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Remembering Luke Perry, Who Made An Unreal Fantasy Boyfriend Real Enough

Luke Perry, pictured above in 1987, died Monday at the age of 52.
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Luke Perry, pictured above in 1987, died Monday at the age of 52.

It feels wrong to be writing a remembrance of Luke Perry, who died Monday at only 52 following a stroke last week. It feels like it cannot be, like he was just here, like he was just narrowing his eyes into the California sun only weeks ago. Maybe months at most. But here we are.

It's not strictly fair, this California reference: Perry acted for decades. He's been playing Archie Andrews' father on the CW's Riverdalesince 2016. He was in the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayeropposite Kristy Swanson in 1992. But from 1990 to 2000, for all but two of the 10 seasons of Beverly Hills, 90210, he was Dylan McKay. Dylan McKay stuck to him the way Richie Cunningham and Opie Taylor stuck to Ron Howard. There were other talents, but there was no real exit.

Dylan was, in 1990, what a teenager-focused Fox soap opera thought a certain kind of southern California bad boy looked like: he spoke in a whispery tone with practiced intensity, he drove a motorcycle, he surfed, he had an earring. He had an allegedly scandalous past despite being only 16, he had a carefully crunchy-looking pompadour and he had feelings. So many feelings. They wanted him to be James Dean, and he wasn't, of course; he was something not quite as electric as that. He was something more vulnerable, who smashed a ceramic planter on the sidewalk within his first few episodes because he hurt, he ached, at the inattention of his father.

But he was also an intellectual. Out of nowhere, he would quote one of the romantic poets, or Jack Kerouac. He declared himself "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" — something once said about Lord Byron. He was a recovering alcoholic, just like countless tortured souls before him, and at one point he got really into past-life regression. He had a Porsche. He met a woman he loved, married her and immediately saw her killed in front of him by a henchman of her criminal father — who had been trying to kill Dylan instead. Non-criminal fathers, of course, don't have henchmen.

It was a whole, beautiful, absurd notion of tragedy and romance and chin-out attitude. A boy wanted the most searing kind of love and wanted to give the same in return to a high-school junior. And Luke Perry worked his butt off to make the whole thing feel real, fantasy or not.

It is harder than it seems to be indelible. Think of all the characters like this that people have tried to write: surly teenage romantics, squinting Romeos, high-school rebels who cannot possibly have the backstories they are assigned unless they started smoking when they were 9 and drag-racing when they were 11. Maybe more than anything, a role like this operates on pure charisma. It's about having the juice, you know? There's only so much you can do with the kinds of lines Dylan had, which were so often either stupendously pretentious or assiduously laid-back, made up of stiff slang that only an adult would try to put in an alleged teenager's mouth.

Perry, like most of the cast, was in his 20s when he got this role. It was not the only thing he wanted to do. He worked and worked even while the show was airing, and he even left for a couple of seasons, only to come back in the show's penultimate season, a couple of episodes after Jason Priestley, who played Brandon Walsh — the show's ostensible male lead — finally left. It was a handoff of sorts, even though their paths didn't cross on screen. Back to the old stomping grounds, back to the beach, back to loving and leaving 'em. He was a man by then, even on screen, but there was still a little of that manufactured danger, and by then, he'd earned it. He'd lived through deaths and addictions and losing all his money to, of all things, a bioremediation con that preyed on his desire to clean up the beaches. (You ... had to be there, I think.)

Perry did other things; we should talk about the other things, I know. He was good in Riverdale. He was on HBO's Oz, which was prestige TV almost before prestige TV was a thing. He acted and acted, more years away from 90210 than not.

But it would be wrong, too, not to acknowledge that he has one more genuinely iconic character to his name than most actors ever will: the beautiful, unlikely, aggravating Dylan McKay. We met Dylan rescuing a nerd from two bullies, displaying a touch of menace he rarely would show after that. He was all heart and bike and sports car and love of literature. He loved his girlfriend, Brenda (and allegedly some other people, but seriously: Come on, he loved Brenda). Luke Perry sold it all.

That's part of why it feels wrong to be remembering him. He was just here — because pop-culture beloveds are always here — with that defiant hip tilt, daring you to think he could ever be ordinary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.