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Luke Perry grows up

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There was a time not long ago when 10,000 shrieking fans mobbed Luke Perry at a shopping mall and he had to be rescued by police, hidden in a laundry hamper, and carted away. So one might understandably fear for the furniture at a faux-’50s diner near his home in suburban Los Angeles when the skinny 28-year-old actor who plays the cool, rich, romantic rebel Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210 shows up for breakfast on a recent weekday morning.

What happens is…nothing. Perry saunters in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a plaid jacket, and a baseball cap. He greets the waitresses, who appear to know him and who appear to exhibit signs of normal respiration. He smiles the sweet, friendly smile that cameras and those same shrieking fans love. He swings into a booth. No one stares, no one whispers, no one seems particularly impressed that the chief heartthrob of one of TV’s biggest pop-cultural phenomena in recent years is eating scrambled eggs. And no one, he insists, could be any happier about the dimming spotlight than Luke Perry.

”The teenage days are gone!” he says, not unlike a grown man with good skin who has been released from a lucrative but limiting career hawking pimple cream. ”Coming-of-age movies are gone for me. I mean, come on, the hairline just won’t have it!”

Perry runs a hand through his short, mussed, but plentiful hair, momentarily freed from the styling gel that usually sculpts Dylan’s pompadour into a retro peak. At the height of Beverly Hills, 90210‘s remarkable popularity two years ago, when the show became a gigantic hit for Fox and made pinup stars of its late-teens-to-late-20s ensemble cast, Perry spoke on camera and off with a smoky Dylanish delivery; he also frequently serviced probing journalists with pronouncements uttered while he lounged coolly bare-chested. He was charming — and as stylized as his hairdo. Now he speaks more freely and more directly, like a practical actor who must make plans: 90210 completes its fourth season later this spring; many industry observers believe that the series will fold when the actors’ five-year contracts run out in 1995. And Perry, a onetime asphalt paver from Fredericktown, Ohio, and a former soap actor on Loving and Another World, must position himself for life after Dylan.

”The best-case scenario for me is to get back to ground zero as an actor,” he says with none of Dylan’s cool-guy drawl, ”where people aren’t completely married to this concept of the television show, yet they haven’t seen me do anything terribly horrendous on celluloid yet, either.” Much, therefore, is riding on the response to his starring role in 8 Seconds, the real-life story of the late rodeo star Lane Frost, who died in 1989 at age 25 after being gored in the ring. (The movie opened Feb. 25 to mixed reviews and, up against Olympics coverage, took in a passable first-weekend gross of $3.4 million.)

Why a cowboy bio?
”The second it was brought to my attention, it was like Excalibur. It was the sword that was stuck in the stone. I couldn’t believe they were just letting it sit there.”
And?
”Not to be vulgar, but I felt it in my nuts.”
Woooo. From the time he read the script two years ago, Perry hung on to the film project, straddling it as tenaciously as a rider aboard a bucking bull. He knew his negligible performance in 1992’s failed camp movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not an auspicious demonstration of his versatility. When 8 Seconds, originally promised to Fox, was rejected by the studio, Perry started shopping the script elsewhere.

Luke’s Lane is a sweet young man who flosses regularly, strives to impress his demanding rodeo-champ of a father, and rides out a sometimes rocky marriage to his sweetheart, Kellie Kyle, played by Northern Exposure‘s Cynthia Geary. On the set, Perry felt pressure from the studio as well as from the constant presence of Frost’s parents and his competition buddy, Tuff Hedeman, to preserve (and sometimes to protect) Lane’s image. In reality, Frost was no longer pretty by the time of his final competitions, with big black eyes and a mouth full of metal.

But — not to be vulgar — protecting his nuts was an important part of Perry’s job too, since the actor insisted (over the objections of New Line and its insurance company) on doing his own riding for key scenes. (Stephen Baldwin, who plays Tuff, learned just enough about riding to offer this lesson to would-be cowboys: ”Keep your jewels clear.”) To qualify, Perry studied for months with bull-riding pros. ”I thought it was a crazy idea, and we shouldn’t have our actor doing it,” says director John Avildsen, who knew as little about bull riding before he made 8 Seconds as he did about boxing before he made Rocky. ”But Luke was very insistent. At the end there he got very badly hurt. He got kicked.”

”Aww, I got thrown on my shoulder. But it was the very last shot, so the timing couldn’t have been better,” says Perry, with effective cowboy demurral.

