One of the most intriguing leading men of the 1950s, Anthony Perkins' career path changed significantly after he was cast in a thriller from suspense master Alfred Hitchcock. Prior to that time, the handsome, boyish actor had earned critical praise for his work in "Friendly Persuasion" (1956) and "Fear Strikes Out" (1957), and was regarded as a fine candidate for romantic lead parts. However, that quickly changed after he portrayed murderous mama's boy Norman Bates in Hitchcock's hugely successful thriller, "Psycho" (1960). Perkins was so effective that for many viewers and producers, the role came to define him. A sojourn in Europe helped Perkins earn other sorts of assignments, but upon returning to Hollywood, his work in fare like "Pretty Poison" (1968) further cemented him as being suitable mostly for genre pictures. Perkins eventually embraced that destiny and gave a wonderful return performance as Norman in "Psycho II" (1983) and that unexpectedly effective film helped to revive public interest in him. Off camera, Perkins suffered great anxiety over his sexual orientation and underwent therapy to help overcome his attraction to other men. He eventually married a woman and fathered two sons, but never fully overcame his personal demons and suffered the dismay of learning he was HIV positive via a story in The National Enquirer. A masterful character actor, Perkins' ability to convey mental instability in a fashion that was simultaneously disturbing, affecting, and darkly humorous made him a unique and valuable talent.
Anthony Perkins was born in New York City on April 4, 1932. His father, Osgood Perkins, was a stage star who also enjoyed some success in motion pictures, but died when Perkins was only five. An only child, Perkins attended Buckingham Browne & Nichols High School in Cambridge, MA and later, Columbia University and Rollins College. He received his earliest acting experience at the latter institution and via roles in summer stock. Among the plays he performed in was "The Actress" and Perkins made his motion picture debut in George Cukor's 1953 adaptation of that work. During that same time, he first graced Broadway as a replacement for John Kerr in "Tea and Sympathy" (1953-55) and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his second feature, "Friendly Persuasion" (1956). Perkins also attracted attention on the small screen for a guest star appearance in a 1956 episode of "Goodyear Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1951-57) called "Joey." He played the titular part and sang on the show, which led to him being offered a recording contract. Ultimately, Perkins did not enjoy much success in that arena, though his 1957 single "Moonlight Swim" made it up to No. 24 on the Billboard Top 30 chart.
Perkins returned to Broadway in the drama "Look Homeward, Angel" (1957-59) and earned the attention of critics again in the film "Fear Strikes Out" (1957). As real-life baseball star Jimmy Piersall, whose career in the major leagues was sidelined by mental illness, Perkins gave an intense and wholly persuasive turn. His next two pictures, "Desire under the Elms" (1958) and "The Matchmaker" (1958), were not particularly good, but Perkins made the most of his roles in "Green Mansions" (1959), "On the Beach" (1959) and "Tall Story" (1960), where he was paired with fellow rising star Jane Fonda. He also headed back to Broadway in "Greenwillow" (1960), but the musical-comedy-fantasy flopped and closed in less than a month. At the beginning of 1960, Perkins was honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for both movies and television, but more importantly, he was cast in the part that both made his career and limited his options. Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) found the master director switching gears from glossy color thrillers with major stars to a lower-budget, black and white production with controversial subject matter. The suspenseful movie's scenes of violence and terror challenged the American movie code of the time and invigorated both audiences and critics. As Norman Bates, the handsome, seemingly naïve, dangerously insane antagonist, Perkins gave one of the most stunning and effective portrayals found in a movie of this type. Impressively, the actor managed to chill and repel viewers, while also eliciting a degree of sympathy for Norman's plight. His line readings and physical interpretation of the character also added to the film's dark humor. "Psycho" was a huge success and earned Perkins a great deal of attention, with much praise coming his way. However, it also began the process of him being typecast as nervous, unsociable, and often sinister loners, rapidly eradicating his previously established image as the handsome, young, romantic leading man.
While the identity "Psycho" gave him as an actor would be a struggle for Perkins during the ensuing years, he was also wrestling with his own personal demons. Perkins was gay and kept his orientation a secret, a ruse aided by various industry people who arranged for him to be seen in photo ops with various lovely, single actresses. In reality, he had regular sexual liaisons with show business colleagues like Tab Hunter and actor-choreographer Grover Dale, whom he had met on the set of "Greenwillow". Perkins suffered great mental anguish over his desires and spent years in therapy trying to "cure" himself. In the wake of the Hitchcock hit, Perkins was teamed with Ingrid Bergman for the romantic drama "Goodbye Again" (1961) and he won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Europe was a place where Perkins found creative satisfaction in projects like "The Trial" (1962), Orson Welles' dense and challenging adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel. On the occasions when he did accept roles stateside, it was in the offbeat drama "The Fool Killer" (1965) and the Broadway hit "The Star-Spangled Girl" (1966-67). One notable American project was "Pretty Poison" (1968), which featured another indelible Perkins turn as a mentally disturbed man. As before, he was so effective, it further cemented him in people's minds as a cinematic psychopath.
