”She’s not only his best friend,” Anthony Perkins once told an interviewer who suggested that a boy’s best friend was his mother. ”She’s his most ardent lover.” No more unsettling words could have come from the man who created Norman Bates, moviedom’s most familiar mother-fixated killer, of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker, Psycho. Perkins, who died of AIDS at age 60 on Sept. 12, left behind a catalog of troubled celluloid characters who touched audiences on some visceral level — and a life in which pain tallied high.
Born in Manhattan the only child of Osgood Perkins, a star of stage (The Front Page) and screen (1932’s Scarface), Perkins, like Norman Bates, admitted to being ”abnormally close” to his mother and wishing his ever-absent father dead. He got his wish — and the guilt that went with it — when he was 5. ”There was nothing about me I wanted to be,” Perkins said of his childhood, ”but I felt wonderfully happy being somebody else.” He began a serious pursuit of acting and at 14 was working in summer stock; by his early 20s he was already established as a teen star.
Perkins’ early years in Hollywood were marked by sexual ambivalence. He kept up a heterosexual facade for the public and the press yet harbored a private fear of women; in a dressing room during the shooting of 1960’s Tall Story, he hid nervously behind his script as a 22-year-old Jane Fonda powdered her nude body. Secretly, he sought out the gay world for sex; in his diaries, Andy Warhol wrote that Perkins ”used to hire hustlers to come in through the window and pretend to be robbers.” Nevertheless, he married photographer Berry Berenson (sister of actress Marisa Berenson) in 1973 and had two sons who survive him, Osgood, 18, and Elvis, 16.
Perhaps it was Perkins’ sexual ambivalence — his ”difference” — that allowed him to feel a special empathy for such outsiders as Norman Bates, the most well-mannered of all big-screen psychopaths. In front of the camera Perkins somehow tapped into the agonies that ruled his life and was able to transmit them to viewers. But it all might have been otherwise.
Having lost out to James Dean in 1954 for the plum role in East of Eden, Perkins was picked by that film’s director, Elia Kazan, to replace John Kerr as the painfully shy and sensitive (and, in retrospect, gay) young man in Tea and Sympathy on Broadway. Hollywood came calling, anxious to turn the gawky, polite, appealing fellow into a teen idol. Perkins won his only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, as the troubled son in 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, about a Quaker family’s attempts to remain peaceful during the Civil War. (This was the movie Reagan gave Gorbachev as a gift when the two first met.)
But Psycho changed any white-bread plans Hollywood had for Perkins. The roles that followed were generally a succession of tormented, sometimes even deranged, types. To the last, Perkins remained close to the shadows: In his final feature film, A Demon in My View, he plays a former serial killer. When someone once suggested that Psycho turned into a career curse (Perkins appeared in three sequels), he replied self-effacingly, ”Without Psycho, who’s to say if I would have endured?”
Endure he did, with grace and eloquence to the end. He kept his illness quiet but said in a statement released after his death: ”I have learned more about love, selflessness, and human understanding from the people I have met in this great adventure in the world of AIDS than I ever did in the cutthroat, competitive world in which I spent my life.” It was a world in which he triumphed by acting out, so to speak, his own private nightmares.