Jason Priestley says there’s no way he would do what his friend and 90210 costar did in the name of art: ”Hell no, I’d never get on the back of 2,000 pounds of pissed-off beef!” And he jokes about his colleague as only a fellow object of overwrought teen adoration can. Recalling his own dud hiatus project, last year’s Calendar Girl, Priestley says, ”When [the movie] came out and did no business, Luke said, ‘That’s too bad.’ And I said, ‘Well, everybody’s got their own Buffy the Vampire Slayer!’ The reality is, Luke’s a sweet and very caring guy. He puts on this cooler-than-thou act, which is half mocking himself.” At the diner table, Perry now appears to know exactly when he is mocking himself, and how much. He pulls a Dylan McKay face at will — the hooded eyes, the half smile — then drops it: He’s only another actor in town, eating eggs.

What Perry doesn’t make light of is his frustration that since last summer’s high school graduation finale, 90210 has lost its creative momentum. ”It’s in trouble,” he says. ”I know that the show is not great now. I believe it was a great show at one time. Then it went to being a good show. And now it’s just another show. And for me to sit here and say that I’m unaware of that would be a big line of bull-s—, and I don’t do that.”

Priestley agrees: ”In the beginning the shows stood on their own. We tried to deal with issues of substance. Now everything is almost happening. You know, [Brenda] almost got pregnant, [Kelly] almost got raped.” But as individual cast members have made their own news — headline-hugging Shannen Doherty, allegedly fired in December, may or may not return next season, Gabrielle Carteris is expecting a baby in May, Jennie Garth is engaged to musician Dan Clark — Perry has emerged as the mature spokesman for the group.

”It would be easy to pack it in and let the show taper off,” he acknowledges. “But that’s not the commitment I made to [producer] Aaron Spelling,” who hired Perry after the pilot for what was intended to be a limited run. ”Originally, nobody wanted me but him. And I said, ‘Look, you put me on that show, I will kick its ass, man.’ Now, in the last season, I’m not gonna become lethargic. I think we got problems and we need to fix ’em.”

Spelling dismisses criticism that 90210 lost its focus once the characters graduated from high school and had no logical dramatic reason to stick together anymore: ”Every show goes through growing pains. And no one else in the cast besides Perry has called me with complaints.” That said, Spelling floats a few sly rumors: ”I don’t think next year is the last season for 90210. One idea for [after] next year is to start with an entirely new cast!” And that out of the way, he speaks warmly about the actor whose salary he paid out of his own pocket when Fox dithered about whether Luke Perry was the man to play Dylan McKay. ”I love him. It’s like we’re brothers. He’s also like Tori’s older brother on the set.”

Perry, meanwhile, faces at least one more season of playing a millionaire who lounges around the university halls but who spends most of his time handling the finances of The Peach Pit, the local hamburger joint he now owns. ”I’ve still got a year left on that show,” he says, ”and I’m gonna try and change it and make it as good as I can. And if that means taking creative liberties or creative control, I’ll do that.

”I have a good relationship with production. If people are a little more apt to listen to what I have to say, it’s because I speak with conviction. And few people in this world do speak with conviction, you know. They want to be politically erect…” Perry catches himself and laughs, he pumps his hand lewdly — it’s rebel McKay! ”They want to be politically erect! — and not offend anybody.”

If Shannen Doherty doesn’t return to 90210, that’s okay with her castmate. He temporarily becomes a sports analyst: ”We can certainly spread the story lines around. I don’t feel there’s a tremendous need to replace Shannen with somebody. People thought the Chicago Bulls would suck when Michael Jordan left, and they’re kickin’ ass. I saw Scottie Pippen skyin’ over a guy the other day and it was unreal! We’ve got depth, we’ve got a good bench, we can handle it. It’s not a problem.”

If she does return, that’s also okay; gone are the days when Perry allegedly refused to work with her. He temporarily becomes a family therapist: ”Yeah, there was a time when I kicked her dressing-room door off and said, ‘Shan, let’s fix things.’ And we did. I can work with her fine now. I don’t have to get Shannen out of my sight so I can work, no… If she bothers me the day she comes in and she’s late, I let her have it. I think that’s why Shannen and I have the relationship that we do.”

What Perry does want from what will likely be his final season is more realism. ”I wouldn’t want it to become like Melrose Place — who’s sleeping with who. I want it less of a Harlequin romance novel and more of a serious contemporary look at what it means to be the ages of these characters. I don’t want it to revolve around any college. That’s a bunch of s—. Anyhow, my character’s quitting college — this might come as a news flash to everybody. I don’t think that’s a fair representation of life, that you have to go to college and do well to get anywhere. And the bottom line is, why does a kid with over $100 million need to go to college?”