Perkins continued to struggle with his sexual identity and at age 39, had his first heterosexual experience with co-star Victoria Principal during the making of "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972). In 1973, Perkins married Berinthia "Berry" Berenson, a photographer and the sister of actress Marisa Berenson. The couple had met on the set of Perkins' film "Play it as it Lays" (1972) and would have two sons together. Perkins also dabbled in screenwriting with "The Last of Sheila" (1973), a twisty and intelligent murder mystery that he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim, and did solid supporting turns in features like "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) and "Mahogany" (1975). He also made a strong return to Broadway in Peter Shaffer's "Equus" (1974-77), where he alternated with Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton in the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Perkins continued to work throughout the late 1970s, playing Javert in a TV movie version of "Les Misérables" (CBS, 1978), shot in England and France. However, interesting productions like William Richert's political thriller "Winter Kills" (1979) were the exception and he mostly had paycheck outings in forgettable fare like "Ffolkes" (1979) and "The Black Hole" (1979). One bright spot was a final run on Broadway opposite Mia Farrow in "Romantic Comedy" (1979-1980). The next couple of years were quiet ones for Perkins, but an opportunity eventually arose that no doubt seemed both a blessing and a curse in terms of what it could do for his stalled career as a leading man.
When Universal Pictures announced its intention to make a follow-up to "Psycho" more than 20 years after the fact, the news was mostly greeted with derision. However, thanks to a good screenplay and intelligent direction from longtime Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin, "Psycho II" (1983) turned out to be much better than expected. The key to its success, however, lay with Perkins, who dominated the screen in a role he knew how to play better than anyone. The movie was a box office winner worldwide and Perkins' next character made Norman Bates seem almost sedate. In Ken Russell's "Crimes of Passion" (1984), he played a sweating, drug-crazed, perverted preacher who menaced heroine Kathleen Turner with a knife-edged chrome dildo. The jacked-up performance perfectly matched the project's darkly campy intentions, though the film - which had to be significantly toned down to avoid an "X" rating - was widely panned by critics and ignored by audiences before finding a following on home video in a more explicit version. That year, Perkins was also arrested at London's Heathrow Airport and fined £100 for possession of marijuana and LSD.
Universal was keen for another "Psycho" sequel, so Perkins agreed on the condition that he also direct "Psycho III" (1986). The picture failed to duplicate its predecessor's box office and Perkins felt that he was not given adequate time and assistance to make the picture as good as he had hoped. Following a supporting engagement in the miniseries "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story" (ABC, 1987), he stepped back behind the camera to direct the horror comedy "Lucky Stiff" (1988), but the low-budget effort made nary a ripple when released. Those who enjoyed seeing the actor at his most extreme relished "Edge of Sanity" (1989), a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It cast Perkins in the famous dual role with his character's transformation triggered by smoking what appeared to be the Victorian era equivalent of crack. Like "Crimes of Passion," the picture was high on perverse exploitation content and also had to be cut to achieve an "R" rating for theatrical release. "Edge of Sanity" did nothing to revivify Perkins' movie career, but he was cast in various small screen horror projects. A final, made-for-cable entry in the "Psycho" series, "Psycho IV: The Beginning" (Showtime, 1990), made little impact and the made-for-TV thrillers "Daughter of Darkness" (CBS, 1990) and "I'm Dangerous Tonight" (USA Network, 1990) were mostly ignored by viewers.
Approaching 60, Perkins was able to keep working and was generally engaged onscreen, even in lesser projects. However, he began to experience health problems that were an unfortunate foreshadowing of what was in his future. While undergoing treatment for Bell's palsy, Perkins learned that he was HIV positive. Sadly, this came to his attention via an article inThe National Enquirer. The infamous tabloid was made aware of this by a medical attendant who had secretly submitted a sample of Perkins' blood and sold information about the results. Perkins denied the claim, but a privately sanctioned test confirmed the results. The actor kept his condition a secret and was able to find some work, but his only feature film parts came in low-grade overseas productions. Perkins' health continued to deteriorate and feeling that the end was near, he decided to make his condition public. The made-for-TV crime thriller "In the Deep Woods" (NBC, 1992) featured Perkins' final performance and aired six weeks after his passing on Sept. 12, 1992.
By John Charles