Childhood ends when people grow up. That could be at age 16 or 18 or 35. There comes a point when an adult looks around and admits that the trappings of youth are no longer tantalizing or amazing. For many folks, the passing of Luke Perry this week was another blow to the vestiges of their childhoods. Whether a person was once a kid sneaking in to watch “90210” without parental consent — the show really was too mature for you — or a teen who had a crush on Perry or Priestley, the teenage soap opera was a huge hit of the 1990s. Luke Perry made his mark as a teen idol, even though he was a man in his early 20s. He also made a lasting impression as a fashion doll. The Dylan McKay doll was just one of the major “90210” characters who got transformed into a Barbie-like plaything.
I remember buying the “Beverly Hills 90210” dolls for my niece, Boo, who was crazy about the show. Not knowing which leading man or lady was her favorite, and being unencumbered with my own kids at the time, I bought her one of each. “Here’s a Dylan McKay doll. Here’s a Brandon Walsh. You want a Kelly Taylor? Good. Here she is. What about Brenda? No problem. And let’s not forget Donna, too.” (You couldn’t forget Donna. She was played by series creator Aaron Spelling’s daughter, Tori. And Tori is the daughter of super doll collector, Candy Spelling. You see how life goes in never-ending circles.)
Yep, I was like a collectibles Oprah, handing out boxes of fashion dolls that I hoped would make my niece happy. Interestingly, the well-designed doll boxes proclaimed, “TV’s hottest teen stars.” That was funny because some of the cast members, like Luke Perry, were in their twenties, heading into their thirties in the blink of an eye.
I had the chance to meet Luke Perry many years after his debut as a James Dean wannabe. I was working for a one-shot commemorative magazine keyed into horror author RL Stine of Goosebumps fame. It was supposed to celebrate all things scary and frightening and campy and funny. Set to publish in late September 2001, the magazine hoped to be a “compendium of pop culture meets horror hilarity.” I swear, I think that was the tag line. Perry was in New York City—and so was I — for his Broadway debut as Brad Majors in “The Rocky Horror Show.” Unlike his troubled TV persona, Brad was a buttoned-up and buttoned-down straitlaced character. I found out I could interview him for the magazine. After all, you can’t get more “pop culture meets horror hilarity” than Luke Perry and Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
The great thing about interviewing a television personality is that we already feel we know them. Unlike movie stars or theater celebrities, whom we have to leave home to enjoy, TV stars come into our homes. Luke Perry came into my house whenever my niece was sleeping over — wait, that doesn’t sound right — the Luke Perry character of Dylan McKay was part of our home whenever Boo stayed over and watched TV. Giving her the remote guaranteed a heavy dosage of the Peach Pit and all of its teen angst.
When I chatted with Luke Perry for the magazine, I focused on his new project: a chance to sing and dance on Broadway. It was an opportunity to close the door on his brooding “bad boy” image and hopefully show a lighter and more loopy side. “Rocky Horror” was certainly a venue to prove that he had a sense of humor and musical chops. (In fact, his work in “Rocky Horror” would lead to his London West End debut as Harry in “When Harry Met Sally.”) I didn’t really talk in-depth about his years on “90210,” because I knew he was cutting the cord that bound him to that past success. However, I did reveal that my niece loved him on “that show,” and that I had bought his doll likeness for her.
Perry liked that a lot. In fact, he told me, he loved to hear that kids were his fans, and he hoped they grew up not imitating his character’s negative traits. (Dylan was an alcoholic and a despondent soul. He was proud that the scripts showed the downward spiral of self-harming behavior.) I told him that Boo was a fine young woman, and that his Dylan doll was carefully preserved, mint in box.
He told me that he was always happy to hear that his doll was outselling Jason Priestley’s. I then confided that wasn’t actually true. I had bought his doll and Priestley’s too. Luke Perry laughed heartily at that. “That’s the story of my life,” he said.
Rest in peace, Luke Perry. At 52 years old, your life ended much too soon, and with so much more to reveal to audiences everywhere. You made a difference in the landscape of TV, first as a rebellious teen and now as a stand-up father figure on “Riverdale.”
And you left an impression in the toy chests of teens and tweens everywhere. You will be missed.