Then again, some things — image things, like McKay’s hairstyle — he knows must stay in the realm of the fantastical. ”I have to take full responsibility for that god-awful thing that sticks up for Dylan,” he acknowledges, pulling at his short, mashed, unstyled tufts. ”We used to try to have contests about who could do the coolest. I said, ‘Guys, just forget about it. Step back and live in the shadow of my pompadour, because Buster Poindexter is the only one I fear when it comes to standing the hair!”’

Obviously, Luke Perry hopes 8 Seconds will widen his opportunities as an actor. ”Now,” he says, ”I feel like I got a monkey off my back, and I can make my decisions appropriately.” But the project, one senses, means even more to him than that. ”It’s about love and life. It’s a Greek tragedy. It’s a buddy story,” he ticks off. ”It’s action. It’s man and beast. And it wasn’t about this superherolike character — it was about a human being.” Too, it’s a cautionary tale about a young man to whom fame came quickly, bringing with it serious personal doubts and crises — someone to whom the actor with the famous face can relate. ”You gotta know how good you are at something, and you have to be realistic with yourself,” Perry says quietly. ”I know I’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m better than I thought I was.”

He’s older now, too, and married to Minnie Sharp, 24, the daughter of Year of Living Dangerously screenwriter Alan Sharp; they wed last November after being involved for a year. (Minnie Sharp was hospitalized in a hit-run accident last month after a car struck her as she was emerging from a parked auto; she is now recuperating at home.) Tabloid rumors that the two met when she mailed him her bra are wrong, Perry says patiently. Introduced by a mutual friend, they had been seeing each other for a while when she took an office job as a paralegal. ”So I, like on every sitcom you’ve ever seen, said, ‘Why don’t you make a copy of your butt!’ She did, she didn’t like it, so she leaned over [the copier] and made a copy of her bra. I thought, Oh, yeah, that’s funny, it’s just indicative of who she is. I tore it up and threw it in the trash. Well, I come home from work, and there are two a–holes out there with rubber gloves, piecing my garbage together on the sidewalk. Right in the middle of Hollywood! I said, ‘All right, you can’t win.”’

The suave character who causes susceptible young women to swoon and buy Barbie-size Dylan dolls kept his romantic life relatively quiet and managed to pull off a discreet-by-Hollywood-standards wedding. Now, as a husband, he’s relieved to be disqualified from Win-a-Date-With-Luke contests. ”I know where I’m going now. It’s not all about the career anymore.”

”We talk a lot about our relationships with our wives,” says Stephen Baldwin. “And he always gets mushy, talking about his wife and how much he loves her.”

These days, the quick thinker who back in 1992 held his own on Celebrity Jeopardy! (excelling in the category of gases) is looking at a new range of scripts. ”They’re becoming a little more action-y, romance stuff. There’s some erotic-thriller things out there. But what I always stress to my agents and my managers is, find me the pimp role, find me the junkie, give me that stuff, too. I want to have a look at the lawyer and the stockbroker. I want to have a look at all of it!” <p. ''I would love to see him take dance lessons,'' says Avildsen. ''I think he could be a terrific dancer. He should learn to tap! You know, I've always wanted to do the Gene Kelly story. I could certainly see Luke going in that direction.''

His friend Priestley, meanwhile, sees Perry going south — literally — and envisions the two teen idols 10 years hence. ”He’ll be on a 40-acre fun ranch and I’ll visit him. And he’ll visit me in my urban life. We’ll probably both be fat and bald and married.”

But Perry’s got his own ideas about the future. ”All the [90210] madness made me doubt myself as an actor. I don’t anymore, and now I’m pissed at myself that I ever did.” Pissed, Luke Perry seems more fully formed than he ever was as a sideburned, shirtless pinup. ”I feel better than I ever have about where I’m going. The frenzy dying away forces people to look at the clearer picture. What’s all this about? Get the s— out of the way and let’s see what this is about! I’ve always been fairly confident of my abilities — I just didn’t know how much s—could get in the way.”

No forks clatter to the floor, no girls giggle as Luke Perry puts on his baseball cap. He hikes his jeans up over his narrow hips. He waves goodbye to the cashier. He leaves the diner a free man.

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