“Should we really do this?”
“Oh god, okay, yes, let’s do it! It will be great!”
I had a phone conversation back in high school that basically went something like that with my best friend at the time, Dan. The phone call was a lot longer, as we hemmed and hawed nervously about the decision we were trying to make. It was such a drastic decision, at least to both of us at the time (every decision made in high school is dramatic). But, over our spring break, we decided to grow sideburns. I remember our next day of school – neither of us had chickened out, somehow – and when we saw each other before first period, we both started laughing because we realized we looked ridiculous and just couldn’t pull off what we were attempting to pull off. (When we decided to do this, “laughing” wasn’t the intended reaction.) We were both far too dorky to try to pull off something cool. It was reminiscent of Chandler Bing trying to grow a mustache after hanging out for a night with Tom Selleck. There was just no way we could pull off Luke Perry’s sideburns. Though, we did still try for the next couple of weeks.
The news of Luke Perry’s death was a shock and there’s been an outpouring of love on social media in the aftermath that hasn’t seemed performative or phony. People really did like Luke Perry, probably a lot more than they even realized. I think a big reason why had something to do with the way Beverly Hills, 90201, especially in those early seasons, made us feel like we were actually in high school with those people. For me personally, it lined up perfectly. The characters on the show were my age at the time. (I guess it should be pointed out here that TV history books will say they graduated in 1993, but when the show premiered, they were all juniors at South Beverly in the class of 1992. After the summer break, they were all somehow still juniors.)
Luke Perry, as Dylan McKay, really did capture lightning in a bottle. He had remained a working actor – most notably of late on Riverdale – but, as Dylan, he captured something few people get to experience: he became a legitimate cultural phenomenon. (On February 6, 1993, Luke Perry even hosted Saturday Night Live. Watch how effortless he is in his monologue. He’s a natural. And, yes, he makes a sideburns joke.) High school boys — like me and my friend, Dan — were growing sideburns so we could all pretend to be a poor man’s version of Dylan McKay. There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, that Jason Priestley’s Brandon also played a part in inspiring this. Now, nothing against Priestley, but I don’t think any of this happens without Luke Perry. (Rewatch that first episode of 90210, before Luke Perry joined the cast, and it’s not at all the same show.)
That’s a hard trick to pull off — being a sex symbol and playing a character others (and other actors) wanted to emulate. But the thing about Perry’s Dylan McKay is that he wasn’t just pretty. Yes, a lot of Dylan’s most notable moments were for doing something dramatic. (His line, “May the bridges I burn light the way,” is a personal favorite.) But, once Perry got comfortable as McKay, he was funny and charming and, despite the drama that followed him around (the situation with his father was, let’s just say, intense), Perry played Dylan as someone who you’d legitimately want to be around. (Have you ever been around “cool” people and thought, “This person is boring?” I think that happens a lot.)
In real life, Dylan McKay would not be boring. It’s not easy to be both angsty and likable. It’s damn near impossible. But Luke Perry knew what he was doing. Watching Perry as Dylan, and Priestly as Brandon, were like free “cool” classes for dorky kids like me. Now, watching Beverly Hills, 90210 certainly didn’t make me “cool,” but I think it did actually make me less of a dork. Maybe a little. At least, it gave me some sort of guide on how to carry a conversation.
It’s a shame 8 Seconds didn’t perform better. Perry played Lane Frost in a true story about a bull rider who is killed after a ride. Perry is pretty fantastic as Frost, but the movie, directed by John Avildsen (of Rocky and The Karate Kid fame), betrays him. This was Perry’s big shot to not just be Dylan McKay and break out into movies – which was a much trickier proposition back then. 8 Seconds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the film version starring Perry and Kristy Swanson) both falling flat at the box office most likely played a large role in Perry never truly breaking out into film. That’s just kind of the way it worked back then.
That said, it always made me happy when Perry would pop up in movies over the years. I love him in his way-too-short appearance in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. (When he’s in that opening scene, I honestly thought we’d be getting him for the whole movie. Alas.) And, again, he went on to have numerous great roles and performances in TV shows over the years, from Oz to the aforementioned Riverdale.
Up to this point, Luke Perry hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for being a really good actor who created a true cultural icon. For a few years in the early 1990s, he influenced culture in America significantly enough that people were growing ridiculous-looking sideburns. Most people probably don’t realize how much influence a human being has to have in order to somehow inspire other human beings to grow such ridiculous-looking sideburns.
And, of course, so few of us could ever pull off those sideburns off the way Luke Perry did. Because so few of us have ever been, or will ever be, as cool as Luke Perry was.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.