols, 50; actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner, 53; and Perry’s friend and former roommate, actor and writer David Sheinkopf, 53. It’s rich with Hollywood details, while revealing the actor’s appealing off-screen personality and drive to do good for friends, colleagues and strangers.

Here are 12 surprising things we learned from A Good Bad Boy about the work, life and legacy of Luke Perry.

 1. He grew up resenting his father, an abusive alcoholic.  

Perry’s earliest years growing up in small-town Ohio were dominated by his father, Coy Luther Perry Jr., “a violent drunk who abused Luke’s mother,” according to Wappler, who quotes Luke as having said, “I always felt that I should have been able to protect her better, but I was a six-year-old kid. That’s where my frustration stems from.” Though Perry’s parents divorced when the actor was 6, that traumatic chapter instilled a sense of justice that never left him.

2. It took him 216 auditions before he got cast in anything.

Perry kept track of his failed efforts to land acting jobs, so he knew that it was audition number 217 in 1987 that landed him his first gig playing “a dirt-poor mechanic from Tennessee,” Wappler writes, on the soap opera Loving. Living in New York City with girlfriend and fellow soap actor (and future Baywatch star) Yasmine Bleeth, Perry traded up the soaps ladder and snagged a brief but recurring role on Another World

3. He nailed his 90210 audition for Dylan McKay by reading his lines in French.

Dylan McKay would try to track down his businessman tycoon father on the phone by inquiring in French. That’s how the scene was written, but until Perry tried out for the part, not a single actor had tackled the line “Est-ce que tu a un Jack McKay, s’il vous plaît?” in French. Some had ad-libbed the line in English; some had skipped it altogether. Not Perry, who went all in, in French, and ended up winning the role.

“Not only did I not think we were going to cast the part,” showrunner Charles Rosin recalls in the book, “I didn’t think we’d make it out of the day alive. But then, hallelujah, the guy walked in here.” The rest is teen idol history.

4. Comparisons to Hollywood legend James Dean, fueled by 90210’s styling of Dylan McKay, freaked Perry out.

Linking McKay’s pompadoured, cool-but-earnest character to the movie icon was no coincidence. “Even a pivotal scene between Kelly and Dylan, titled ‘Rebel with a Cause,’ was shot at [Los Angeles’] Griffith Observatory, the site of Dean’s career-defining performance,” Wappler writes. But Perry wasn’t entirely on board. “Early on, when asked how he felt about his supposed doppelgänger, Perry got right to the point: ‘I’m not James Dean. And no one else is, either. … [T]here was only one, and he’s dead.’ ”

The comparison spooked the young actor, who said he’d have to “pay the price” for Dean having died early, “and I ... hope to still be working when I’m thirty and forty and fifty and forever.”

5. He learned how to ride a bull for a role.

It’s one thing to learn to ride a horse. It’s another to ride — and survive — a rodeo bull. But Perry threw himself into training for 8 Seconds, the 1994 biopic about Lane Frost, the youngest bull rider to win the world championship. “Luke insisted on doing the riding himself,” Wappler writes. He trained for months before shooting and performed “all or nearly all his own stunts, riding the bull as if he was born on the spine of one.”

Perry was thrown and suffered a separated shoulder, but he soldiered on, winning the respect of his bull-riding trainer and other cowboys on the set.

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6. He earned a chance to flip the teen idol script on a trailblazing HBO drama … with a nude scene along the way. 

As HBO’s prison drama Oz commanded critical acclaim, the early prestige TV show’s star, Dean Winters, recommended his friend Perry to series showrunner Tom Fontana for a guest star role. “Despite never having watched a lick of Beverly Hills, 90210, Fontana cast Luke in Oz because he liked him and trusted Winters’ recommendation,” Wappler writes. He created a role for the actor: the Rev. Jeremiah Cloutier, “a zealot that honed in on one of Luke’s most appealing qualities — his ‘incredibly genuine essence.’ ”

Perry played the character in 10 episodes in 2001’s Season 3, including a nude scene. Wappler quotes Perry’s recall of the moment: “Oh, yeah, I got to do a scene where Jeremiah is walking butt naked down the hallway. They’re spitting on him, he’s wearing nothing but the Bible, and I thought, ‘This is not Beverly Hills!’ ”

7. His good-guy morality outshone his acting on the London stage.

Performing in London’s West End in a 2004 adaptation of When Harry Met Sally, Perry and costar Alyson Hannigan were five minutes away from the end of the show when a massive chandelier at the historic Theatre Royal Haymarket unmoored from the ceiling, dropped 4 feet and dangled dangerously, showering plaster over the audience. “Luke broke character, jumped down to the floor, and ushered patrons away from the pandemonium,” Wappler writes. “One theatergoer said, ‘He was obviously quite concerned to get members of the audience out, as were the rest of the cast. He was very gallant.’ ”

8. He raced to the side of his friend and former castmate Jason Priestley after a devastating accident.

Fellow 90210 teen idol Priestley was briefly considered dead when his race car smashed into a wall at 180 mph at Kentucky Speedway in 2002. The star somehow survived and was in intensive care when Perry, who’d been at his Tennessee farm, rushed to his friend’s hospital bed.

“After two days in the hospital, Priestley still had not verbally responded to anyone who came in the room,” Wappler writes. “The doctors questioned his cognitive function. The nurses told Luke that he needed to speak loudly, if he had any hopes of breaking through to his friend. Over the tubes and blanket, Luke crawled into Priestley’s bed, and put his face right near his. ‘Jay, Jay, it’s Luke. Wake up. Jay, I’m here for you. Wake up.’ Through their purple pouches, Priestley’s eyes cracked open, but he didn’t respond. Encouraged, Luke continued: ‘Who am I? What’s my name?’ No answer. He repeated the questions. Priestley, his throat sore from being intubated, whispered: ‘Coy L. Perry.’ ”

To the initial confusion of the medical team, Priestley had summoned his old friend’s full name — a sign of cognitive function, and even perhaps a tease between two old friends. The actor eventually made a full recovery.

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9. Appearing on the cover of AARP The Magazine got Perry into Stephen Colbert’s monologue.  

When Perry graced the cover of AARP The Magazine, marking his 50th birthday in 2016, late night host Stephen Colbert couldn’t help but wryly share in the time-passing moment. “I’m feeling pretty old tonight,” Colbert joked in his monologue while brandishing a copy of the magazine. “It seems like only yesterday I was watching 90210, shopping for flannel shirts on my way to a Ross Perot rally, drinking a Zima while legally purchasing entire albums of music.” (Watch the bit here.)

10. Perry led a ’90s teen star revival on the CW’s Riverdale.

It began when casting director David Rapaport spotted the down-to-earth qualities in Perry that made him the perfect actor to embody Fred Andrews, father to Archie in the network’s 2017 Archie Comics spooky alternative universe. After casting Vacation and Scream franchise actress Marisol Nichols as Veronica’s mom, Wappler writes, “Rapaport arrived at an idea: What if all the parents were familiar from eighties or nineties vehicles?”

Betty’s mom was played by Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks; Skeet Ulrich, another Scream veteran, was Jughead’s dad; and Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) played Archie’s lawyer mom. The concentration of these actors “deepened the sense that Riverdale’s world was built on the burial grounds of pop culture of yore,” Wappler writes.

11. Leonardo DiCaprio was starstruck meeting Perry on the set of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.

Though DiCaprio was the headliner and Perry had a small character role, when the two shared scenes, it was DiCaprio who was fanboying. “DiCaprio, for his part, was awed by Luke,” Wappler writes. “On a November 2019 panel at the New Beverly Theater, DiCaprio said: ‘Honestly, as soon as I saw Luke on the set, I was brought back to my teenage past and felt starstruck. I remember being a young actor and he was television’s James Dean figure, the guy that everyone was crazy about. It was honestly this feeling of anxiety before I got to talk with him. Even my friend … who was on the set that day said: Holy s***, it’s Luke Perry!’ ”

Perry died before the film was released; Tarantino dedicated it to his memory.

12. Riverdale’s “In Memoriam” episode after Perry’s death featured a moving cameo appearance by a 90210 alum.

Perry’s death in March 2019 caused an enormous shock to the cast as it finished filming Season 3. But it allowed time to film “In Memoriam,” a stand-alone premiere episode for Season 4. “After mulling it over for months, [series developer Roberto] Aguirre-Sacasa and the other writers gave Fred Andrews a hero’s send-off,” Wappler writes. “He died saving a stranger, played by Shannen Doherty, from a hit-and-run. Doherty’s appearance fulfilled a longtime wish of Luke’s; that his old friend be given a guest part in Riverdale.”

Doherty became emotional during rehearsal and blocking of another scene in which her character returns to the accident site to place flowers and encounters Archie retrieving his father’s pickup. Doherty was crying long before the cameras rolled. “It was very real for her,” Wappler quotes the director recalling, “and that set the tone.”

The scene ends with the series’ four main actors holding hands as Doherty recites the Lord’s Prayer. “The camera tilts up from the field to the sky,” Wappler writes, “until the sun blots out the entire frame in white.”

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